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Published: Saturday, 9/12/2009

Test of 10 frozen meals produces some winners, losers

As a self-appointed consumer panel of one I would like to share the evaluations on 10 frozen dinners that went from freezer to microwave in minutes. In this arm of today’s cooking and eating agenda, there is no peeling, chopping, mashing, measuring, and best of all, no pots and pans to wash.

But how tasty are these food packages that may not measure up as haute cuisine, but feed millions daily? I have a hunch that a good percentage of those millions are singles and of those there are thousands of seniors. That’s what brought me to the fascinating kitchen assignment and to a gathering of hot meals tried over a two-week period.

As a senior who lives alone and who has done her share of peeling, chopping, mashing, measuring, and dish washing, I contend it is better for folks in my category to turn to packaged dinners than to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or cold cereal in lieu of a hot meal. Once the quality products are learned, it’s an OK way to eat. Add a salad, bread if you can’t live without it, and more healthful eating is in the bag, or rather in the box.

The generic term for the meals is TV dinners, which evolved I believe with the advent of television. I did eat a couple of the hot meals in front of the television, but they are more interesting with less guilt if you take the time to sit at the table and serve yourself on a plate rather than eat out of the plastic container.

The 10 dinners reviewed were selected randomly to get a good cross-section of brands and price. I am surprised that I bought so many beef dishes because generally I eat little beef. It must have been those dashing four-color box covers that were the attraction. The product that inspired the one-woman test panel was a very inexpensive chicken pot pie that had a gummy crust, much gravy, and little chicken.

So, here’s the judging comment sheet that was taped to a kitchen cupboard door during this exciting adventure. Not all prices are given because many were on sale at the time of purchase. All were prepared in the microwave.

| Marie Calendar’s Fettuccini with Chicken and Broccoli: Not only one of the most expensive, it was a favorite. The alfredo sauce was creamy, the broccoli cooked right, and the ample chicken pieces were a good size. It required more steps to cook than the other nine products tested.

| Healthy Choice Caf Steamers: From this line, the Sweet and Spicy Orange Zest Chicken was a winner. My notes say, “nice flavors, messy to assemble, but only 300 calories.”

| Stouffer’s Stuffed Peppers: The 13-minute cooking time was the longest of the 10 products tested. Two peppers were filled with a beef and rice mixture that was nicely blended and the tomato sauce was close to homemade, but you have to question the $3.59 price for peppers that are now in season.

| Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine Salmon with Basil: Five one-inch squares of salmon were on top of vegetables on a whole wheat orzo base. The price was $3.33. The basil flavor was prominent, but it was surprising salmon can have so little flavor.

| Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine Beef Chow Fun: This dish with a delicate Asian flavor was a favorite. I could have eaten twice the 9-ounce portion. The beef was in large-enough tender pieces and snap peas were a treat.

| Marie Callender’s Beef Pot Pie: Large, tender pieces of beef and carrots in a robust gravy heated to perfection in six minutes in the box. The food is left in the box because of a foil liner in the box that browns the crust. But in pot pies the bottom crust should be done and this one was. The price was $2.88.

| Hungry-Man Boneless Pork: One pound of food packaged for a hungry man or woman, the generous meat portion was accompanied by mashed potatoes, corn, and a brownie. The pork patties are shaped as ribs in a standard barbecue sauce. It was an OK meal.

| Boston Market Meatloaf: This is also a pound of food. The ingredient listing shows that the meatloaf includes pork with the beef. The two slices of meat and gravy were quite tasty and the mashed potatoes were above average for having been frozen.

| Banquet Salisbury Steak Meal and Banquet Fish Stick Meal: The two budget products were definitely not favorites for flavor or consistency. The Salisbury steak ingredient listing includes pork and monosodium glutamate in the gravy mixture. The corn has an inferior texture when heated.

The inviting picture of the fish sticks, macaroni and cheese, and chocolate pudding on the cover of the Banquet product and the contents were far from identical. The fish sticks were pencil size, the macaroni and cheese was ordinary, and I didn't bother with the hot pudding.

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.

Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com.



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