Assessing gourmet frozen meals.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
March 29 2005 7:27 AM

Cold Case

Are the new frozen dinners any good?

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Many moons before dissecting the demands of modern motherhood became a journalistic juggernaut, the late, great Erma Bombeck best encapsulated what having a child does to a person's desire to prepare dinner: "When it comes to cooking, five years ago I felt guilty 'just adding water.' Now I want to bang the tube against the countertop and have a five-course meal pop out. If it comes with plastic silverware and a plate that self-destructs, all the better," she wrote.

Hallelujah. As a vocational food writer and an avocational home cook, I spent some of my best times—ever!—preparing dinner for friends and family. Then I had a baby. Before you could say "Stouffer's," out of my freezer went the homemade organic chicken stock and in came the frozen pizzas. At last, I had discovered what millions of time-strapped Americans already knew: There is a quantitatively impressive world of frozen foods out there, and it's getting bigger every day. According to the American Frozen Food Institute, it's a $22 billion industry; the average American consumes 72 frozen meals a year.

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Much literature about the history of frozen food focuses on an arbitrary breaking point sometime in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when moms started going to work in full force. But frozen foods were around long before that, thanks chiefly to field naturalist-cum-entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye. In the early 1920s, Birdseye patented a way of cooling fish to the freezing point, which he later adapted for meat, poultry, fruit, and vegetables. By 1929, he cashed in on his invention, selling his company to what's now General Foods. The 1950s brought boil-in-bag meals, Swanson's TV dinners, and Stouffer's frozen meals. Today comes the marvelous confluence of science, sociology, and what frozen food producers are hawking as flavor, with the likes of five-minute tandoori chicken and butternut squash ravioli. The question is: Are any of these new-fangled frozen foods good?

The Test
The newer frozen meal options break down into three basic categories: organic food, meals endorsed by chefs or restaurants, and ethnic food. I tailored the test around a random sampling within these categories, omitting frozen pizza and old-fashioned entrees that have been on the market since the beginning of time.

I assembled a tasting panel of individuals with both personal and professional interest in frozen food. Dr. Penny Gordon Larsen, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Public Health and Medicine, graciously agreed to participate, along with three of her graduate students. In addition, I invited my fellow new parent friend—a picky eater, who more practically considers food "fuel." And then there was me: a gal looking for transcendence in a box.

Methodology
We sampled 14 single-serving meals in a blind taste-test. Tasters were instructed to rate the meals on a scale of 1 to 5 in taste and presentation, as well as nutrition. Panelists were also asked two value-oriented questions: Would you buy this? ("Yes" received one point; "maybe," 0.5 points; and "no," zero points.) And what should it cost? (Values listed are the actual cost of the meal, plus or minus the amount that tasters thought it ought to cost.)

The Results (from worst to best):

Confetti Rice Pilaf & Chicken with Honey BBQ Sauce (Organic Classics)
Price:
$4.89

When asked what this entry was, every single taster listed "pork" as the protein. We could have forgiven pork that tasted like chicken—"tastes like chicken" being a universally understood phenomenon. But when real chicken tastes like pork, you've got a problem. The nutritionists were unimpressed: "Were there even any vegetables?" Other issues here: "Barbecue is too sweet"; "sauce is ugly and smells bad"; "meat has no flavor whatsoever."

Taste and presentation: 1.7 out of 5
Nutrition: 1.4 out of 5
Would you buy this: 0 out of 6
Value: -4.89
Total: -1.79