Shopping the Frozen Food Aisle

As I discussed last week, there’s a lot I like about pre-made food, mostly of the frozen variety. I’ve learned to spot the healthiest stuff, at decent prices, that tastes pretty good and saves time on busy days. As one might suspect in that kind of situation, I received comments asking me which entrees, snacks, and so on are my favorites, so here is a list of those favorites.

My favorite frozen foods come in three main categories: individual serving, multiple serving, and skillet. The first gets popped in the microwave. The second goes in the oven. The last one, well, goes on the skillet. A positive thing they all have in common is that I tend to look for ones containing ingredients that aren’t usually on my shopping list, or that I can’t make (well). I can make better roast chicken than I find in frozen meals, so I’ll make that myself. Butter chicken sauce? Never made it, no guarantee I ever will. Frozen all the way.

Individual Serving (Microwave)

These are a dietary staple. They’re quick, easy, can be made when you’re half asleep, and come in oodles of varieties. There are times when I want to cook, which is a great way to spend a night off. Then there are times when I’m hungry, right now (not at some abstract time in future), and just want to eat. On sale, they’re also quite reasonable at $2 per meal, or $1 if you’re lucky.

When there’s no microwave available, they can go in the oven. It takes way too long for what it’s worth, though.

Pros:
• They’re easy to store.
• Buying a variety of brands and meals means every meal is different.
• Microwaving is so quick and easy you can literally ignore it without the fear of anything going wrong. I’ve left meals in the microwave while going to other floors or moving the laundry from the washer to the dryer before.
• If you forget them in the microwave, they won’t become overcooked.

Cons:
• If they don’t fill you up, you can’t sneak a few bites of the leftovers. You’re done, and you’ll need to find something else to eat.
• Being the smallest size, they generally cost the most money per gram.

Typical brands:
Healthy Choice
Lean Cuisine
Michelina’s Lean Gourmet
President’s Choice Blue Menu
SmartOnes

 

Multiple Serving (Oven)

These are surprisingly versatile. They’re good for families, for entertaining, or for when you live in a cold climate and it gets way too cold out to go grocery shopping. They also come in enough varieties to keep things interesting, although I’ve noticed an ongoing Italian theme in them. They require a large knife and/or a spatula, making them a little more labor-intensive than the individual meals, but it’s well worth it once you have a nice big piece on your plate.

The ones that are simply big (say, two pounds) as opposed to massive (say, anything larger) can also be microwaved, although I usually find the oven crisps them nicely.

Pros:
• They can be considerably cheaper per gram than the other options due to their large size.
• They consist of enough servings that once they’re made, they’re made. Deciding what to eat for the next few meals becomes easier.
• If you have a decent-sized family, one of these can feed all of you on a busy day.

Cons:
• Waiting an hour for the oven to be finished with your food can be annoying when you’re famished. Part of the allure of the other frozen options is their immediacy. Not so here.
• Sometimes they can make too many servings for a single person. Eating nothing but lasagna for a week can get old fast.
• They can monopolize the Tupperware until they’re finished.
• A single boxed dinner can take up a surprisingly large fraction of the freezer before it’s cooked.

Typical brands:
• President’s Choice Blue Menu
Safeway Open Nature
Safeway Select

 

Skillet

I’ve been getting into these more recently, as they’ve become more widely available. They’re usually about a pound and a half, which is perfect for a large frying pan on a large burner. On average, they take 10-16 minutes to cook, which is quick enough for when you’re starving but also provides time to put on some music or drink a beer.

In a way, they’re the culmination of decades of gradual “gentrification” of the frozen meal. Microwaveable dinners were never “sensations,” nor do they contain quinoa even now, but these ones sometimes are and sometimes do.

Pros:
• They make two meals. If you’re single, this means you get leftovers that function much like the individual-serving frozen meals above. If you’re with a significant other or friend, they can feed you both.
• Having an open-air cooking environment means you can add sauces and seasonings as you cook rather than having to wait until after you’re done.
• For whatever reason, manufacturers seem to feel the need to make these in more gourmet varieties than the others. The psychological impact is that I feel like I’m getting a better meal.

Cons:
• They require more attention than the other types of frozen meals. One of the advantages of frozen meals in the first place is you don’t have to spend time watching what you’re cooking. When something’s on the skillet, you still need to stir it periodically.
• The bags are bulkier in the freezer than the others’ boxes. The air in them is wasted freezer space, albeit a small amount.

Typical brands:
Green Giant Valley Selections
• President’s Choice Blue Menu
Stouffer’s Skillet Sensations

This handy chart I made shows 23 of my favorites, from across the selection. I’ve included conventional multiple-serving meals and skillet meals in the same category to emphasize the number of portions they offer. Calories per gram gives a general idea of how the food’s nutritional value and ability to fill you up varies by size, given that most of these meals have all of protein, carbohydrates and fat in them. (This deals with the sneaky “50% less calories!” ads on products that are really just half the size.) The multiple-serving meals are shown with parentheses for the full package size and then estimated serving sizes for the calories per gram calculation. I’m not sure why the fried rice’s serving size is listed at 100 grams—about 2.5 of those servings is a normal portion. The list is limited only by the fact that I still haven’t tried everything available in stores (at least not yet).

Obviously, some of these products are only available in certain places. What I buy depends largely on where I am at any given moment. President’s Choice products are most abundant in the eastern half of Canada, for example, while Open Nature is more readily available in Western Canada and the western United States. Wherever the grocery stores are, they usually have a brand or two that makes something good.

Other products, namely the Green Giant Valley Selections, usually aren’t meals in and of themselves. This is when spare/leftover chicken breasts, steaks and pork chops come in handy. Vegetarians can just eat the whole package instead of half, which I’ve done before. On sale, it’s still only $2.50 for over a pound of food.

Frozen meals won’t solve every culinary problem. Cooking is still a lot of fun. If anything, I appreciate it more because I cook when I want, not because I’m starving and I feel I don’t have a choice. When I want to spend a relaxing evening creating a masterpiece in the kitchen, I’ll do that. When I’m overworked and hungry, I’ll let people sell me good food I can eat right away.

 

Matthew Gordon reads way too many books. Photo: Southern Food Alliance

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22 Comments / Post A Comment

cryptolect (#1,135)

I’m not a big frozen dinners person, but I do like Celentano’s Eggplant Parmesan, because not only is it tasty, but all of the ingredients listed are actual words, words that I can pronounce and define.

calamity (#2,577)

Lean Cuisine’s Butternut Squash Ravioli and Mushroom Mezzaluna Ravioli are both delicious. Probably the best frozen meals I’ve tried, possibly excluding Amy’s – any of the Amy’s Mexican entrees/burritos, plus their frozen pizzas, are great.

Frozen pizzas in general are a good bet, in my experience. My local Target carries a bunch of Archer Farm varieties for $5 or so, and they’re amazing. I could eat their spinach & goat cheese pizza every day and never get sick of it.

antheridia (#2,995)

When I was on a pre-wedding diet I ate so many Lean Cuisine Meat Lasagnas that I can never eat them again. I still love Healthy Choice’s General Tso!

I also love Lean Cuisine Chicken Teriyaki.

RocketSurgeon (#747)

A lot of the Trader Joe’s frozen meals are pretty good, if you’re lucky to live near one. They have a good variety. I particularly like their flatbreads, which are basically small pizzas.

shannowhamo (#845)

@RocketSurgeon Indeed on Trader Joes, I’ve been doing a smattering of the frozen dumplings for lunches- a couple pork buns, a couple shrimp dumpking, a couple shumai and you got yourself a lunch! The instructions all sound complicated but I just stick ‘em in the microwave and do my best, they’re all pretty good! Also, their frozen chicken taquitos are insane in that they somehow stay crispy on the outside even in the microwave, it’s some kind of TJ voodoo.

I also swear by Lean Cuisine Sesame Ginger Chicken spring rolls (but none of the other flavors) and Smart Ones Three Cheese Ziti Marinara (although, thre is only cheese and it is delicious but also attaches it’self strangely to your fork.) If you have access to a Tom Thumb (or Safeway, I believe) they have some storebrand meals that are hit or miss but the BBQ Pork and Mac and Cheese is super duper delicious.

Maybe include prices in the chart?

Also: Amys!! Kashi!!
Traders Joe’s for always!

UrbanGarlic (#4,303)

@Jake Reinhardt The prices vary so wildly by jurisdiction and by sale/regular it feels pointless. Just try to keep your eating under $4/lb and you’re good in most places.

Nanuary (#3,521)

I have to recommend this reviewer: http://www.freezerburns.com/wordpress/
This guy reviews frozen food, and his reviews are generally hilarious due to how seriously he takes his frozen food reviews.

hellonheels (#1,407)

I would never argue that frozen meals have no place in a balanced diet, but all this frozen stuff is full of chemicals and preservatives – certainly it’s better than fast food or many takeout options, but I wouldn’t call it healthy simply because many of the choices happen to contain some vegetables and are low calorie.

I would really like to see more coverage of simple, fast meals made from healthy whole foods. I mean, can I help? I cook all the time (I’m in the process of cooking five recipes from each of my 57 cookbooks, 2013 New Year’s Resolution, woohoo) and I would happily plan a few meals a month around a low budget and healthy fresh ingredients for blogging purposes.

loren smith (#2,300)

@hellonheels seconded! I got half way through an MA project on cookbooks!

selenana (#673)

@hellonheels Please submit this! There is a cheap eats category! I would like this much more than two articles that say: buy frozen food!

UrbanGarlic (#4,303)

@hellonheels Think of the meals you make this way. Now imagine them frozen, with nothing else added. That’s the best of these meals.

sariberry (#4,420)

@hellonheels Yes please do this!

hellonheels (#1,407)

@UrbanGarlic Have you actually looked at the ingredients list/nutrition facts on these? That’s not how it works. The sodium alone…yeesh.

And I say this as someone who used to practically live on frozen and canned diet food. I know from whence I speak.

siege91 (#1,738)

Bwa…? Frozen foods are so depressing. I’ve always found them to be way more expensive than comparable fresh foods (discounting your own time/effort for cooking, but including that is a false equivalency anyways – no one is actually going to pay you for that time, and you wouldn’t otherwise be pulling in an hourly wage in the 30-40 minutes it would take to make vegetable pasta or whatever).

That being said I sometimes get frozen pizzas when my girlfriend is out of town and I usually feel like a kid eating forbidden sugar cereals at my friend’s house or something. It’s basically sloth and gluttony in a single cold cardboard box.

shannowhamo (#845)

@siege91 I would say they are only as depressing as you make it- if you don’t enjoy them, or eat the same ones over and over, or something. If I’m already cooking dinner every night, I just can’t see how the remaining time I have in my life is better spent preparing whole other meals when a $2 frozen meal allows me variety, speed, and value. It would be depressing for me to spend any extra time cooking/cleaning up than necessary so to each their own!

EmilyAnomaly (#4,238)

Did anyone ever eat Kid Kuisine growing up? They were kid-oriented TV dinners (the novelty, not the food, made them special. The spiced apples were pretty rad though). My siblings and I thought they were such a big deal when we were younger. We’d have those for dinner if my parents went out (which wasn’t too often) so maybe that’s why they seemed so great.

Anyway, I am surprised frozen wraps and burritos didn’t make this list, though I suppose they aren’t really meals. I don’t really care for Indian cuisine but Amy’s makes a spinach tofu wrap thing and it is divine. I also like Lean Cuisine Cheese Ravioli, even though there are only 8 raviolis in a serving. Yes I’ve counted, yes it is too few. I usually get vegetarian frozen food since the chicken or beef in those meals skeeves me out.

Frozen meals are A+ when you don’t feel like cooking. I could eat Amy’s Tofu Scramble for breakfast, lunch, or dinner (too bad Amy’s meals are $$$!). I also endorse Target’s frozen pizzas, mentioned above.

However, my favorite frozen meal by far is veggie burgers & sweet potato fries. Technically not “a meal” I guess because it requires some assembly, but everything besides condiments comes right out of the freezer (we keep the burger buns in there, too, they toast up great).

UrbanGarlic (#4,303)

@cuminafterall “Frozen meals are A+ when you don’t feel like cooking.” That’s the point. As for the ones needing assembly, probably not much more than the skillet meals I mentioned.

ThatJenn (#916)

I would love to see this chart with sodium reflected… that’s always been a consideration for me with frozen food. A lot of the low-cal stuff is really loaded with sodium, which I don’t mind all the time (I like salty things!), but when I get into a pattern of eating a lot of frozen food, my blood pressure shoots up – not usually a problem for me.

UrbanGarlic (#4,303)

@ThatJenn I almost put sodium in the chart but wanted to keep it simple. In retrospect, perhaps I should have. I typically just accept sodium as a fact of life and counteract it by drinking lots of water and not using salt as a seasoning.

ThatJenn (#916)

@UrbanGarlic Yeah, that’s what I do, too, but perhaps my use of “a lot” in “a pattern of eating a lot of frozen food” is more excessive than yours. Like, salt is not an issue for me if I don’t eat frozen food more than a couple of times per week, but it is if it gets more frequent than that. Basically: I am slothful and only want to eat frozen dinners always forever (most of the time).

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