In 1953, 98 cents could buy you one of the first frozen dinners: a Thanksgiving-style meal from Swanson, served on an aluminum tray and reheated in the oven. In the two generations since, we've invented satellite television, made phone calls from cars and checked our e-mail from airplanes, but we're still eating 98-cent frozen meals.
Cheap, quick and easy to heat up, frozen meals are the fast food of the supermarket, and in their quest for convenience, Americans can't seem to get enough of them. The multibillion dollar frozen-dinner industry churns out a handful of staples — chicken pot pies, bean and cheese burritos and trays of macaroni and cheese — and a dizzying number of dishes unheard of even 20 years ago: panini and flatbread sandwiches, ethnic dishes like lemongrass chicken and chana masala and every combination of low-carb, low-calorie grilled chicken and rice dish that you can think of.
But has the taste improved over the years? We pitted several of the biggest brands against each other to see who had the best macaroni and cheese, Salisbury steak, Swedish meatballs, spaghetti in meat sauce, fettuccine Alfredo and sweet-and-sour chicken. In not one contest did all the testers — Statesman restaurant critic Mike Sutter, editors Lisa Ogle and Brenda Bell and reporter Claudia Grisales — agree on which brand has the best product. The results ranged from revolting ("Tastes like bad Spanish rice drizzled with corn syrup," Sutter wrote of the Lean Cuisine sweet-and-sour chicken.) to surprising (Grisales wrote that the Banquet Salisbury steak outshined its sides. "Nice deep flavor on sauce; I'm amazed it was frozen.") (See accompanying story for more results.)
Freezer case studies
Tasting frozen meals is a second job for video blogger Gregory Ng, who reviews everything from frozen pizzas to pies for his Web site, FreezerBurns.com. He says that although some food is barely edible, he's had some pretty good meals in the year and a half since he started. "If you're willing to pay $3 to $5 for a meal, you'll be getting a filling, balanced meal," he says. "It's not just meat, starch and starch."
The biggest segment of the market, however, is the $1 to $3 meals from ubiquitous brands including Banquet, Lean Cuisine and Marie Callender's. "Big players have manufacturing down to a science," Ng says. It's not about giving people a value, he says, it's about what's the lowest quality they can sell for the same price as the rest of their products.
Walking down the frozen meal aisle, it's pretty easy to separate the products into two categories: those marketed toward women who are counting calories and those trying to attract penny-counting college students. Frozen meal have set portion sizes, which restricts dieters from eating too much, and the nutritional information spells out what's inside the box, often going so far as to calculate the number of "points" on the Weight Watchers scale. (A recent study, however, found that frozen meals contain an average of 8 percent more calories than the number listed on the package.)
Other brands, on the other hand, are competing to see which product can fill up a customer for the least amount of money with little regard to calories, fat and sodium, which in some products can reach more than 2,800 miligrams per serving — or more than the recommended allowance for an entire day. "The sodium and fat content can be lethal, but there will always be a market for it," Ng says. "They tell themselves, 'Listen, I don't eat that every day.' "
Finding a hook
And even for consumers who rarely buy frozen meals, there's a nostalgia factor with certain types. "Pizza and chicken nuggets remind me of the time when I was a latchkey kid, coming home from school and heating something up when I was starving," he says. But companies spend millions developing new products, including breakfast items, to keep customers coming back to try something new. "When buying food for the whole week, people don't want to eat the same thing every day," he says.
After years of eating frozen meals, Ng says, he's not convinced they actually save consumers time. "It's perceived time saving. In the end, if you are willing to dedicate time to cook up a week's worth of lunches. It's going to be the same price and time to go to the store, buy the products and heat them up."
Michael Angelo Renna, owner of the Austin-based Michael Angelo's Gourmet Foods, which has been selling frozen food nationally for more than 20 years, says maintaining quality is as important as coming up with new products. "What we're doing is what the industry is not," Renna said last week over a lunch of some of the company's signature products, including eggplant Parmesan and lasagna. At the 132,000-square-foot facility near Interstate 35 and Texas 45 , Michael Angelo's employees make pasta and sauce from scratch, starting from whole (not canned) tomatoes and fresh garlic and onions. Wheels of Pecorino Romano , Parmigiano-Reggiano and Asiago cheese are shipped directly from Italy, as are several different kinds of olive oils, which are all used in different products. The company says it's also the largest purchaser of eggplant in the U.S.
Renna got into the frozen food business when his mother, Sara Agnello , owned a pizzeria in Southern California. He started making prepackaged version of dishes based on his great-grandmother's recipes, many of which are still in use today. Agnello now works with Texas Culinary Academy graduate Stjepan Kadic to develop new products for the company.
In an industry where additives, preservatives and texturizers tend to be the norm, Michael Angelo's take a different route, using only ingredients you could find at the supermarket. "We feed the people like we want to eat," Agnello says. Michael Angelo's meals don't fit in the under $1 category — they are in the $2.99 to $3.99 range — but Renna says that's because the company uses food from Italian restaurants to set the bar for flavor, not from other meals in the frozen-food aisle.
But if you're looking for lunch for under a buck, there are still plenty of options out there. Just don't look too closely at the label.
Frozen food fight
In our frozen-food taste test, we compared five brands in six categories. We wanted to see how the full-fat brands (Marie Callender's, Banquet, Michelina's) compared to the brands claiming to be more healthy (Lean Cuisine, Smart Ones), and all of the products tested cost less than $2.50. In the fettuccine, Swedish meatball and macaroni and cheese categories, we weren't able to find all five brands, so we substituted Stouffer's, which is the parent company of Lean Cuisine. Healthy Choice, one of the most recognized frozen-food brands, didn't offer many of the dishes, so it was not included in the test.
Marie Callender's and Lean Cuisine tied as the winner in this category, even though the testers found all the dishes to be overly sweet with so-so rice. The worst, according to restaurant critic Mike Sutter, Smart Ones: `This is the reason I didn't like Chinese food when I was a kid. All we ate was the canned or frozen stuff, and this is what it tasted like: artificial, gummy and unnatural.'
None of taste testers agreed on a favorite fettuccine. Reporter Claudia Grisales, who regularly eats frozen meals for lunch, said she liked the peppery kick of the Michelina's brand, which was a surprise because she says she hasn't liked any of that company's products before. With big pieces of chicken and a flavorful sauce, Marie Callender's was copy editor Lisa Ogle's favorite. Sutter liked the broccoli in the Smart Ones' fettuccine, and projects editor Brenda Bell said she enjoyed the nutmeg flavor in the Lean Cuisine sample.
Macaroni and cheese
This American staple divided the testers into two camps: those who preferred Smart Ones and those who like Michelina's. To their surprise, full-fat and full-sodium Stouffer's didn't earn any votes. Grisales, who wondered out loud if the Stouffer's sample was actually a melted yellow crayon instead of macaroni and cheese, said the Michelina's brand made her think she could be eating homemade, copy editor Lisa Ogle, also a frozen food aficionado, dismissed it with one word (`blah') and Sutter described it with lots of adjectives ending in `y': mushy, blotchy and yucky.
Smart Ones impressed the tasters with a side of asparagus, but Grisales was wowed by the steak. `This has it all. Great meat texture, tastes fresh and the sauce is tasty and plentiful. I even enjoyed the asparagus with sauce on it. Fancy!' she wrote. Banquet's steak had grill marks, but had the texture of a sponge, according to Sutter, and Ogle said it was more like a mystery meatloaf than steak. Grisales called Marie Callender's meat a `steak fake-out,' similar to a McRib sandwich at McDonald's.
Banquet was the unanimous pick for the worst in this category. Gloppy sauce and mushy meatballs forced Bell to spit hers out, but she said the Stouffer's meatballs had the best texture and sauce. With a `big beef-gravy aroma' and `sweet, salty and meaty sauce,' Sutter was convinced that the Smart Ones Swedish meatballs was full of sodium and fat, when in fact, it was one of the healthier options with 5 grams of fat, 730 milligrams of sodium and 270 calories. Marie Callender's meatballs, on the other hand, were served with `noodles of great misfortune,' he wrote, despite being loaded with 540 calories, 28 grams of fat and 1,310 miligrams sodium.
Spaghetti in meat sauce
The panel agreed that the spaghetti was the most dreadful category across the board. `Italy called. They want you to stop calling this spaghetti,' Sutter wrote of Lean Cuisine's pasta. Michelina's won for the most bland spaghetti and Marie Callender's for the most sweet (`The sauce tastes metallic,' Bell noted.) Ogle thought the meatballs in the Banquet version were well-seasoned, but the sauce was just too runny.