There’s nothing quite like waking up at 7 a.m. to pop a frozen “lemon pepper fish fillet” into the oven—a morning routine I never considered until last week, when my editor Haley requested that I review 10 frozen meals.
“Okay,” I replied tentatively. “But, also, did you see my pitch about tasting all the potato chip flavors in Paris?”
“LOL,” she wrote back. “Please include some frozen seafood options.”
I’ve got no problem with frozen dinners, technically speaking. My mom fed me many a block of Stouffer’s Spinach Soufflé (accent theirs) during the years 1993 through 1999. And it’s not that I’m a snobby food writer or anything like that—I’m so often accompanied by Cheez-Its they’re basically my house pet. It’s just that, as an adult, I’ve had one too many experiences with foods defrosted directly from the freezer that have resulted in me using words like “gummy” and “moist” and “jesus christ, this is bland, quick pass me that hot sauce you stole from a Mexican restaurant.” Also, I recently threw up after eating chicken piccata on a short-haul flight.
But I am nothing if not open-minded (I once purchased low-waist jeans) and apparently I’m in the minority when it comes to dinners that begin as ice cubes. “Sales of microwavable meals are rising at the fastest pace in a decade,” declared the Wall Street Journal in their latest dispatch on the topic. Furthermore, Haley pretty much insisted: It is Forever Month, after all, and nothing endures quite like a frozen dinner.
So I took a stroll down my local freezer aisle and selected 10 frozen dinners that seemed most representative of all 2020 has to offer, from nostalgic throwbacks to more modern fare, such as a noodle bowl that claims to be “powered by plants.” To truly level the playing field, I added nary a flake of Maldon nor a drop of Huy Fong chili garlic sauce to any plastic tray of reheated food. Below, I’ve ranked them in ascending order of least to most likely to be consumed by me again.
Were any delicious enough to make me forget about the chicken piccata incident? Let’s find out.
440 calories, 24 grams fat, 560 milligrams sodium, 44 grams carbs, 14 grams protein
Notable Packaging Details: Evol’s Mac & Cheese box says it contains “tubetti” pasta and creamy truffle-parm-ched cheese sauce “all topped with insanely tasty panko breadcrumbs,” which presents a lot to unpack. First thing: You’re telling me there’s been a noodle shape called “tubetti” all along, and it’s basically just a longer version of ditalini, not extremely long strands of hollow and unpredictable noodles that look like amusement park slides, or bucatini on rumspringa? Nothing ever goes my way. Second thing: Didn’t we collectively decide not to use “insane” in such a casual, pejorative way anymore? That seems wise.
What’s Inside: Tubetti pasta in a cheese sauce, topped with problematic breadcrumbs.
How It Tastes: I wanted so badly to love this frozen dinner, which is essentially just cheese wrapped tenderly around starch. But the parm-cheddar situation lacked the salt needed to coax flavor from fat, and it turns out I’m just not a truffle maximalist. The breadcrumbs were respectable, especially around the edges where they rubbed shoulders with cheese, and were crunchier than anticipated. One remarkable, exhilarating discovery was the bottom of the tubetti, where there formed a floor-layer of sauce and breadcrumbs that melded together and tasted like crispy cheese twists.
The Final Word: This is a reliable option for people who love truffles in any form, even in theory. Otherwise, just make cheesy pasta on the stovetop.
600 calories, 32 grams fat, 960 milligrams sodium, 61 grams carbs, 17 grams protein
Notable Packaging Details: Marie Callender’s chicken pot pie (hereby known as a CPP) comes in a box so assertively compact, it may as well be me trying out for the 10th grade mock trial team. Cramped freezers, this one’s for you.
What’s Inside: No celery to speak of, contrary to the image on the package, but lots of the sort of gravy one associates with a pot pie, as well as chicken in pieces I can only describe as chunks, despite an aversion to the word, some softened carrot coins, and a gaggle of peas.
How It Tastes: Like any CPP, this one had its highs and its lows. The crust was super pleasant (and adorably crimped), both on top and down below. The chicken chunks—ugh—were texturally fine, but may as well have been any old white meat. I’m always down for aggressively mushy carrots and reheated peas, though I would’ve liked three times as many. The gravy was a disappointment, which is disappointing in itself, because gravy exists to lift the spirits of all other elements in a dish, like Jerry Harris in Cheer.
The Final Word: A homemade CPP would’ve been better, but who has that kind of time?! This one could get the job done on a cold night, or a hungover Sunday, or any time you need to comfort yourself because you didn’t get onto the 10th grade mock trial team and now you review snacks for a living.
290 calories, 5 grams fat, 740 mg sodium, 40 grams carbs, 17 grams protein
Notable Packaging Details: The meatballs present as gray in the photo, like a cartoon rendering of a kidney stone, or gefilte fish long after its prime. This is, however, the least confusing aspect when you consider that both flat-leaf and curly-leaf parsley are pictured. Absolute anarchy.
What’s Inside: Lots of saucy noodles, described in box copy as “freshly made pasta” but in the ingredient list as “cooked enriched macaroni product,” and about six-ish small meatballs (I forgot to count before plunging in, as I love meatballs fervently and urgently).
How It Tastes: Classic Swedish meatballs are cooked in a savory, creamy, meaty gravy. This iteration was underwhelming—not nearly lively enough—but the meatballs themselves slapped so hard I texted my mom about them. The noodles were surprisingly fine, if a bit soggy, but they’re defrosted cooked noodles, so give them a break.
The Final Word: This one’s for those who love mini meatballs on any occasion (me, I’m talking about me) and can look past limp trimmings. Others might opt out.
170 calories, 3.5 grams fat, 520 milligrams sodium, 17 grams carbs, 18 grams protein
Notable Packaging Details: I associate Lean Cuisine with my little sister’s babysitter, who was always firing them up when she was babysitting, so I was disturbed to realize I’d selected a “Lean Cuisine COMFORT,” which, based on the CAPS, would be unlikely to transform my entire persona into one of self-restraint and virtue.
What’s Inside: A slice of chicken that seems like a cross-section of a breast, gravy (I’m sensing a theme!), mushrooms, a few potato pieces, broccoli, and two or three errant clippings of what looks to be red pepper.
How It Tastes: I’ve spent more time than I care to recall with chicken breasts, the devil’s cut, and I actually kind of loved this one. It somehow managed not to be rubbery, or to taste like weird old meat, despite being dubiously thin and lacking a bone. The vegetables were bland—old song, new tune—but the gravy could get it. It looked and tasted like diner gravy, in the best possible way: a blonde roux with just enough salt, and some indistinguishable dried herb flecks.
The Final Word: This would make for a very decent (if light) chicken dinner while you, say, Google your sister’s old babysitter to see what she’s up to.
280 calories, 3.5 grams fat, 510 milligrams of sodium, 48 grams carbs, 14 grams protein
Notable Packaging Details: None really, which is notable in and of itself.
What’s Inside: A roughly three by four-inch fillet of breaded pollock, over a bed of rice with colorful flecks in it, a bunch of broccoli, and an “apple dessert.”
How It Tastes: The fillet didn’t smell great right out the gate, but was actually lovely, like one big, flat fish stick. It did taste vaguely lemony and vaguely peppery, but more like the ideas of lemon and pepper than the actual ingredients. The broccoli became very small when heated and angrily expelled a lot of liquid, but otherwise tasted like broccoli. I’m tempted to gloss right over the rice, which was flavorless and mattered less than zucchini on a crudité platter, so we can get to that “apple dessert.” I’ve got to say, my expectations were low given that it looked like (and may have been) ambiguous fruit lumps floating in a jacuzzi filled with taupe slop. But man was I wrong! I loved that “apple dessert.” It was sweet and kind of cinnamon-y, cozy but not cloying. Its only flaw was package design, by which I mean that when I tipped the tray back to drink the apple-sugar syrup, I got hot broccoli water all over my face.
The Final Word: If you’re willing to let go of your normative notions about how fish sticks should be shaped, you won’t regret it.
790 calories, 43 grams fat, 1620 milligrams sodium (okay, WHAT!), 76 grams carbs, 24 grams protein
Notable Packaging Details: Oh boy. Literally everything. First, why must we gender frozen dinners? And if we must gender frozen dinners, need we use a superfluous hyphen as in the style of Hungry-Man? Moving right along, what the hell is a wyng, and is wyngz in fact its true plural? Aha, here’s one answer, elsewhere on the box: wyngz are “seasoned fried white meat chicken patties” and these particular wyngz are served with “mashed potatoes and tangy buffalo dipping sauce—includes a chocolate brownie” because hungry-men don’t use an oxford comma, apparently, but they do call in a random em dash when it suits them.
What’s Inside: A truly chaotic amount of wyngz, a pocket of potato matter, a generous serving of spicy sauce, and a brownie that puffs up while it cooks until it’s buoyant as a blow out.
How It Tastes: The chicken nuggets—let’s call these little fuckers what they are—were delightful, with a well-seasoned shell evocative of top-notch fast food. The tangy buffalo dipping sauce was tangy as promised, and plentiful enough to make a wan French person say, “That’s how much le hot sauce I use in a whole year.” The mashed potats were a mere ghost of mashed potats, sad sad sad. (They can be improved with periodic drizzles of the buffalo sauce, if any of your allotted third-of-a-cup remains.) And the brownie! What a journey she and I had. I thought the brownie was going to be awful, because it looked like a burned muffin, but that’s why they tell you never to judge a brownie by its acclivity. It turned out to be fudgy, decidedly good, and dare I say the perfect foil to the salty-spicy wyngz.
The Final Word: If I were wine-drunk and someone made this frozen dinner for me, I’d be thrilled.
370 calories, 13 grams fat, 900 milligrams sodium, 42 grams carbs, 21 grams protein
Notable Packaging Details: The box broadcasts “100% pure beef,” which begs the question: What is impure beef? It also says it contains “2x the meat*,” which would be existentially confounding on its own, even if it wasn’t followed by an asterisk and fine print that reads: “2x the meat required by the lasagna with meat sauce standard.” This sent me on an internet deep dive, which sent me to Stouffer’s PR rep, because I absolutely needed to know who set such a standard and when, and whether I’ve been shirking it my whole life. (Answers: USDA, and “6 percent fresh meat.” Let’s move on immediately.)
What’s Inside: A large hunk of lasagna with zero accompaniments, though the box does diplomatically suggest that you “pair this portion with a side salad and a glass of low-fat milk as part of a balanced diet.” I most certainly did not.
How It Tastes: Pretty much exactly like SpaghettiOs Meat Ravioli*, if memory serves. Which is to say, the pure beef had a certain eau de can, but in a way that’s totally fine and you can live with. The noodles were thicker than expected—more stick than sog—and small nubs of cheese swam throughout the sauce like plastic in our oceans. A lasagna noodle peeking out from the soupy, cheesy mélange wasn’t crispy, per se, but was dry and unsauced in a way that offered some textural diversity. (*Apologies for the tangent but I just learned that SpaghettiOs are called “Spaghetti Hoops” in the UK and I can’t be alone with that, now can I?)
The Final Word: Some evenings just call for eating reheated lasagna while wearing a soft bathrobe. On those occasions, why not treat yourself to 2x the meat?
380 calories, 16 grams fat, 780 milligrams sodium, 46 grams carbs, 12 grams protein
Notable Packaging Details: This box is the equivalent of your friend who keeps posting about her Whole30, in that phrases like “Organic” and “No GMOs” and “Gluten Free” feature prominently, and you’re not remotely interested in learning more. The imagery shows a decanted tamal plated against a Jan Frans van Dael-esque tableaux of semi-unwrapped tomatillos and auburn hibiscus, with a thin slice of lime resting peacefully against a mound of rice and beans, as if cat-napping.
What’s Inside: A Monterey Jack tamal with salsa verde, Spanish rice, ORGANIC black beans, and a disappointing lack of lime slices.
How It Tastes: Unwrapping a tamal as if it’s a little present just for you is roughly 80 percent of the fun of a tamal, so I was bummed to realize this one came sans husk. Once I recovered from that blow, I got involved straight away with the masa, which was perfectly fine—not quite as crumbly as I would have liked, but I wouldn’t kick it out of bed, which is where I typically eat. The beans and rice were take-or-leave, and I took, as I was still possessed by the spirit of The Hungry-Man. Melty cheese remains superb as ever, but there was about 10 percent as much as I wanted. The star—the salsa verde—was in fact pert and additive, if subtle.
The Final Word: I’d happily enjoy this any day but my birthday, when the absence of a little gift would feel too on the nose.
360 calories, 14 grams fat, 400 milligrams sodium, 46 grams carbs, 15 grams protein
Notable Packaging Details: Kashi’s Creamy Cashew Noodle Bowl is vegan, but not in your face about it. Like, if you invited it to your birthday dinner, it wouldn’t make a big fuss about splitting a bill that includes non-vegan dishes others ordered for the table.
What’s Inside: A tangle of buckwheat-semolina noodles tossed with julienned carrots, strips of red onion, shelled edamame, and cashew sauce.
How It Tastes: This was solid—it reminded me of something one would’ve made in the early days of Blue Apron: simple, on the sweeter side, healthy, and inoffensive. Were I not committing a restrictive and completely self-imposed experiment, I would’ve added salt and spice and then I think I would’ve really enjoyed it.
The Final Word: Best to keep a few of these in your freezer for those biweekly panics about eating like total trash.
1. Trader Joe’s Chicken Tikka Masala
360 calories, 14 grams fat, 580 milligrams sodium, 39 grams carbs, 21 grams protein
Notable Packaging Details: The box itself is pretty blah—there’s no real sob story or intriguing photography. Someone at TJ’s did manage to sneak the word robust into the copy, though, as in “roasted chicken breast in a robust cream sauce,” a feat that strikes me as quietly subversive, like when your friend smuggles a scone into a SoHo House so you can eat it clandestinely from her purse.
What’s Inside: There’s chicken tikka masala in that robust sauce, which takes up about 60 percent of the interior real estate, and cumin-flavored basmati rice, which makes up the balance. Who do I have to wine and dine (etc.) to get a piece of naan around here?
How It Tastes: TJ’S CTM was my most highly anticipated frozen dinner, for sure; the internet loves it. Once heated, its plastic film puffed up so proudly that I suspected it knew this. After letting the tray cool for years, I dove in. It certainly wasn’t the best chicken tikka masala I’ve ever had—the sauce leaned heavy on the spices, rather than the balance of richness and tanginess—but it still hit the spot. (Full disclosure, the chicken pieces weren’t particularly tender, and based on the texture alone I might’ve guessed they were cooked tuna.) The rice tasted less of cumin and more of bottled water, though it served as a suitable carb with which to shovel sauced chicken into my mouth.
The Final Word: This chicken tikka masala would make for an exciting desk dinner any night of the week. (A desk-dinner’s when you eat at your desk as though you’re going to continue to work after normal working hours have ended, like some sort of Laura Dern character, but moments after you finish your dinner, you melt-down, move to the couch, and turn on Love Island.)
In conclusion, it’s probably best that I avoid sodium for a while. But in the meantime, I’ll be thinking good thoughts about microwavable chicken tikka masala, creamy cashew noodles, and the whole gang, actually—everyone’s got at least one strength.
And Haley, if you’re reading this, I’d still really like an all-expenses paid trip to Paris.
Have a hot (or cold) tip for our Snacks Critic? Leave a comment or send her a note at [email protected]