I think the crazy idea came to me one day in the supermarket when I saw old school TV dinners on sale for $1.00 each. A buck for dinner? How could this be? I hadn’t had a frozen dinner (nor would I want to) in nearly 40 years nor did anyone living in our house ever eat a meal in front of the television. (Well, maybe a couple of times a year when we were forced to watch the Super Bowl.) I figured trying a TV dinner for $1.00 would at least be worthy of something akin to a science experiment. My fellow scientists? Who better to recruit for this bit of research then two teenagers and the husband. What’s even more astonishing was they thought this would be a fun idea. I’d warm up a bunch of different frozen dinners, they’d fill out a survey sheet and tell me what they liked and didn’t like. Of course the deal was I’d have to try them too. Gulp? Me, the gourmand? Could I do it? You betcha.
Consequently, one Sunday afternoon in October I found myself putting a tablecloth on our dining room table, laying out some dishes, silverware and lots of pot holders to protect the table from all the hot trays. I turned on the oven and started to open the boxes. Problem #1. When you are heating up the dinners in the oven, you have to tear off the plastic covers before they go into the oven. Over half of the dinners had plastic wrap that was frozen to the food. I spent alot of time trying to make sure there weren’t any pieces of plastic wrap stuck to a carrot or a mound of mashed potatoes. Putting the plastic food containers on a metal tray in the oven was also recommended as was stirring a few of the items halfway through the cooking process. I basically ignored this last part but did gaze intently at the oven door as most of the dinners needed a good 20-25 minutes to warm up.
When Rachel and her friend Warren joined us that afternoon, their eyes opened at the task before them. Covering every inch of our round dining room table were trays filled with TV dinners.
“Where should we begin?” they wondered.
To be fair, we each had to sample every dinner so I had the honor of cutting as much of the main dish into fourths. They started to eat and to laugh. They thought this was pretty funny. I’m glad they were having such a good time. What amused me however was the fact that these two teenagers actually didn’t mind eating what was in front of them. (These from kids who have eaten lots of sophisticated food here and abroad.) They marveled at the price. They thought some were better than others and there were two dishes they thought were simply disgusting.
I had purchased nine different frozen food dinners from two different manufacturers — Swanson Classics and Banquet. Here’s what we “ate” (well, we didn’t really eat we kind of just nibbled) along with some staggering calorie, carb, sugar and most importantly sodium content numbers.
From Banquet there was:
Macaroni & Beef in Tomato Sauce
Calories: 200. Total Carbs: 32g. Sugar: 11g. Sodium: 920g. (A staggering 38% of your recommended daily allowance.)
Chicken Fried Chicken Meal (Why they had to put the word “chicken” in the title twice was a mystery but it was definitely there.)
Calories: 350. Total Carbs: 36g. Sugar: 2g. Sodium: 950g. (Wow!)
Southwestern Style Rice & Beans with Chicken
Calories: 190. Total Carbs: 30g. Sugar: 3g. Sodium: 740g.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
Calories: 380. Total Carbs: 42g. Sugar: 4g. Sodium: 650. (Slightly less sodium but still!)
Calories: 290. Total Carbs: 34g. Sugar: 0g. Sodium: 840.
And from Swanson:
Roasted Carved Turkey
Calories: 220. Total Carbs: 28g. Sugar: 4g. Sodium: 750g.
Boneless Fried Chicken
Calories: 240. Total Carbs: 21g. Sugar: 2g. Sodium: 520. (The lowest sodium content of the lot.)
Breaded Fish Filet
Calories: 300. Total Carbs: 34g. Sugar: 3g. Sodium: 570g.
Calories: 230. Total Carbs: 22g. Sugar: 5g. Sodium: 890g.
The top two favorites? The Breaded Fish Filet and the Boneless Fried Chicken both from Swanson. The two dishes they hated the most? Banquet’s Spaghetti & Meatballs and Swanson’s Roasted Carved Turkey.
With all of these “meals” there were sides. Usually mashed potatoes and inevitably corn, carrots or green beans. Out of the four Swanson dinners, three of them had the same cubed carrots and mashed potatoes. The sole variation were the side dishes with the Breaded Fish Filet; it came with mac and cheese and green beans. Since the five Banquet dinners were heavily carb-based (Spaghetti and Meatballs, Macaroni & Beef, Rice & Beans with Chicken and Fettucine Alfredo) the lone Chicken Fried Chicken meal also came with mashed potatoes and corn.
Quite a few of these dinners had somewhat of a chemical taste; the “stuffing” that was part of the turkey was dry and crunchy and most of the pasta when reheated was gummy and wasn’t conducive to really being a frozen food dinner item. Perhaps that’s why most of the side dishes on the other meals were potato-heavy; you could reheat them and they’d make it through the process no less worse for wear. No one thought the portions were enough for one person. Nothing looked particularly appealing and no one would buy any of the dishes again. What exactly was the purpose of the lunch (besides humoring me)? I guess my initial curiosity when I saw these items in the frozen food section is who buys them? ( I still don’t know the answer to that question.) Were they good? Emphatically no. Were they cheap?. Emphatically yes. Were they healthy? The last question gets a big thumbs down especially looking at the potentially stroke-inducing amounts of sodium in nearly every box. If nothing else we had a couple of laughs that afternoon and when we finished Rachel announced that our frozen food lunch was actually better than airline food. The husband thought airline food was better.
“You’re obvously thinking of the one time we were bumped up to first class,” I told him.
And what did we do after our little TV dinner experiment? Because I didn’t think anyone would actually eat the frozen stuff, earlier in the day I had made some tuna salad with a healthy dose of grated carrots added to the mixture. That coupled with some fresh tomatoes and lettuce on the side to spoon onto a choice of whole wheat or rye bread guaranteed no one would go hungry. Not one of us refused a sandwich. And if you’re wondering why I chose to include a photograph of the boxes of food rather than the food itself that we consumed that day; trust me, there’s a reason these companies try to make the food at least look appealing.