PROFESSOR TRUITT Goes Shopping [Slate]

Rohit Khare (
Sat, 6 Feb 1999 23:28:01 -0800

I think I'll go cook now. Does "Velveeta Shells & Cheese" count? :-)


=46reezer Burns
TV dinners can be good for you, but they weren't good to me.
By Eliza Truitt
I demand hazard pay. In the course of researching and writing this=20
article I suffered crippling bouts of gas and added 6 pounds of=20
blubber around my middle. I incurred the derision of my colleagues by=20
using the microwave in the communal kitchen area to nuke a Salisbury=20
steak that made the entire floor stink like a middle-school=20
cafeteria. The stacks of empty Swanson Hungry Man and Healthy Choice=20
boxes on my desk still get funny looks. I have poisoned myself in so=20
many ways. But I ate 36 of those dinners just for you, dear reader,=20
so that you can navigate the frozen dinner aisle in your local=20
supermarket with flair and ease.
Microwave ovens have their limitations. Remember that they work by=20
agitating (and thus heating) the water and fat molecules in food,=20
which means that whatever you cook is pretty much steamed. This is=20
great for heating up leftovers and coffee, not so great for baking a=20
cake. Saucy foods work, bready foods don't. But one great thing=20
microwaves have done is give a new life to an American classic. What=20
could be better than a full dinner, including dessert, that goes from=20
freezer to table in seven minutes with no dishes to wash?
The scores of offerings at your average supermarket divide down to=20
about four basic categories: traditional, healthy, budget, and=20
vegetarian. I used the same standards in judging all of them: taste,=20
nutrition, presentation, and ease of preparation. Here's a list of=20
best and worst by category.
Traditional: Generally high in fat and calories, these dinners are=20
the descendants of the TV dinners of old. The main brands are=20
Stouffer's, Swanson, and Marie Callender's. Marie Callender's is the=20
gold standard here. Marie offers a full plate of food weighing a=20
whole pound, and there are separate sauce packets that you heat and=20
add to the dinner when you serve it. The results are great. The=20
Breaded Chicken Parmigiana, for example, comes out dry and unsoaked=20
by the marinara sauce. But they have their drawbacks. First, the fat=20
content puts them into Big Mac territory, generally about 30 grams.=20
Worse, they require a lot of work. You puncture the sauce pouch, toss=20
the dinner in, pull it out, peel back parts of the film cover, toss=20
the sauce pouch in, fire up the oven again, take it out again, pour=20
on the sauce =8A It all adds up to a good 15 minutes of work from=20
freezer to table. You might as well cook.
The prize for best traditional dinner goes to Swanson's Boneless=20
White Meat Fried Chicken Dinner. With 430 calories and 16 grams of=20
fat (150 calories from fat), this dinner almost meets the American=20
Heart Association nutrition guidelines, which recommend no more than=20
30 percent of your calorie intake be derived from fat. It couldn't be=20
simpler to prepare and is surprisingly tasty. The chicken's not=20
exactly crispy, but it is remarkably unrubbery. (The most common flaw=20
of microwaved food is a gag-inducing springy texture.) The meat has a=20
grain to it, so you know it's not compressed, and the meal's three=20
side dishes are microwave-friendly: corn, green beans, and mashed=20
potatoes. The veggies are flavorful with a bit of crunch to them, and=20
the mashed potatoes are buttery and smooth. Best of all, the dessert=20
is a darn good brownie: crispy on top, cakey on the bottom, the way=20
they're supposed to be. And the compartmented cardboard dish is an=20
elegant homage to the classic TV dinner's punched metal tray, making=20
for a heady mix of convenience and formalism. A clear winner.
But Swanson also takes home the prize for worst traditional dinner.=20
The Boneless Pork Rib Shaped Patty is a shoddy imitation of=20
McDonald's much beloved McRib. The rib-shaped patty is studded with=20
visible chunks of fat (reflecting the 37 grams listed on the label),=20
and it sits in a pool of orange grease. (The label calls it barbecue=20
sauce.) The beans, too sweet and without a hint of tanginess, were=20
also disappointing. The dessert was billed as "apple crumb," but it=20
looked like beige Jell-O and was sticky and bland. The dinner had=20
1,440 milligrams of sodium-60 percent of your recommended daily=20
intake-and 750 calories, 330 of them from fat. All in all, a heart=20
attack on a cardboard plate.
Healthy: The meals that bill themselves as "healthy" varied widely in=20
nutritional content and-a key point-size. Some carry very low calorie=20
and fat contents. For example, Weight Watchers' Smart Ones Fiesta=20
Chicken has only 2 grams of fat and 210 calories. Others, such as=20
Healthy Choice's Country Breaded Chicken With Scalloped Potatoes,=20
Garden Vegetables in Butter Sauce, and Sour Cherry Compote, with 9=20
grams of fat and 350 calories, barely qualify as healthy. The diet=20
dinners have controlled portions-9 or 10 ounces compared with the=20
traditional dinner's pound or so-and you might be tempted to eat more=20
than one, with a corresponding doubling of the fat and caloric=20
intake. The category winner, Lean Cuisine's Oriental Beef With=20
Vegetables and Long Grain Rice, had combination of great taste and=20
solid nutrition. Weighing in at 9.25 ounces, the dinner included firm=20
meat, crisp water chestnuts, and flavorful sauce, and it had only 240=20
calories and 3.5 grams of fat.
=46or those watching their weight, microwave dinners are a better=20
choice than you might think, according to Dr. Louis J. Aronne, a=20
weight loss specialist and associate professor of medicine at Cornell=20
University. The portions are controlled and the nutritional=20
information clear. And compared to other low-effort meals-say,=20
takeout Chinese-these dinners are far healthier. Add frozen brussels=20
sprouts and a salad to one of the smaller healthy microwave meals,=20
and you have what Aronne calls "a very reasonable dinner."
The prize for the worst healthy dinner goes to Lean Cuisine's=20
Salisbury Steak With Macaroni and Cheese. Yep, that's the one that=20
stank when cooking. Surprisingly, the steak itself isn't bad-it had a=20
nice hint of rosemary-but the macaroni and cheese was appallingly=20
bland. For only 9.5 ounces of food it had 8 grams of fat, 60=20
milligrams of cholesterol, and 590 milligrams of sodium.
Cheap: The most common brands are Budget Gourmet, America's Choice,=20
and Banquet. Best of category is a tough one here. Cheap microwave=20
dinners are a mark of humiliation-something you eat while crying in=20
your studio apartment, huddling in front of the space heater, and=20
reading The Bell Jar. Interestingly, each brand is awful in its own=20
way. The Banquet Honey-Roasted Turkey Meal offered literally a single=20
slice of cold-cut-style turkey-about one-eighth of an inch thick-on a=20
sparse bed of hopelessly damp and chewy stuffing. The gravy formed=20
strings as I lifted the fork to my mouth. But at least it came on a=20
nice paper plate.
The worst is the Budget Gourmet. It is the cuisine equivalent of the=20
landlord banging at your door. You eat the Chicken With Fettuccini=20
Cream Sauce straight out of the ripped-open box. The portion is tiny,=20
the chicken is in rubbery cubes so uniform they barely look like=20
food, and the noodles are all clumped together on one side. You have=20
to pull them apart with a fork.
Vegetarian: For overall brand consistency, Amy's is a solid choice=20
and, as a bonus, most of the meals are organic. In fact, Amy's Cheese=20
Enchilada With Beans and Corn was bound for the winner's circle until=20
overtaken at the wire by a dark horse: Green Guru, a brand I was able=20
to find in only one supermarket. Green Guru's Vegetable Gaeng Daeng=20
With Jasmine Rice enchanted my palate. The rice was light and cooked=20
to perfection, and the vegetables were nicely steamed in a complex=20
sauce that blended the subtle flavors of curry, coconut milk, and=20
basil. There was enough hot pepper to be interesting, but not so much=20
that this tenderfoot was scared off. The mushrooms, Chinese broccoli,=20
bamboo shoots, and baby corn all retained good textures, and the tofu=20
chunks seemed like a stroke of genius. At its best, tofu is supposed=20
to be springy, and this dish proved how ideally suited it is to the=20
microwave's wily ways. This dinner was better than many I've had in=20
actual Thai restaurants.
The worst vegetarian dinner? Well, there's only one way to describe=20
Hain's Vegetarian Pepper Steak: Hainous. The rice was undercooked,=20
and the sauce was a viscous, grainy gel. And the whole concept of it=20
seemed misguided: What vegetarian wants to eat something labeled as=20
"steak," even if it is molded soy protein? The "steak" was like the=20
worst hamburger you've ever eaten: sticky, tasteless, and just plain=20
TV dinners carry a terrible stigma. They conjure up a flip-flop-clad=20
matron in a housedress, cigarette dangling from her mouth, slapping a=20
metal tray in front of a sullen husband at the dinner table. But what=20
most diners don't know is that the matron was on to something. Aronne=20
notes that because the vegetables in microwave dinners are frozen,=20
they may retain more nutrients than those you'd buy fresh. The=20
oxidation of nutrients is much greater in fresh foods than in foods=20
that are frozen quickly after harvest. Your fresh supermarket=20
broccoli probably had a long journey from the place it was grown,=20
losing vitamins all the way. Boiling the veggies at home compounds=20
the problem, as the soluble vitamins get poured down the drain. Armed=20
with the hard-won discoveries I sacrificed my waistline for, you can=20
go to your supermarket and confidently fill your shopping cart. Once=20
home, you can peel back the plastic film covers of our winners with a=20
steady hand, sure that the odors that emanate will not offend.