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