Shopping the Frozen Food Aisle
by Matthew Gordon
As I discussed last week, there’s a lot I like about pre-made food, mostly of the frozen variety. I’ve learned to spot the healthiest stuff, at decent prices, that tastes pretty good and saves time on busy days. As one might suspect in that kind of situation, I received comments asking me which entrees, snacks, and so on are my favorites, so here is a list of those favorites.
My favorite frozen foods come in three main categories: individual serving, multiple serving, and skillet. The first gets popped in the microwave. The second goes in the oven. The last one, well, goes on the skillet. A positive thing they all have in common is that I tend to look for ones containing ingredients that aren’t usually on my shopping list, or that I can’t make (well). I can make better roast chicken than I find in frozen meals, so I’ll make that myself. Butter chicken sauce? Never made it, no guarantee I ever will. Frozen all the way.
Individual Serving (Microwave)
These are a dietary staple. They’re quick, easy, can be made when you’re half asleep, and come in oodles of varieties. There are times when I want to cook, which is a great way to spend a night off. Then there are times when I’m hungry, right now (not at some abstract time in future), and just want to eat. On sale, they’re also quite reasonable at $2 per meal, or $1 if you’re lucky.
When there’s no microwave available, they can go in the oven. It takes way too long for what it’s worth, though.
• They’re easy to store.
• Buying a variety of brands and meals means every meal is different.
• Microwaving is so quick and easy you can literally ignore it without the fear of anything going wrong. I’ve left meals in the microwave while going to other floors or moving the laundry from the washer to the dryer before.
• If you forget them in the microwave, they won’t become overcooked.
• If they don’t fill you up, you can’t sneak a few bites of the leftovers. You’re done, and you’ll need to find something else to eat.
• Being the smallest size, they generally cost the most money per gram.
Multiple Serving (Oven)
These are surprisingly versatile. They’re good for families, for entertaining, or for when you live in a cold climate and it gets way too cold out to go grocery shopping. They also come in enough varieties to keep things interesting, although I’ve noticed an ongoing Italian theme in them. They require a large knife and/or a spatula, making them a little more labor-intensive than the individual meals, but it’s well worth it once you have a nice big piece on your plate.
The ones that are simply big (say, two pounds) as opposed to massive (say, anything larger) can also be microwaved, although I usually find the oven crisps them nicely.
• They can be considerably cheaper per gram than the other options due to their large size.
• They consist of enough servings that once they’re made, they’re made. Deciding what to eat for the next few meals becomes easier.
• If you have a decent-sized family, one of these can feed all of you on a busy day.
• Waiting an hour for the oven to be finished with your food can be annoying when you’re famished. Part of the allure of the other frozen options is their immediacy. Not so here.
• Sometimes they can make too many servings for a single person. Eating nothing but lasagna for a week can get old fast.
• They can monopolize the Tupperware until they’re finished.
• A single boxed dinner can take up a surprisingly large fraction of the freezer before it’s cooked.
I’ve been getting into these more recently, as they’ve become more widely available. They’re usually about a pound and a half, which is perfect for a large frying pan on a large burner. On average, they take 10–16 minutes to cook, which is quick enough for when you’re starving but also provides time to put on some music or drink a beer.
In a way, they’re the culmination of decades of gradual “gentrification” of the frozen meal. Microwaveable dinners were never “sensations,” nor do they contain quinoa even now, but these ones sometimes are and sometimes do.
• They make two meals. If you’re single, this means you get leftovers that function much like the individual-serving frozen meals above. If you’re with a significant other or friend, they can feed you both.
• Having an open-air cooking environment means you can add sauces and seasonings as you cook rather than having to wait until after you’re done.
• For whatever reason, manufacturers seem to feel the need to make these in more gourmet varieties than the others. The psychological impact is that I feel like I’m getting a better meal.
• They require more attention than the other types of frozen meals. One of the advantages of frozen meals in the first place is you don’t have to spend time watching what you’re cooking. When something’s on the skillet, you still need to stir it periodically.
• The bags are bulkier in the freezer than the others’ boxes. The air in them is wasted freezer space, albeit a small amount.
This handy chart I made shows 23 of my favorites, from across the selection. I’ve included conventional multiple-serving meals and skillet meals in the same category to emphasize the number of portions they offer. Calories per gram gives a general idea of how the food’s nutritional value and ability to fill you up varies by size, given that most of these meals have all of protein, carbohydrates and fat in them. (This deals with the sneaky “50% less calories!” ads on products that are really just half the size.) The multiple-serving meals are shown with parentheses for the full package size and then estimated serving sizes for the calories per gram calculation. I’m not sure why the fried rice’s serving size is listed at 100 grams — about 2.5 of those servings is a normal portion. The list is limited only by the fact that I still haven’t tried everything available in stores (at least not yet).
Obviously, some of these products are only available in certain places. What I buy depends largely on where I am at any given moment. President’s Choice products are most abundant in the eastern half of Canada, for example, while Open Nature is more readily available in Western Canada and the western United States. Wherever the grocery stores are, they usually have a brand or two that makes something good.
Other products, namely the Green Giant Valley Selections, usually aren’t meals in and of themselves. This is when spare/leftover chicken breasts, steaks and pork chops come in handy. Vegetarians can just eat the whole package instead of half, which I’ve done before. On sale, it’s still only $2.50 for over a pound of food.
Frozen meals won’t solve every culinary problem. Cooking is still a lot of fun. If anything, I appreciate it more because I cook when I want, not because I’m starving and I feel I don’t have a choice. When I want to spend a relaxing evening creating a masterpiece in the kitchen, I’ll do that. When I’m overworked and hungry, I’ll let people sell me good food I can eat right away.