As you likely know if you read this site with any regularity, I am a gastrophile (aka foodie). I am also a bride-to-be who, upon getting engaged, realized that she’d like to drop a few pounds before the wedding. To that end, I drastically reduced my going-out-to-lunch schedule, which saved money as well as being healthier. After a while, I got sick of salads and light soups for lunch, so I started buying the commercially-prepared frozen meals (mostly Smart Ones and Lean Cuisine, also some Amy’s). I thought I might do a service to the trying-to-be-skinnier foodie crowd if I wrote some reviews of the different meals available.
Please keep in mind that you must approach these with low standards. No, they are not as good as real food–not even close. However, at less than 250 calories a pop, these make a decent lunch, and some of them are not bad at all. The Smart Ones website actually suggests serving some of them to guests, but I wouldn’t go that far. Sheesh. Also, the portions are small. I guess that’s how they keep the calories low. I usually supplement with some kind of side dish like Jello or, if I’m really ambitious, a salad.
These are the ones I buy the most because they’re cheapest, and I’ve been able to find the highest quality-to-calories ratio.
Sweet and Sour Chicken.
Official website copy: “A colorful and tangy combination of white chicken tenderloins, red and green bell peppers, and mushrooms.” The chicken in these things is always kind of weirdly textured, sort of rubbery. If you can get past that, you’re golden. The vegetables are usually pretty good in these things. They taste fresh and flavorful, with good texture. They don’t turn mushy and homogenous; you can actually taste the difference between the vegetables. Another plus to this one is that it’s only 150 calories–superlow. A downside is that this is from their “Truth About Carbs” line, so there’s no starch. Some people like starch, myself included. Of course, you could have some rice with this without blowing up the calorie count too much. Overall: 6.5/10
Roasted Chicken with Sour Cream and Chive Mashed Potatoes
. Official website copy: “An elegant combination of savory chicken paired with creamy, flavorful mashed potatoes.” Elegant? Only if you consider airplane food elegant. Now, I like airplane food (it really breaks up the trip, you know?), but I certainly acknowledge its limitations. This is basically a small slab of chicken that tastes more like Frankensteined chicken parts than an actual breast fillet. That said, the sauce is pretty good, and I like the potatoes a lot. You have to be careful not to overcook the potatoes, though, and be sure to stir them part-way through the cooking process or they’ll dry out on top. I’ll buy this again because it’s only 190 calories and it’s decent. Overall: 6/10
. Official website copy: “Visit the Mediterranean with this medley of pasta, chicken tenderloins, and vegetables in Marsala sauce.” In general, I think the pasta dishes are the best. The pasta seems to hold up well to freezing, so while it’s not exactly al dente like I ate it in Italy, it’s not the globby mess it could have been, either. The vegetables are the best part of this one, as is the case with all the chicken/vegetable dishes. Only 180 calories–score! Overall: 7/10Fiesta Chicken
. Official website copy: “Your mouth will party with the first bite of tender chicken in a spicy ranchero sauce with green chilis.” Don’t bother. The chicken is rubbery as usual, the vegetables are diced so fine that you lose a lot of texture, and the rice is terrible. The rice just doesn’t hold up to reheating well; it’s sticky and globby and bad. This dish is a waste of 210 calories. Overall: 2/10Roast Beef with Gravy
. Official website copy: “This hearty classic features medallions of roast beef in gravy with portobello mushrooms and mashed potatoes.” This is one you have to be careful when you cook, because when it’s good, it’s pretty good, but when it’s overcooked, it’s awful. The beef turns tough, the potatoes turn gluey, and the mushrooms turn rubbery. If you reduce the cooking time a little (at least that’s what worked in my office microwave), the beef remains tender and the potatoes are reasonably fluffy. The gravy has kind of a metallic, boullion taste to it, but mingled with that is a rich beef flavor. It’s not bad, but not great; it has 220 calories. Overall: 5/10Slow-Roasted Turkey Breast
. Official website copy: “An American classic — Juicy turkey breast with a traditional pan gravy & garlic-herb mashed potatoes.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say I could actually taste any garlic or herbs in the mashed potatoes; they’re the same gluey affair as comes with the roast beef. The turkey, however, is pretty good. Unlike the chicken in Smart Ones that often has the taste and texture of a silicone breast implant, this turkey is actually recognizable as turkey. This is one I pick up regularly; it has 220 calories. Overall, 7/10
. Official website copy: “Mamma Mia! What a tasty dish of tender bay shrimp, linguine, and zesty marinara sauce.” This is another one I buy all the time. The pasta once again is good, the tomato sauce is zesty, and it’s kind of fun to have shrimp. Yeah, these shrimp are small and weinie, but this meal only costs $1.77, and it has a nice seafoody flavor. It’s a steal at 180 calories. Note: this tends to stink up the break room, so you may end up as your office Shrimp Lady. I believe it’s worth it. Overall: 8/10
Spicy Szechuan Style Vegetables and Chicken. Official website copy: “No need to order take-out when you stock up on delicious Chinese lo mein, chicken, and vegetables in a Szechuan sauce.” They were smart to put the emphasis on the vegetables this time. There are only small bits of chicken, which is fine, because the chicken is always mediocre anyway. The vegetables are good, though. There’s definitely zucchini and water chestnuts as well as some other stuff I don’t recall (even though I ate this an hour ago). The lo mein noodles are good and the portion is large, rel. But spicy? I don’t think so. It’s 220 calories. Overall: 7/10.
Lean Cuisine Shrimp and Angel Hair Pasta.
Official website copy: “Shrimp and angel hair pasta in a creamy seafood sauce with accents of sherry, tossed with red peppers.” This suffers from the same weinie-shrimp problem as the Smart Ones shrimp pasta, and I don’t think it’s 60 calories better (this one has 240 calories; the Smart Ones has 180). It’s creamier than it looks in the picture, and it has a nice garlicky taste that might make you unpopular with your coworkers. Overall: 7/10Beef Portabello
. Official website copy: “Tender pieces of roasted beef in a rich portabello mushroom sauce, accompanied by whipped potatoes made with red skin potatoes, carmelized onions, roasted garlic and chives.” The good points: the beef was, in fact quite tender. The sauce was nice and had mushroom chunks in it. The bad points: the portion was absolutely tiny. I ate this yesterday, and it’s a good thing it was my coworker Marilyn’s birthday and she brought in treats, or I never would have made it through the day. The mushroom bits were not clearly identifiable as portabella. Also, this dish commits an error that is a pet peeve of mine. There is not a general consensus about whether the mushroom is called porto
; it means either “beautiful port” or “beautiful door,” respectively, in Italian. However, anybody who’s passed the first semester of any Romance language should know that it’s never going to be porto
. It’s basic gender agreement. For that reason, among others (the potatoes were really bad, stiff and dry), I cannot recommend this dish. Overall: 1/10
Amy’s products are consistently the tastiest of their ilk, but they’re also more expensive and tend to be higher-calorie than Smart Ones or Lean Cuisine. This is probably because they are usually organic and shun artificial sweeteners and other things that keep Smart Ones and Lean Cuisine low-calorie. Many people may find the higher quality ingredients and health benefits of organic eating to be worth the higher price and calorie.
Shepherd’s Pie. Official website copy: “Meatless version of a long time favorite. Organic vegetables in a nourishing broth blanketed with smooth mashed potatoes. Non-dairy/gluten-free/no cholesterol.” This is an exception to the higher calorie rule; this item is very low-calorie at only 180. Nonetheless, it’s quite satisfying, thanks to the hearty garbanzo beans and potatoes. The potatoes in this cook up with a much more pleasing texture than in other frozen meals. My only criticism is that it’s difficult to heat throughly from frozen; it’s often still cold in the middle when the allotted cooking time is up, but cooking longer makes the edges coagulate. It would probably be better prepared in an oven. Overall, 9/10
Bean and Cheese Burrito. Official website copy: “Organic flour tortilla wrapped around organic pinto beans, rice, and vegetables in a mild Mexican sauce, with cheddar cheese added.” The sauce is definitely mild, and it’s not very saucy; I wouldn’t have known there was any sauce in there if I hadn’t read the description. The tortilla seems to be whole wheat (at least it’s not the overbleached white flour tortilla we often see), and it has a very nice texture, even when microwaved. The beans are well-flavored, and the rice doesn’t get too mushy. The cheddar flavor is not very strong, nor is cheddar a very authentic choice. Of course, this is better served with some sour cream, salsa, hot sauce, onions, and cilantro, but it’s pretty good as-is too. Overall: 7/10.