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 Jan 29 - Feb 4, 2009 
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Dining In

The Great TV Dinner Challenge

Whose frozen, portion-controlled cuisine reigns supreme?

By Maren Tarro

Grab your remotes and pull up your TV trays. It’s time for dinner and a show, working-class style. To help you navigate the endless choices of processed food conveniently squirted into compartmented microwaveable plastic trays, the Alibi retreated to our top-secret, state-of-the-art test kitchen with a dozen different dinners. By the time we emerged, we had weeded out the inedible crap from the, well, edible crap. Here are our results:

Cheap Eats

For under $2, we found Banquet Salisbury Steak Meal and Banquet Select Recipes Classic Fried Chicken. The only discernible difference between the two was the Select variety appeared to use real meat. The fried chicken did come out with an acceptable amount of crispness but was a little light on the chicken. The Salisbury steak embodied stereotypical TV dinner flavor: strange and unnatural. Both meals had sides of corn and mashed potatoes. In each case, the corn was soggy and the potatoes had all the flavor of Styrofoam packing peanuts.

Mighty Meals

For those who require portions fit for a linebacker, we brought in two football player-sized test subjects to try Hungry-Man XXL Meatloaf and Claim Jumper Meatloaf. Both meals boasted meatloaf slices and mashed potatoes, and Claim Jumper came with an additional side of green beans. The Hungry-Man’s three slices of mystery meat had a softer texture than its competition. Claim Jumper’s two slabs had a slightly more realistic flavor, and the green beans had a nice crispness. While the Claim Jumper meal tasted better, it was weighed down by the 12 steps it took to prepare it.

For the Kids

Kid Cuisine has cornered the market on pint-sized frozen meals. We put Cheeseburger Builder and Magical Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza to the test. The cheeseburger meal presented french fries soaking in a noticeable puddle of grease. Paired with corn, fruit snacks and an open mind, all four food groups were represented. The “magical” pizza certainly didn’t smell magical and stuck to the silver insert on which it was microwaved. Vanilla pudding magically became chocolate when we stirred in a package of chocolate powder and candy stars. Also served with corn, the meal could be seen as well-rounded. Both trays were returned by our miniature test subjects with devoured desserts and only picked-at entrées.

Diet Dishes

If you’re counting calories and minding waistlines, the freezer’s still got you covered. Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice offer meals with fewer than 300 calories. We tried Dinnertime Selects Steak Tips Dijon (LC) and Beef Tips Portobello (HC). Lean Cuisine won hands down. While both beef dishes were strangely textured, the Lean Cuisine had a tangy sauce that made it manageable. Served with tender green beans and pretty tasty roasted potatoes, it was easy on the taste buds and filling. Healthy Choice went with bland mashed potatoes and gravy. A side of broccoli and carrots brought on school lunch flashbacks; the caramel apple crisp was more punishment than dessert.

A side of broccoli and carrots brought on school lunch flashbacks; the caramel apple crisp was more punishment than dessert.

Meat Is Murder

Vegetarians and vegans have long been a neglected market in the TV dinner world, but no more. Kashi Tuscan Veggie Bake and Amy’s Vegetable Lasagna were tossed into our microwave to see if they could stand up to meatier options. The vegan Tuscan Veggie Bake consisted of layered whole-grain pasta, yellow squash, sweet potatoes, eggplant and tomato sauce. It wasn’t bad, but it was on the boring side. Amy’s lasagna with organic pasta and vegetables was more exciting. The sauce was brighter and the addition of cheese gave the meat-free dish a little substance.

Home Cooking

Just because it’s frozen and microwave-safe doesn’t mean it can’t taste like mom’s home-cooking, right? Boston Market and Marie Callender’s both attempt to capture old-fashioned flavor in their plastic trays. We tried their renditions of Thanksgiving dinner: Turkey Breast Medallions with Stuffing (BM) and Turkey Breast with Stuffing (MC). Boston Market’s version had an enormous amount of stuffing that ranged from moist to crunchy. The turkey medallions were watery, as was the gravy. Marie Callender's did a slightly better job on the turkey and gravy, but the stuffing was little more than mushy, over-seasoned slop. MC’s green beans with cranberries were a nice touch, perking up the meal just enough to make its “home-cooked” claims more plausible.

 
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