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It's hard to believe, but we've been reviewing convenience meals and frozen foods for over ten years now. In that time, there's been an explosion of companies entering the frozen foods market, some really good, some sort of good, and some terrible.
Lean Cuisine has been there through it all, and one of the first meals we reviewed was their Chicken Fried Rice. We gave it 2 forks out of 5 at the time, mostly because it was bland - "innocuous" was the word we used. We ran across Lean Cuisine's Chicken Fried Rice in a local freezer case recently, however, and noted that the amount of sodium is much lower in the newer product (at 560 milligrams versus 690 milligrams in the old version), and given the ten years elapsing since the last review, we thought it worthwhile to see if it's improved.
A particularly alert panel member noticed that in addition to there being less sodium in the newer version, it also has fewer calories (250 vs. 310), less fat, and fewer carbohydrates, protein, and fiber. An obvious conclusion is that the decrease in the number of calories led to the decrease in other nutrients. That might well be the simple case, but the first thing one panelist said as the dish came out of the microwave was, "It smells metallic."
There's good reason for that. According to the ingredients list on the package, in addition to the salt added to the chicken and the salt in the soy sauce, there's potassium chloride (a salt substitute) added, which gives the meal its metallic smell - along with a distinct metallic aftertaste. That might be forgiveable (or at least less noticeable) if the meal weren't so very bland in all other respects. The five chunks of chicken are not quite dry, the rice is acceptable, the peas and carrots lend the meal a little texture, but the sauce is "more scented than flavored," in the words of another panelist, and overall, it's... innocuous. Except for the metallic aftertaste. In short, the numbers might be better ten years on, but Lean Cuisine's use of a salt substitute in the effort to reduce overall sodium pushed this meal from "acceptable" to "avoid."
The good news is that the Chicken Chow Mein doesn't have a metallic scent or aftertaste, but that's the most notable thing about it. Once again, the operative word here is "innocuous:" this is a meal that's not going to excite your taste buds, whether it's "Wow, that's good!" or "Wow! That's bad!" The same acceptable white rice is paired with the same acceptable chunks of chicken (here perhaps a little more dry), along with a dab of spinach, a few carrots, strips of flaccid red bell pepper, a lone chunk of celery, and more than a few water chestnuts. Sadly, the sauce does nothing more than hint at ginger, garlic, and soy sauce. Not bad... but not good, either. Leave this one on the shelf, as well.
First posted: March 20, 2015