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A quick glance at our listing of Healthy Choice reviews reveals that Healthy Choice just doesn't have a very good track record here at Dr. Gourmet. And their Cafe Steamers line has had only one positive rating out of six meals tested.
They've been doing much better recently, so with that in mind I picked up today's choices for our panel to review.
For those who might not be familiar with this line, these meals are packaged with the solid ingredients (pasta, protein, vegetables) in what is basically a plastic colander that fits fairly closely into a bowl. The bowl contains the liquid sauce. When the meal is microwaved, the sauce heats and creates steam that cooks the solid ingredients in the colander above. It would be a pretty genius idea if it weren't for the fact that these meals easily use 3 times the amount of plastic in their packaging as other meals cooked in the usual single trays. One thing that is different in a positive way about the packaging is that the sodium is actually listed on the front of the package along with the calories, saturated fat, and sugars. Now that's useful!
Packaging aside, today the panel was pleasantly surprised by the Balsamic Garlic Chicken. There are a half-dozen chunks of white meat chicken with a fair amount of spinach, diced red bell peppers, and sliced mushrooms. The chicken is juicy and the whole-grain pasta - only a little overdone - would fool any whole-wheat-pasta-hating person. The savory balsamic sauce is only slightly sweet with a savory hit of garlic, while the red bell peppers cut through the sweetness of the sauce with a little zing of spice. All this contrasts well with the slightly bitter spinach.
Overall, the panel felt that this was a very balanced dish. None of the elements - protein, pasta, vegetables, or sauce - overwhelmed the others, and despite a slight chemical aftertaste due to the potassium chloride used as a salt substitute, all the panelists gave it a thumbs up. The numbers are also good: 250 calories, 600 milligrams of sodium, and 6 grams of fiber.
We expected the next meal to have similar quality, as its content is so similar, but the Grilled Chicken Marsala with Mushrooms failed to impress. There's the same chicken and the same pasta (albeit with a slightly different shape). The green beans are nicely crunchy and the red bell pepper strips only a little softer. There are even strips of onion that lend a nice sweet/spicy note. Yet despite the mushrooms appearing in the title of the dish, they were nearly undetectible, being cut into tiny pieces and there not being very many to begin with. Compare that with the Balsamic Garlic Chicken!
The problem was the sauce, which the panel could only describe as "sweetly bland." "Inoffensive" was about the best we could do for the meal overall. Not bad, but just not very good, either. The numbers: this meal has the same calories and fiber as the Balsamic Garlic Chicken and more sodium (at 640 milligrams). Get the Balsamic Garlic Chicken instead - better numbers, more flavor.