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Another trend I've seen in the convenience food aisle is that of larger portions. While brands such as Hungry-Man®, Banquet, and Devour seem to have based their brand identity on heartier servings (and oh-so-much sodium, which is why you're unlikely to see us reviewing any of their meals), what's interesting to me is that companies like Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice also appear to be getting into the larger portion act.
In the case of Lean Cuisine, their new "High Protein" bowls are 10-11 ounces instead of their usual 9.5 to 10-ounce portions. (Well of course they're higher in protein! There's more food!) Healthy Choice, on the other hand, has taken the shocking step of making substantially larger meals - today's bowls are 13.75 and 14 ounces respectively - that are lower in calorie and sodium density but still full of flavor.
Yes, I was dubious, too.
The two varieties we brought in for tasting today have really impressive numbers. The first is a Lemon Herb Chicken, with 460 calories, 580 milligrams of sodium, and 6 grams of fiber.
When we regularly see meals with fewer than 300 calories and 650 milligrams of sodium or more, that's pretty impressive. And 6 grams of fiber as opposed to the usual 1 or 2!
But what about flavor? Well, it's clear that the chicken is highly processed - but it's not too dry, it's fairly tender, and it has a true chicken flavor that isn't overly salty. The greens, which according to the package include kale, chard, and spinach, are more placeholders than truly significant ingredients - they're cooked to a fare-thee-well and end up more like minced than sauteed.
Yet the diced zucchini, while also overcooked, is flavorful, as are the diced tomatoes and yellow bell peppers. The orzo is al dente and the "grains blend" (two colors of rice, two of quinoa, and black barley) are well cooked.
What really makes this work is the sauce: a gentle lemon scent is borne out in mellow flavor. It's easy to go overboard with a lemon sauce, but this has plenty of light, citrusy restraint that's been touched with a little red pepper to give it the tiniest bit of zing.
The Tex Mex Chicken Bowl is even better.
This has slightly fewer calories, at 430, with 540 milligrams of sodium and a whopping 12 grams of fiber.
The dish comes out of the microwave with an appetizing tomatillo-poblano aroma. The chicken looks to be the same highly processed product as the Lemon Herb Chicken dish, but this has more sauce so here the chicken isn't ever-so-slightly dry.
A mix of black beans and pinto beans are well cooked and add a welcome bit of texture, and roast corn provides crunch and pops of sweetness. The sauce is savory and tart with lime and just a little bit of cayenne, and diced, roasted poblanos punctuate the dish with their blend of umami and bitter spice.
We've been reviewing frozen meals since 1995, and there's good reason for our motto, "We eat it, so you don't have to." Sometimes frozen meals really are just that bad. While it might seem like fun to give companies a hard time about their frozen food failures - and I'll admit, sometimes it can be fun - we still have to eat it before we can review it, which can make reviewing something more to be dreaded than enjoyed. It's nice to be able to give two dishes an unreserved thumbs up.
Sure, it's still better to make your own meals, but these are proof that convenience meals from the larger companies can be tasty as well as substantial.
Posted: July 16, 2021