Frozen meals have come a long way since Swanson first started selling their trademarked “TV Dinner” to consumers in 1953 – turkey, cornbread dressing, peas and sweet potatoes all were packaged in an aluminum tray then put into a paperboard box and sold for just 98 cents.
Hundreds of millions of these meals were successfully sold by Swanson and other brands including Banquet, One-Eye Eskimo and Frigi-Dinner. In 1967 the countertop home model Radarange microwave oven became affordable at $495, and these dinners moved into their next evolution as cooking time dropped from almost 30 minutes to less than five.
Today, the average American cooks and eats a frozen meal about six times each month, and collectively we spend almost 6 billion dollars on these easy to prepare dinners.
What are the greatest goodies consumers crave with their cold convenience-ethnic flair in entrees, easier meal preparation or better-than-fresh value benefits?
Perhaps not too surprising, ethnic influences on the American palate have spread to frozens-an effect of national population shifts and greater willingness by many to trial the tastes of their new neighbors. For example, according to Nielsen, sales of two-food dinner entrees are up significantly – Mexican rose 22.0 percent, Oriental entrees 38 percent, and the all favorite Italian entrees up 34 in the latest 12 month period.
These products are hot and so are the new “healthier” entrees. Shoppers still have to look hard behind the closed (glass) doors to spot these choices amid duller or less-healthful varieties, but it’s important to read the labels. The freezing process, which has advanced well beyond Clarence Birdseye’s 1925 invention of the “Quick Freeze Machine”, is still developing. Many of the foods in the freezer case are heavily processed with extra salt and fats to overcome the taste and texture degradation that typically occurs in the freezing process. Stabilizing the foods for a long storage period typically means that brands use hydrogenated vegetable oils (Trans fats) which have come under scrutiny for their adverse affect on our cardiovascular systems as well as other preservatives and additives.
So how should we stock up our freezers?
1. Compare prices: in almost 100% of the cases buying frozen versus the fresh counterpart will save you money.
2. Compare quality: Look for the package to say IQF – that means individually quick frozen – and a package that is vacuum sealed without any air touching the food. The result? the best process to maintain taste, quality and texture.
3. Read the labels: Look at both the ingredients and the Nutritional Facts Panel to see how much fat (and Trans fat), sodium and sugars are listed.
4. Compare ingredients: some dinners are now organic, made with whole grains, low fat, low carbohydrate and low sodium.
5. Compare packaging: new packaging to cook frozen entrees in the microwave is just rolling out in stores. Some steam the food while others rely on sauce pellets within the food to insure that the food is cooked perfectly. If the instructions are to cover the food with a paper towel be sure that the paper towel is not recycled – those may contain particles of metal and other materials which can harm your microwave.
6. Storage: make sure you shop for your frozen foods last and then make sure as the weather warms up that you don’t leave these foods in a hot car or allow them to defrost – that will affect the taste, the texture and may affect the cooking time. For those frozen foods that are not vacuum sealed, I recommend putting those packages – unopened – in a plastic freezer bag to create a barrier to avoid freezer burn and condensation forming in the package. And remember – nothing lasts forever – even in your freezer – so mark each package with a permanent marker with the date you purchased it and for the best quality – use within 3-4 months.
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Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .