TV dinners don’t have to taste like the cardboard they’re packed in. A few companies are making frozen food that‘s actually cool. Here are four top picks:
IN THE 21ST-CENTURY battle for American appetites, one clear loser has emerged: TV dinners. Sales have tumbled over the last five years, with many customers opting for higher-end fast-food like Chipotle, and millennials, who were raised to equate fresh with healthy, avoiding frozen meals altogether. So dire is the situation that this spring, food-manufacturing rivals including ConAgra and Nestlé came together tolaunch a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign to salvage the industry’s reputation. Its slogan: Frozen: How Fresh Stays Fresh.
They have a point. Freezing is not inherently wrong; in fact, the technology brilliantly preserves flavors and nutrients. But perhaps a better strategy would be to hand over the PR to a new generation of companies that is working to satisfy modern appetites. Some stand out for their taste and sophisticated flavors. (One—see below—makes food good enough to serve at your next dinner party.) Others limit fat and sodium, use antibiotic-free and humanely raised meats, and liberally employ hip “nutrient-dense” ingredients such as pomegranate and kale. In short: You’ll be hard pressed to find what author and food guru Michael Pollan calls “foodlike substances” in these frozen dinners. Things are looking up.
The Green Meal
Artisan Bistro Danny Kim for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas
If eating organic is your priority, Artisan Bistro fits your bill. More than 70% of the ingredients that make up this brand’s meals are organic (and with the meals I tasted, the only exceptions were spices like ground ginger and cayenne pepper). And the company goes out of its way to serve up power foods like wild-caught salmon and quinoa. Case in point: the coconut lemongrass chicken bowl. Chunks of free-range chicken top a bowl of brown rice and quinoa with generous stalks of broccoli that were a nice contrast to the pathetically limp florets you often find. A beef and mushroom stew uses grass-fed beef and comes with a serving of organic French lentils.
My big complaint with Artisan Bistro’s meals is not what’s in the boxes but on them: the cooking instructions. The times specified were consistently off—not a problem I encountered in the other frozen-food brands I tried. The result: I turned what would have been a delicious piece of wild salmon into a rubbery brick when I microwaved it for 5 of the recommended 5 to 7 minutes. My lemongrass chicken only turned out well because I zapped it for slightly more than half the time suggested. Even with microwave dinners, it turns out a little kitchen common sense is a recipe for success. From $3.79, available in supermarkets around the country and online at theartisanbistro.com
Food Truck in Your Freezer
Evol Danny Kim for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas
In 2002, Phil Anson decided he would try to make a few bucks selling burritos to mountain climbers in Colorado. A decade-plus later, his business, Evol—that’s “love” spelled backward—is a $50 million brand in frozen foods. The burritos are still on offer, of course, but the company now churns out all manner of trendy entrees: rice bowls, “street tacos” (presumably inspired by the food-truck phenomenon) and breakfast sandwiches. Evol also has followed the trend for cleaner ingredients and sustainable packaging. The company uses antibiotic-free meat, plenty of whole grains and serves up much of its food in compostable bowls and trays.
The flavors are not as bold as the branding would suggest. A bulgogi beef bowl was more sweet than spicy—though a squirt of Sriracha fixed that—but the meat was tender and the mix of brown rice, carrots, snap peas and broccoli was tasty. The panang curry was a miss; bland, with 1100 mg of sodium to boot. But I was pretty pleased to find a mysterious, earthy aroma emanating from my microwave when I zapped Evol’s truffle-Parmesan mac and cheese. The dish was creamy but not heavy, and the truffle flavor was subtle, something that is not always easy to pull off. From $1.99, available in supermarkets around the country, evolfoods.com
Luvo Danny Kim for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas
Investment banker Steve Sidwell tried everything to shed the 20-plus pounds he’d gained eating too many power lunches. But he didn’t succeed until he hired a personal chef to make healthy meals he actually wanted to eat. Sidwell’s new company, Luvo, aims to play personal chef to the masses, turning out meals with fewer than 500 calories and 500 milligrams of sodium, antibiotic-free meat, and artisan-quality ingredients like a flaxseed-flatbread crust made in Modena, Italy.
Luvo’s meals make over the greatest hits of the frozen food aisle. Its chicken chili verde has smoke and a hit of heat that is nicely tamed by a creamy polenta. I thought it was silly to buy a ravioli dinner—how hard is it to boil your own? But Luvo’s ricotta-kale version made me think again. Smothered in a bright roasted-tomato sauce, it came out of the microwave perfectly al dente. Luvo also dishes up a terrific steel-cut oatmeal (with quinoa for extra protein) and oat bran-ricotta pancakes on a bed of stewed apples. Whichever you choose, Luvo has an edge on most of its competitors because its meals cook in a patented paper pouch that both evenly heats food and ensures that your first glimpse of your food isn’t an unappetizing frozen block, but a steaming meal that looks as good on the plate as on the package. From $3.99, available in supermarkets around the country, luvoinc.com
Good Enough for Company
Babeth’s Feast Danny Kim for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas
It may come as a surprise that the French, those vaunted gastrophiles, guiltlessly serve frozen food to their families—even to guests. No wonder: National chain Picard specializes in a dazzling line of frozen delicacies ranging from foie gras canapés to soufflés. But could frozen food ever be chic in America? Babeth’s Feast, which opened its first store this summer on New York’s Upper East Side, is finding out.
Like Picard, Babeth’s Feast sells more than microwavable dinners. There are soups, such as the velvety mushroom velouté; Béarnaise and mushroom sauces; savory crumbles, like the delicious shredded Brussels sprouts sprinkled with sharp cheddar; and buttery croissants. The goal, says founder Elisabeth de Kergorlay, is to encourage Americans to use frozen foods to supplement a meal (as they do in France) rather than entirely replace it. But the company also caters to those who’d rather not cook at all. The beef Bourguignon was an ideal winter meal, smoky from bacon and packed with tender meat, mushrooms and pearl onions. I was amazed at how nicely fillets of Coho salmon over lentils reheated in the microwave. And it’s official: I’ll never make a soufflé now that I can buy Babeth’s airy but luscious chocolate ones. Nor will I hide that they’re store-bought. Single-serve meals from $8.99; family-size entrees from $19.99; desserts from $5.99 for two. Available at the Manhattan store and online at babethsfeast.com