For those of us spending Thanksgiving alone, the holiday can be tough. No crispy turkey skins, no casseroles, no wobbly cranberry sauce dancing on a plate as the host delivers it to the table.
A turkey is simply too big for one person. Pasta, burgers or a baked chicken won’t scratch that holiday itch, either.
That’s where the frozen turkey meal comes into play.
The blind taste test
The task at hand was a blind taste test of five frozen turkey dinners but with a twist — it would mark my first foray into animal meat in over six months.
At the time of the test, I had been following a fairly strict vegetarian diet. I had found myself eating red meat almost every night: juicy cheeseburgers, peppercorn-crusted center cut sirloin, meatballs. I even dabbled in Elvis Presley’s favorite sandwich, the Fool’s Gold Loaf — a hollowed-out toasted hoagie with a pound of bacon and a jar of peanut butter and jelly.
Something had to change.
After six meatless months I wanted to know what would happen if I reintroduced the cheapest, most frozen meat into my diet. Would my cleansed palate revolt or would I find my taste buds had elevated to a place that allowed me supreme judgment of frozen foods? Which frozen turkey dinner was best? Would I die afterwards?
That’s what I wanted to find out.
I purchased the frozen dinners at the Walmart on West Seventh Street on a crisp fall afternoon in October.
Powering a sticky-wheeled shopping cart, I maneuvered past pick-up order people and stacks of inventory pallets clogging the aisles until I reached the frozen foods. I had been expecting just one or two frozen turkey dinner brands and was delighted to find five of them.
All save one were priced in the mid-$3 range, a feat of finance considering that a box of teabags or loaf of bread costs roughly the same amount.
Here are the dinners I bought, how much they cost, and how many calories are in each.
- Andrew Zimmern Turkey Dinner – $5.94, 300 calories
- Hungry-Man Roasted Turkey Breast Frozen Dinner – $3.74, 400 calories
- Lean Cuisine Roasted Turkey Breast Meal – $3.49, 300 calories
- Marie Callender’s Roasted Turkey Breast & Stuffing Frozen Meal – $3.48, 240 calories
- Healthy Choice Café Steamers Honey Glazed Turkey & Potatoes Frozen Meal – $3.12, 240 calories
Judging frozen dinners by their covers
It had been a long, long time since I’d eaten a frozen dinner — what we called a “TV dinner” growing up in my household despite the fact that we were forbidden to eat it in front of the television.
In those days, TV dinners were for the nights when Mom was too tired after work to cook. Hungry Man was the gold standard; I can’t remember ever having anything else.
The frozen food game has grown since then, with an increasing number of players vying for a piece of the pie.
Looking at the boxes of each frozen meal in my possession, here are the types of consumer I thought each company was going after:
- Frozen food for the brand-conscious consumer: Andrew Zimmern, Marie Callender’s
- Frozen food for the calorie-conscious consumer: Healthy Choice, Lean Cuisine
- Frozen food for the tired and hungry consumer: Hungry Man
Who I thought would win
Interestingly, my pre-rankings closely aligned with the list above, with Andrew Zimmern’s frozen turkey meal the clear favorite to win. At nearly $6 and boasting the name of a famous chef, I was certain this would be my favorite. I guess as a foodie I’m a sucker for a celeb chef or a pretty package.
But boy was I wrong.
To keep things objective, we organized a blind taste test of all five dinners. I had no part in the prep work of microwaving the dinners at RGJ’s downtown headquarters. I waited in a back room while the warm smells of stuffing and frozen meat filled our office, tickling the senses of hungry RGJ staff who oohed and aahed as the various dinners were unveiled.
One by one, filmed by RGJ’s expert videographer Jason Bean, I ate my way down the line. Here’s how I judged the dinners from worst to best:
- Andrew Zimmern Turkey Dinner
- Hungry-Man Roasted Turkey Breast Frozen Dinner
- Marie Callender’s Roasted Turkey Breast & Stuffing Frozen Meal
- Lean Cuisine Roasted Turkey Breast Meal
And the clear winner:
- Healthy Choice Café Steamers Honey Glazed Turkey & Potatoes Frozen Meal
Final thoughts on the experiment
After half a year of vegetarianism, the first thing that struck me was how tired my jaw became while chewing meat. There’s really nothing else like it in the plant world, and I needed to ice my sore mandible for a few hours afterwards.
This was the issue with the Andrew Zimmern turkey. It was simply too chewy.
By contrast, the Healthy Choice turkey consisted of cube-sized chunks that were tender and easy to eat. I also liked that the Healthy Choice turkey had been laid out on a bed of sweet potatoes and green beans, with a couple of stewed cranberries scattered about.
I preferred the meals without the stuffing, which went soggy as the frost melted from the meat during microwaving.
A quick word about the frozen dinner of my childhood. Hungry Man offered thinly sliced turkey in the shape of a half moon, which wasn’t the texture I was looking for. I was also disappointed to find there was no brownie.
As for any adverse reaction to my reintroduction to meat, no problems there. But in the interest of full transparency, I should disclose that the turkey landed softly onto a layer of donuts I’d gobbled up earlier.