Forget frost-burned Salisbury steaks and chilly pot pies. Things are heating up in the frozen food aisle.
According to the American Frozen Food Institute, the average American consumes 72 frozen meals a year, making this a $22 billion industry.
The return of moms to the workplace in the late 1960s is given credit for the popularity of the industry, but frozen foods actually got their start much earlier. In the early 1920s, former field-naturalist Clarence Birdseye patented a method of freezing fish, which he later adapted for meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables. In 1929, Birdseye sold the company to General Foods for big money.
Boil-in-bags emerged in the 1950s, along with those floppy-metal dishes from Swanson's and Stouffer. Thanks to a combination of scientific breakthroughs, changes in how American's live and intense advertising by manufacturers, frozen foods now include such interesting combinations as tandoori chicken and black bean mango entrées. These new options break down into three basic categories: Organic food, ethnic foods and meals endorsed by chefs or restaurants.
Not all frozen foods are created equal, however. Coupon Sherpa looked at products advertised as healthy and came up with the following 10 recommendations, listed in alphabetical order.
1. Amy's Kitchen - $2.70 to $3
Recommended: Light in Sodium Black Bean Enchilada or Vegetable Lasagna
High sodium content combined with a poor presentation gave the original TV dinners a bad rap. Even today, some contain about half the recommended daily amount of salt, or 2,300 milligrams. Happily, the four meals from Amy's Kitchen contain only 190 to 380 milligrams per dish and still have a lot of flavor.
2. Archer Farms - $2.49
Recommended: Chicken Fiesta Quesadillas
Archer Farms, the in-house food brand of Target, are both tasty and inexpensive. They quesadillas taste and look exactly like they should, with a traditional southwestern flavor and spicing. The nutritional value, however, doesn't compare well with others on the list, thanks to the cheese and lack of vegetables.
3. Bertolli - $8.99
Recommended: Chicken Florentine & Farfelli Skillet Meal for Two
Bertolli's one-skillet meals are equally tasty when popped in the microwave as when fried in a skillet. Although on the pricey end, the bag meals include plenty of meat and vegetables and are plenty tasty. Top it off with freshly shredded Parmesan for added zip.
4. Cedarlane Zone Pizzas - $3 to $4
Recommended: Basic Cheese or Spinach
Have a craving for something greasy but not keen on bacon double cheeseburgers? Microwave pizzas never tasted so good as these nutrition-friendly 'zas. With 380 calories and 27 grams of protein each, Cedarlane Zone Pizzas will satisfy your junk-food craving without extra fat.
5. Kashi All-Natural Entrees - $4
Recommended: Black Bean Mango or Lime Cilantro Shrimp
Kashi spent tons of research money and time to create six high-fiber, seven-grain frozen meals. Unlike many grain dinners, however, Kashi's meals won't turn mushy in the microwave.
6. Lean Cuisine Dinnertime Selects - $3.50
Recommended: Balsamic Glazed Chicken or Roasted Turkey Breast
The portions of Lean Cuisine may leave you with a hungry feeling, but the serving sizes actually weigh more than standard meals. Most frozen meals weight in at around 9 ounces, whereas Lean Cuisine's 10 12-ounce meals keep the calorie count under 400 and make an excellent take-to-work lunch.
7. Linda McCartney - $3.69
Recommended: Butternut Squash Ravioli
Linda McCartney's line of vegetarian foods was launched in 1994, changing the face of the frozen-food industry and pleasing nutritionists. The meals and side-dishes contain good yellow vitamins with a flavor and appearance that could easily be passed off as homemade.
8. Organic Bistro - $6
Recommended: Whole Life Meals Ginger Chicken or Grilled Salmon
The meals in the Organic Bistro line are crammed with 31 to 32 grams of lean protein each, to fill you up and help build muscle. They're flavored with thyme, parsley and walnuts, instead of the traditional chemical stew.
9. Seeds of Change - $4.30
Recommended: Portabello Mushroom, Eggplant Lasagna, Spicy Yucatan Frijoles or Vegetables with Brown Rice and Tofu
The Seeds of Change entrées are a health-nut's dream. Each contains 20 to 30 percent of your RDA of vitamins A and C. They may look funny but taste good with lots of vegetables and whole grains.
10. Whole Foods Market - $3.99
Recommended: Whole Kitchen Thai Red Curry with Shrimp
Whole Foods Market knows how to make frozen attractive, with abundant green beans and a note of authenticity. While most frozen dinners have soggy rice, Whole Kitchen rice is fluffy and fragrant. The shrimp was far tastier than the usual, watered-down, tiny shrimp found in many other frozen foods.