Fresh vs. Frozen: 5 Dinner Comparisons

by Marla Walters on 19 April 2011 6 comments
Photo: iboy_daniel

I really love to cook. Recently, however, my work schedule was ridiculously busy, and I was getting home later and later. To get dinner on the table, I decided to try something completely out of character: frozen food. If you read my posts, you know that I’m usually a die-hard do-it-yourself-er. I make my own mayonnaise, for crying out loud. Also, frozen foods tend to be high in sodium and fats, so I have, in the past, stayed clear.

The beauty of frozen meals, though, is that they take about 15 minutes or less to heat. So on one of my dead-tired days, I took a trip down Walmart’s frozen food aisle. There were a surprising number of frozen bags of food that looked pretty darn appetizing. I decided to give one of them a try. My husband and I thought it was fine for a busy-day dinner, rounded out with bread and salad. That experiment led me to wonder about the other brands and varieties, and we ended up trying five “bagged” dinners. (See also: 25 Ways to Use Frozen Spinach)

At first I wrote a post about my frozen-dinner taste-tests. In all honesty, it was pretty boring. Then I had an epiphany: I would make home-made versions of all the dinners we had tried and compare them to the store-bought versions. There was a challenge, and I do love a challenge.

So, here are the results of my experiment — reviews of the frozen versions and their fresh counterparts. Of course, I could not find the exact recipes online, but I thought these versions were very close. Also, I live in Hawaii, so my prices are likely higher than mainland prices.

Stouffer’s Teriyaki Chicken Skillet

  • Cost: $6.18
  • Servings per container: 2

My husband pronounced this entrée “eminently edible.” He has a good vocabulary. I don’t, and I would say, “It was okay, but next time I’ll try microwaving it.” This is because although I followed the directions exactly, the rice wanted to stick to the bottom of the skillet. I finally just let it steam for a few minutes, and then it came off. Also, the vegetables were a little overcooked.

Fresh Version

As far as time went, the homemade teriyaki chicken with rice lost, because you begin by marinating the chicken for two hours. Once the chicken was marinated, though, it went together in about a half an hour. For flavor, the homemade version won, hands down. I added a cup each of carrots, broccoli, and red peppers, plus one can of water chestnuts (and was careful not to overcook the vegetables). I was able to make dinner plus lunch the next day.

Cost Per Serving

  • Frozen: $3.09
  • Fresh: $2.41

Winner: Fresh

Birds Eye Voila! Garlic Chicken

  • Cost: $4.18
  • Servings per container: 2

We both really liked this frozen dinner. With a tossed salad and some French bread, it was just great. The vegetables (assuming you follow the directions) are not overcooked, and the chicken really, um, tastes like chicken.

Fresh Version

The homemade garlic chicken tasted a LOT like the frozen version. It was very good and easy. However, I did a lot of tinkering with this recipe, starting by cutting it way down (1/4 lb. pasta and 1/4 lb. chicken). I also reduced the garlic to 1 tbsp and used a combination of 1 tbsp of butter and 1 tbsp of olive oil in place of 4 tbsp of butter. I added a cup each of broccoli, corn, and carrots. This went together fairly quickly, in under 45 minutes. Again, it made enough for four servings.

Cost Per Serving

  • Frozen: $2.09
  • Fresh: $2.25

Winner: Draw

Birds Eye Voila! Three-Cheese Chicken

  • Cost: $4.18
  • Servings per container: 2

Basically, this is macaroni and cheese with vegetables and chicken. That is not a complaint! We both liked it and ate it all. Plus, the Birds Eye folks have this frozen veggie thing DOWN. No mushy stuff. Two thumbs up on the frozen.

Fresh Version

To use a texting expression, OMG. It was so good. Birds Eye calls their version “three-cheese” chicken, but if you look at the ingredients, there are actually four cheeses: Romano, cheddar, Parmesan, and blue cheese. I could not find a recipe close to this online, so I made up my own, adding 1 1/2 cups each of broccoli, corn, and carrots to 10 oz. of pasta. I sauteed 2 boneless chicken thighs and tossed the mixture with 1 cup of the mixed cheeses. My husband thought the blue cheese “made” the dish, and we could have eaten a ton of it. But we didn’t, since there was enough for leftovers. It took about 45 minutes to put together.

Cost Per Serving

  • Frozen: $2.09
  • Fresh: $2.24

Winner: FRESH, definitely

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Bertolli Mediterranean Garlic Shrimp, Penne & Cherry Tomatoes

  • Cost: $6.88
  • Servings per container: 2

The Bertolli packaging looked great, which convinced me to try it. (Yes, sometimes I buy wines by their labels and books by their covers, too.) This tasty meal contained swanky asparagus and shrimp, plus cherry tomatoes, in a great buttery garlic sauce with penne. The vegetables were surprisingly good. I hesitated a little when I saw the price — but I had also recently priced both frozen shrimp and asparagus, so I knew they were expensive. We would have liked to have more shrimp, but that is probably asking too much.

Fresh Version

“Fine.” How is that for a resounding review of this shrimp and asparagus pasta? To keep it frugal, I bought raw shrimp. That meant deveining and peeling, a cooking chore I don’t enjoy. No, wait — I hate it. It looked a lot like the frozen version, but next time, I’ll let the Bertolli people do all the work. Also problematic — it took forever to make. Well, maybe not forever, but the stupid shrimp alone took 20 minutes, and then it was another roughly 30 minutes of chopping, grating, and cooking. Sure, it made enough for leftovers, but it was only “fine” the second time around, too. I added a half cup of grape tomatoes to the recipe.

Cost Per Serving

  • Frozen: $3.44
  • Fresh: $3.70

Winner: FROZEN. (Who wants to eat “fine”? BOR-ing.)

T.G.I. Friday’s Sizzling Chicken Fajitas

  • Cost: $6.88
  • Servings per container: 2

Of all the packaged meals we tried, I was the most hesitant about this one. My husband is a big fan of fajitas, and I was worried that a frozen fajitas meal would not meet his criteria. I followed the directions exactly and heated up some fat-free refried beans to go on the side. Surprise! The fajitas were tasty. His words: “Hey, it’s not Chevy’s, but it’s good.” (Chevy’s is a west-coast chain of Tex-Mex restaurants.) He also thought I had to buy tortillas to go with them. Nope. I did take out some of the onions from the vegetable mix (there were just too many for me). These frozen fajitas were something you could really dress up, if you wanted, with guacamole, sour cream, cilantro, etc.

Fresh Version

The homemade fajitas really had a WOW factor. I was left wondering "Why the heck haven’t I been making these, all along?" I had this incorrect idea in my head that they were hard to make. Not so. My husband said, “Frozen, pretty good...versus fresh, VERY good.” It went together in about 45 minutes, and I have to admit there was a lot of chopping. I cut it down to a four-serving size, though, and we made breakfast burritos the next day out of the leftover filling and scrambled eggs.

Cost Per Serving

  • Frozen: $3.44
  • Fresh: $2.73

Winner: ¡FRESCO!

My ending thoughts? Unless you are the Enjoli woman, go ahead and give yourself a weeknight break with one of these frozen meals.

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Meg Favreau's picture

I haven't tried any bagged meals recently, but I always keep cheese, tortillas, and spinach in my freezer so I can throw together an emergency quesadilla on a busy night. Mmm...emergency quesadilla.

Does anybody else have experiences -- good or bad -- with frozen meals?

Guest's picture
Miss Lissy

I have tried the Birds Eye Garlic chicken before and really, really loved it. I also really like Wanchai (If I spelled that right) Ferry's Orange Chicken.

Marla Walters's picture

Hi, Miss Lissy, and thanks for commenting. The Garlic Chicken is great. I will look for that Orange Chicken and try it. I'm a fan of Orange Chicken.

Guest's picture
Guest

Great article, Marla. One thing that is a big concern with frozen foods is the fat/salt/calorie content. Prepared frozen foods tend to be high in all of these areas, not to mention chemicals, fillers, unwanted corn products, sugars, preservatives, etc. When you make things at home, you can control all of these things. You add only known ingredients and surely no corn syrup, fake cheese, or other nasty elements. So, while we all like saving a bit of time with pre-prepared foods, they can be more (or less!) than one bargains for when it comes to healthy eating.

Marla Walters's picture

Guest, thanks much for your comment. As I mentioned, this store aisle is not one I frequent. The sodium content on the frozen foods is very high, and there are a lot of additives. Hopefully, on a day you might choose to have a frozen dinner, you have eaten healthily at other meals.

Guest's picture
Marla Zumwalt

Loved the article! Thanks for going to the work to reproduce the frozen product. Confirming what we always thought - fresh is best; but nice to know there are a couple of tasty frozen choices! I have to try the ones you recommend, as well as the one recommended by others who commented, because my experience has always been that frozen glop tastes like frozen glop!