October 22, 2014

Dorm Room Dishes

The best of the worst frozen feasts

If you’ve been reading Dorm Room Dishes from the first installment, I hope you’ve attempted to cook your own meals in the microwave. I hope you’ve made some of my recipes, made additions to them or even come up with your own creations. I’m not naive, though.

I know it’s not feasible for all college students to cook every single meal they eat. Whether it’s a time or budget restriction, there are probably quite a few students who turn to premade, microwavable meals on a regular basis.

A lot of frozen or prepared microwavable foods have gotten bad raps over the years, some rightfully so. But, they’re not all bad — in fact, some are actually quite tasty.

Through some research and taste testing, I’ve compiled a list of healthy, flavorful and affordable meals made for the microwave. Each item made the list based on nutrition, taste, cost and ease of preparation.

Each item also has a counterpart — a similar product that is unhealthy, bland, expensive or just downright bad in one way or another. I’ve compiled a list of convenience foods to grab, and also convenience foods to forget about the next time you’re in the grocery store.

The Delicious

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY VICTORIA COURTNEY

Best Lunch or Dinner Meal: Lean Cuisine Sun Dried Tomato Pesto Chicken ($2.98 at Walmart) — This meal contains white meat chicken, zucchini, black olives, cavatappi pasta and Parmesan cheese, all smothered in a sun dried tomato pesto sauce. This meal is not only filling due to 18 grams of protein, but it also contains two servings of vegetables. (270 cal, 9 g fat, 570 mg sodium, 4 g fiber, 18 g protein).

Best Pizza: DiGiorno 200 Calorie Portions ($2.98 at Walmart) — These are perfect for anyone who loves pizza, but doesn’t want the guilt trip associated with having a slice or two. The product comes in four flavors — Chicken with Peppers and Onions, Cheese and Tomato, Pepperoni and Supreme — and each box includes two pieces of pizza. Try pairing a serving with a side salad for a complete, filling meal. (Nutrition facts vary by flavor).

Best Vegetarian Meal: Kashi Mayan Harvest Bake ($2.97 at Walmart) — This meal consists of plantains, black beans, roasted sweet potato and kale, with a spicy ancho chili sauce and garnished with pumpkin seeds. The entire dish is served over whole grain polenta. This meal is filling, but not heavy, and doesn’t taste like a typical frozen meal. (340 cal, 9 g fat, 380 mg sodium, 8 g fiber, 9 g protein.)

Best Junk Food Replacement: Lean Cuisine Spinach Artichoke Dip with Pita Bread ($2.98 at Walmart) — This frozen snack is one of Lean Cuisine’s newest products. Each box comes with two servings of both the dip and the pita chips, both of which are prepared in the microwave. The dip is flavorful and microwaves well, as does the pita bread, which is surprisingly soft and fluffy. (200 cal, 6 g fat, 410 sodium, 2 g fiber, 8 g protein.)

Best “Add Water and Heat” Meal: Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers, Rotini and Zesty Marinara Sauce ($2.50 at Dierbergs) — This meal can be found in the pasta aisle of your grocery store, and doesn’t require freezing or refrigeration. The pasta portion and sauce portion of each mixer are separated from each other and mixed after cooked. This particular flavor only takes four minutes to cook and since the sauce is separate, you can control how much goes into your meal. (290 cal, 3 g fat, 500 mg sodium, 7 g fiber, 10 g protein.)

Best Splurge Item:  Ethnic Gourmet Taste of India Chicken Tikka Masala ($5.39 at Dierbergs) — This meal contains white meat chicken in a creamy tomato sauce, served with long-grain brown rice. Yes, this is the most expensive of any of the meals listed, but it’s well worth the price. This frozen meal tastes like restaurant quality Indian food, but costs way less than what you’d pay at a restaurant. (260 cal, 6 g fat, 680 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 19 g protein.)

The Disgusting

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY VICTORIA COURTNEY

Worst Lunch or Dinner Meal: Lean Cuisine Macaroni and Cheese — Seriously, just pass this meal right on by. The noodles are mushy, the cheese sauce is virtually flavorless and the meal still had numerous cold spots after following the directions on the package.

Worst Pizza: Bagel Bites — I think we all know that Bagel Bites are delicious, but not so nutritious. They’re also $4.24 for a box of nine bites, way too expensive for a box of fat, salt and refined carbohydrates.

Worst Vegetarian Meal: Banquet Fettuccini Alfredo — This meal may cost less than a dollar at most stores, and it’s clear to see why. This meal contains little in terms of good nutrition and has 700 milligrams of sodium, not to mention little flavor.

Worst Junk Food: T.G.I. Friday’s Spinach & Artichoke Cheese Dip — Not only is this dip a nutritional nightmare, it doesn’t even come with anything to dip into it and is more expensive than Lean Cuisine’s Spinach Artichoke Dip.

Worst “Add Water and Heat” Meal:  Kraft Easy Mac —For the sake of eating something more nutritious and substantial, just leave the Easy Mac on the shelf.

Worst Splurge Item: P.F. Chang’s Home Menu Sweet & Sour Chicken — This restaurant favorite gone freezer packs in 810 milligrams of sodium per serving and 33 grams of added sugar in the cloyingly sweet sauce.

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