Five frozen meals that don't taste like crap

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People have a love/hate relationship with frozen dinners. They hate the calories, the fat, the sodium and the bloated, gassy abdominal episodes that often follow eating them. But they love the convenience, the price, the fast preparation and, perhaps most of all, the delicious flavors of cognitive dissonance.

At the end of a long day at work, it's great to have a homemade meal filled with nutritious vegetables, whole grains and lean meats -- or if you are a vegan, more vegetables -- but since most of us don't have that luxury at our disposal every day, microwaving some gooey, fake cheese-covered pasta or wet, sloppy enchiladas is sometimes the best we can do. And you could do a lot worst than these five frozen dinners -- all of which have the official Jenn in Chains stamp of approval. (If I had an actual rubber stamp, it would be shaped like a frozen burrito.)

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5. Stouffer's Macaroni and Cheese.

Back during college when I was working at TGI Friday's, I ordered a macaroni and cheese kid's meal one night for a quick dinner on a short break. It was surprisingly good -- tender pasta, well-seasoned sauce that actually tasted like Cheddar cheese. I asked one of the cooks if they made it or squeezed it out of a bag.

He laughed and told me that it was actually Stouffer's. If I couldn't tell the difference between a frozen dinner and something made in a restaurant, that's a good sign that the microwavable supper is worth buying from a supermarket.

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4. Lean Cuisine's Butternut Squash Ravioli.

For about six months, I went through a phase when I thought about going on a diet. I first stocked my fridge with non-fat yogurt, grapefruits and a metric ton of lettuce, and then realized that these things were not at all filling. So I went shopping for some diety-type quick meals, and came upon Lean Cuisines. They looked like interesting little portions of rice or pasta with bits of chicken and lots of inexplicable red pepper strips.

In addition to all that chicken, I bought the Butternut Squash Ravioli dinner just to change things up, and it turned out to be the only one I liked -- liked so much that I still buy them every week to stash in my freezer. The ravis are plump and stuffed with a savory squash puree, the snap peas and carrots are tender-crisp, the sauce is light and made with chopped walnuts for a fine texture. And although yes, there are those ubiquitous red peppers, you can pick those out.

3. Michelina's Lean Gourmet Spinach & Artichoke Dip.

Michelina's is not a brand known for anything other than cheap frozen pasta with disappointingly inadequate sauce ratios. So I took a chance on buying the new microwave dip with bread, and while it's a small portion, it makes a decent light snack. The sodium content is high enough to swell my ankles and make me incredibly thirsty, but since I have yet to find a low-sodium spinach-artichoke dip that isn't also very bland, I don't mind adding a few of these to my grocery cart.

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2. Weight Watchers Smart Choice Peanut Butter Cup Sundae.

I wasn't on a diet when I bought a bunch of Weight Watchers desserts -- I was just genuinely curious about how good, or not, diet desserts could be. And I was absolutely surprised by how f*cking amazing these were. The key lime pie, the strawberry shortcake, the brownie with vanilla ice cream and the double fudge cake are all far better than they should be, and none more so than the peanut butter cup sundae.

It's a diminutive chocolate cookie crust filled with low-fat vanilla ice cream and laced with fudge sauce, and speckled with tiny chocolate-peanut butter candy cups. Sure, it's small -- it's Weight Watchers, right? -- but it's a better few bites than some full-sized desserts I've had. And yes, this can be considered a meal if you eat at least four of them in one sitting.

1. Hungry Man Mexican Style Fiesta meal.

The box describes this dinner as "Beef enchiladas smothered in chili sauce and cheese with Mexican style rice and authentic refried beans -- includes cocada pudding." Well, the chili sauce is so mild it might as well be tomato sauce, the rice is hopelessly gummy, and if by "authentic" refried beans they mean "a micro-quicksand of dust-colored and barely-cumin-flavored muck," then that label is accurate.

I love this meal. It's so effin bad that it's good. And the cocada pudding alone makes the TV dinner worth its six minutes of microwave time. It's a sectioned half-cup or so of warm, rather gelatinous pudding, with a seriously fake almondy flavor, and dotted with what I sincerely hope are toasted coconut flakes.



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