Shelf-Stable Chicken in Kool-Aid Sauce

Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers

By: ConAgra Foods

I Paid: $3.29 for a 7- to 8-ounce package (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 1stars


Marketing: 4stars

If you like building incredibly detailed model sailboats, you may enjoy preparing Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers, the Shelf-Stable Food That Makes You Feel Like You’re Cooking Even Though You’re Just Microwaving Stuff. Making one of these prepackaged meals involves at least five pieces of plastic. You get a little package of parboiled rice or pasta, a nonrecyclable strainer apparatus for straining said rice or pasta, a special microwave-safe bowl for boiling water, a packet of sauce, and another packet of desiccated, jerky-esque pieces of meat that get rehydrated in the sauce.

The title “Healthy Choice” makes you feel good, the boxes are attractive, and the fussiness of the steps actually raises your hopes for the final product. But the limp, hackneyed, one-dimensional results can scarcely be believed. Ziti & Meat Sauce is arguably the best of the bunch, though it features overly sweet, industrial marinara with notes of cinnamon and grainy little tubes of pasta. In the Southwestern Style Chicken, stubby bits of dry rice are drowned in a watery, vaguely Kool-Aid-tasting sauce. Szechwan Beef with Asian Style Noodles is the worst of the bunch, with dry beef floating in what tastes like Chinese restaurant mystery sauce, accompanied by mushy vegetables. You’re unlikely to finish your lunch; I guess that’s a further health benefit—fewer calories for you.

Marie Callender’s Pasta Al Dente

By: ConAgra Foods

I Paid: $4.29 for a 10.5-ounce package (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 4stars


Marketing: 3stars

I can’t tell you for sure why steamer trays are so popular, but I can give you my theory: They give consumers the illusion that they’re cooking and therefore producing higher-quality microwave meals than they would be by just heating stuff up in a little tray.

Marie Callender’s Pasta Al Dente promises an authentic Italian steamer-tray experience. Rather than the familiar old spaghetti and linguine, the brand is offering Rigatoni Marinara Classico, Penne Chicken Modesto, and Cavatappi Genovese (among others) not only al dente, as everybody knows is the legit way Italians eat their pasta, but also covered in “slow-simmered” sauces. You steam the vegetables, meat, and pasta in a tray in the microwave, then add them to the sauce bowl underneath. Just like the Italians do it.

The Rigatoni Marinara Classico contains herby, bready, surprisingly homemade-tasting meatballs; a bold black pepper taste; a tiny and appropriate amount of spicy heat; and multilayered flavor. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but it’s tapping into what makes this kind of meal so popular, when done right: contrasts in texture and flavor, and meatballs that are tasty on their own or as part of the team. It’s weird that meatballs was not in the name of the product. Tortellini Romano has a creamy marinara that’s not too heavy, and the basil and Parmesan flavors come out all right. The pasta is a bit starchy (I guess that’s “al dente”?) but still edible. Nothing you haven’t had before—and there’s nothing wrong with that.

James Norton edits the Upper Midwestern food journal Heavy Table. He's also the coauthor of a book on Wisconsin's master cheesemakers. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.