It can be a challenge for budget shoppers to find cheap, healthy (a.k.a. diet) meal options that are both quick and satisfying. At first glance, frozen dinners seem to fill the bill. They are easy to pop into the microwave, and grocery stores carry a plethora of diet-friendly options. Many fall flat when it comes to taste, however. Who wants to risk throwing away their hard-earned dollars on what could be a disappointing lunch? We decided to put a selection of low-cost, frozen convenience meals to the test to determine if they would satisfy budget-conscious calorie counters.
Cheap Frozen Diet Meals Tasting Panel
We invited nine opinionated diners to join us for a frozen diet food taste-off. Our panel sampled single-serving comparables from two common food categories -- pasta and enchiladas -- with a bean burrito thrown in for good measure. Each meal was microwaved according to package instructions, then parceled into clear plastic ramekins labeled only with a reference number or letter. Tasters nibbled the samples in two rounds, one for each cuisine type, and jotted down their impressions.
Unsurprisingly, none of the cheap frozen diet meals we offered up had tasting participants swooning. However, we did find a few that were solidly satisfying and dubbed "good" if not fantastic. We also turned up several that didn't cut the mustard.
In the pasta category, tasters particularly "liked the sauce and ingredients" of the Weight Watchers Smart Ones Ravioli Florentine ($2.19/8.5 oz.), attributing its success to the "surprisingly good" cheese filling and "sprinkle of green herbs." Amy's Light & Lean Pasta & Veggies ($3.84/8 oz.) also scored well, racking up points for "good and simple" flavors and "bright sauce." No one on our panel appreciated what Trader Joe's Reduced-Guilt Spinach and Cheese Stuffed Shells with Marinara Sauce ($2.69/8.5 oz.) brought to the table, calling the pasta "too firm," the filling "too spinachy," and the overall effect "mushy."
Tasters found the Eating Right Chicken Enchilada ($2/9 oz.) to be a palatable option, with a nod going to the "light chicken and corn tortilla flavor." The Kashi Chicken Enchiladas ($3/9 oz.) were a close second, having impressed with "visible greens" and a flavor that most liked. The least popular meal in the enchilada and burrito category was the Lean Cuisine Chicken Enchilada Suiza ($1.74/9 oz.). Panelists couldn't get past the "diet flavor," which one commenter called "peppery, but unappealing."
Single-serving frozen diet meal options are limited to a little more than half a dozen national brands. Most of these are well-known -- Kashi, Lean Cuisine, and Weight Watchers, to name a few. We wanted to ensure that these popular brands, including several that don't pass for cheap, went head to head in our taste test to help consumers determine which products deserved a spot in their shopping carts. All the frozen diet meals sampled were bought at our local supermarket, and while prices may be higher or lower depending on locale, we found that the cost difference between the cheapest meals, starting at $1.74, and the priciest options, which rang up close to $4.00, was minimal. Even the most expensive meal in our lineup would yield a cost saving when compared to the go-to alternatives -- a fast food run or dining at a sit-down restaurant. For these reasons we decided to reach beyond our usual cheap boundary and included low-cal frozen meals selling for prices that were at the higher end of the price spectrum.
When it came to value, the more expensive Kashi and Amy's brands held their ground with our samplers. A representative meal from each was named as a good cheap frozen meal pick. That said, the highest praise was given to two of the cheapest frozen diet meals we served -- the Smart Ones Ravioli Florentine and the Eating Right Chicken Enchilada.
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Frozen Diet Pasta Meal Reviews
Pasta is a crowd-pleaser. The taste appeals to a wide range of palettes, and even those watching what they eat crave the comfort of carbs. While perusing the diet food section of the frozen food aisle for this review, we found that every brand offered at least one version of pasta in red sauce. Most marketed some type of cheese or chicken ravioli, although a couple of brands stuck with filled shells or simple rotini.
Of the eight cheap frozen diet pastas reviewed, a full six were vegetarian, relying on cheese and vegetables to sate appetites. These included Weight Watchers Smart Ones Ravioli Florentine ($2.19/8.5 oz.), Amy's Light & Lean Pasta & Veggies ($3.84/8 oz.), Trader Joe's Reduced-Guilt Spinach and Cheese Stuffed Shells ($2.69/8.5 oz.), Lean Cuisine Asparagus and Cheese Ravioli ($1.74/9 oz.), Lean Cuisine Cheese Ravioli with Chunky Tomato Sauce ($1.74/8.5 oz.), and Eating Right Cheese Ravioli ($2/8.5 oz.).
Nutrition-wise, we compared calorie counts and the amount of fat, protein, vitamin C, and calcium in the frozen pasta meals in our review. The meat-free diet pastas ranged from 210 calories per meal with Amy's Pasta & Veggies, to 270 calories per meal with Smart Ones Ravioli Florentine and Trader Joe's Stuffed Shells, a slightly higher count but still waistline-friendly. Trader Joe's Stuffed Shells and Lean Cuisine Asparagus and Cheese Ravioli both contain 7 grams of fat, while the remaining cheap frozen diet pasta meals have just 5 fat grams per serving.
Only two of the pastas our testers nibbled on included a meat ingredient -- Healthy Choice Ricotta & Spinach Ravioli & Chicken Marinara ($2/10 oz.), and Kashi Chicken Pasta Pomodoro ($3/10 oz.). The Healthy Choice selection came in at 260 calories and 5 grams of fat and the Kashi meal provided 280 calories and 6 fat grams.
One notable difference between the meat-free and the meat-inclusive pastas was in the amount of protein. While the chicken pastas offered between 19 to 21 grams of protein, the vegetarian meals had between 10 to 12 protein grams. The only exception here was the Trader Joe's Stuffed Shells, which had 20 grams of protein.
Most cheap frozen diet vegetarian pastas had higher levels of vitamin C and calcium than their chicken-filled counterparts. The Eating Right Cheese Ravioli was an anomaly among the meatless selections, though, registering an unimpressive zero percent of vitamin C and a fairly low 15 percent calcium content.
When assessing appearance, our panel described almost all the cheap frozen diet pasta meals as "decent." The Amy's Light & Lean Pasta and the Healthy Choice Ravioli scored slightly better in this department with reviewers for their "nice color" and "healthy looks." Texture gripes plagued the array of frozen pasta meals in our review sample, the most common complaints being "grainy" cheese, "tough" pasta, or "slimy" or "mushy" texture. In the end, the pastas that pleased most of the tasters tended to maintain an al dente, "chewy" feel, as did the Smart Ones Ravioli Florentine.
The taste of all the pasta options was on the "mild" and sometimes sweet side, with several coated in "sugary" tomato sauces. These inexpensive frozen diet pasta dinners were geared towards sensitive palates, but tasters' favorite meals offered a little extra, as with the "tangy" flavor of the Smart Ones Ravioli Florentine and the "interesting" addition of a "lemon flavor" to the Amy's Light & Lean Pasta. Less successful meals, like the forgettable Eating Right Cheese Ravioli, faltered due to "bland filling," "watery taste," and "flat sauce."
Frozen Diet Mexican Meal Reviews
Mexican food, another favored frozen food category, made a strong showing across all the low-cost diet brands tested in our review. We chose enchiladas for our taste competition simply because all the major brands offered a version. Trader Joe's didn't sell an enchilada meal, so we added its Fat-Free Bean and Rice Burrito to the mix for good measure.
Within the enchilada category, our panel tried two frozen vegetarian dinners -- Trader Jose's 99 percent Fat-Free Bean and Rice Burrito ($2.49/12 oz.) and Amy's Light & Lean Black Bean & Cheese Enchilada ($3.49/8 oz.). The tasters also snacked on four frozen Mexican offerings with chicken -- Eating Right Chicken Enchilada ($2/9 oz.), Kashi Chicken Enchiladas ($3/9 oz.), Weight Watchers Smart Ones Chicken Enchiladas Suiza ($2.19/9 oz.), and Lean Cuisine Chicken Enchilada Suiza ($1.74/9 oz.).
As one might expect from a frozen Mexican diet meal, cheap or pricey, all the enchilada samples in our review were low in calories -- they were higher-cal than the pasta meals, however. The count ranged from 240 to 300 calories per meal, with Amy's Light & Lean Enchiladas at the low end, and the Eating Right Chicken Enchilada hitting the 300 calorie mark.
The rest of the nutritional analysis went as follows: Lean Cuisine Chicken Enchilada Suiza had the least fat content, at 4 grams and Kashi Chicken Enchiladas contained 9 grams of fat -- the highest of the category. The presence of chicken in four of the frozen Mexican diet meals under review did little to affect the protein count, which ranged from 10 grams in the Lean Cuisine enchilada to 14 grams in the one from Eating Right. Trader Jose's vegetarian version put in a good showing with 13 grams of protein and easily beat out Amy's Light & Lean, which contains only 8 protein grams. Lean Cuisine again held the edge when tallying the calcium content, with 15 percent to the others' 10 percent. Vitamin C levels ranged widely, from zero percent in the Kashi and Eating Right chicken enchilada entrees to 25 percent in Trader Jose's 99 percent Fat-Free Bean and Rice Burrito.
During the frozen diet Mexican meals review, panelists honed in on the distinctive "corn" flavors of the Eating Right Chicken Enchiladas. Samples of the Kashi Chicken Enchiladas "tasted Italian instead of Mexican" because of the "light tomato sauce," opined a couple of testers. The prevailing flavor of the Smart Ones Chicken Enchilada Suiza was its "cheesy," "almost buttery," "creamy white sauce."
The panel-pleasing Eating Right enchilada, the top vote-getter in the frozen diet Mexican category, fared poorly in the appearance arena. Tasters deemed it "light in color" and "bland-looking" but were happy to discover that it "tastes better than it looks."
On the flip side, the displeasing Lean Cuisine Chicken Enchilada Suiza "looked better" than much of its competition, featuring a "browned" tortilla with visible "grill marks." This trait alone couldn't salvage this "nasty" dish with the "odd texture," and it landed squarely at the bottom of the frozen diet enchilada pile.
Reviewers turned thumbs-down on the "mushy" texture of Trader Jose's Burrito and the "thick," "rubbery" consistency of Amy's Light & Lean Enchilada. By contrast, the "crunchy," veggie-packed Kashi Chicken Enchiladas were more of a texture hit, and reviewers awarded this entrant a second-place ribbon.
The low-cost frozen diet Mexican meals were also more prone to drying out during cooking than were the pastas. Panelists complained about the lack of moisture in both the Amy's Light & Lean and the Eating Right Chicken offerings, although the latter eventually claimed the category title in our frozen Mexican diet meals review.