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Shortly after getting food poisoning on a day when I’d bought all my food on campus and long after deciding I hated cooking for just myself, my level of knowledge about the dark world of frozen and microwavable food began to skyrocket. One day when I was in a group looking at the frozen food options in LaVerde’s while trying to improvise dinner in the half-hour break between rehearsals, I impressed some friends with my knowledge of what you were or weren’t going to regret putting in your mouth. One even suggested that these skills could have a humanitarian bent, rather than just being kinda sad. Thus this column was born.

Full meals in trays

“Full meals in trays” seems like your first basic category of frozen food. By this I mean the thin rectangular boxes with black trays, often split into nifty food sections, which make up the backbone of the frozen dinner market.

General ground rule of frozen food: Stouffer’s is better. Between Lean Cuisine, Smart Ones, and Healthy Choice, the Stouffer’s brand (Lean Cuisine) will almost always have the tastier version of any particular dish. Therefore, they shall be what I discuss today.

I normally get the Lean Cuisine with some vague pretense of eating healthy, but I really can’t tell the difference between it and the regular Stouffer’s brand, so what basic guidelines apply to one also apply to the other. Within either, my favorites are always the basic poultries: Baked Chicken, Glazed Chicken, Roast Turkey, Glazed Turkey Tenderloins, Herb Roasted Chicken, and other such dishes. The meat is always good; the vegetables are generally pretty good. If they have mashed potatoes, make sure to mix them well if there’s a mixing step, even if that means breaking up a still frozen middle, because that’s what’s most likely to not get heated up all the way and therefore be less enjoyable. A basic beef dish like the Salisbury Steak is fine, though nothing special, and kinda like eating a slightly seasoned hamburger. Of course, sometimes that’s what you’re in the mood for.

Your “some variety of Asian” chicken dishes tend to be okay too, though the sauces also tend to get old fast, and they all vaguely resemble each other. They’re a lot better than they were, say, ten years ago, but if you had them then, these’ll probably remind you of their previous incarnations, and somewhat unpleasantly so.

Chicken Fettuccine is a little bland but otherwise fine. Chicken Enchilada was not my favorite. In general, things get sketchier as they get more creative; I’ve had a truly abysmal Pork with Cherry Sauce. But really, why on earth would I think that was going to turn out well to begin with?

Stouffer’s individual lasagnas are also quite excellent. I usually go with the meat one, but the other day I grabbed a four cheese one by accident, and didn’t notice until I started eating it. This wasn’t a personal tragedy, and to translate from carnivore-ese, means it was good.

I also sometimes get Kid Cuisine, which is generally pretty good, but has a tendency to have way more steps in prep, like taking stuff out and putting stuff back in; seriously, if you’re already eating frozen food, you’re probably not in the mood to do several steps. Also, don’t get too excited over the desserts.

Another occasional buy is the Boston Market Turkey Dinner, because that’s rather tasty.

I’ve only recently tried a Hungryman dish, despite the awesome name and simple entrees. The results of the experiment were mixed — the chicken was very good, the corn was normal good, and the mashed potatoes had none of the consistency or heating problems they sometimes have with other brands, but also none of the taste.

So, in summary, Stouffer’s good, simple good, poultry good, ambitious bad. And I know you’re just counting down the days until the third and last installment of this series.