Remembrance of Lean Cuisines Past

Lean Cuisine

Flickr image courtesy of William Couch

Many years ago, when I was a young, impressionable but still extremely sassy Moxie, Lean Cuisine came on the scene. An alternative to frozen dinners laden with calories and fat and sodium, Lean Cuisine promised flavorful, quick meals that didn’t ask you to compromise your diet.

I remember a couple of their meals with fondness, such as the glazed chicken with mushrooms and wild rice. This dinner came in two plastic bags that were to be placed in boiling water for a set amount of time. The meat was moist and tasty, the glaze savory, and the rice was mixed with crisp julienned green beans and slices of mushroom. Another favorite of mine was the spaghetti with meat sauce: Momcat only cooked vegetarian meals, so I had to get my meat fix via this entree’s bag o’ sauce, which featured big chunks of ground beef simmered with tomatoes and spices.

When microwaves became more commonplace in the mid-80s, the powers that be at Stouffer’s decided it was time to offer preparation instructions for microwaves. Now it was possible to prick the bags with a fork and nuke ’em on High power for several minutes. The packaging didn’t change, just the prep options. The taste stayed the same, though I remember being able to tell the difference between nuked and boiled-in-bag. My preference remained boil-in-bag, even if it took longer to prepare.

After a few years, cooking instructions became exclusive to microwaves and the pouches changed in size. We were paying the same amount yet getting much less food. This didn’t bode well. The food quality had gone up a bit, as the Lean Cuisine chefs on staff had obviously gotten the chemistry of microwave cooking right, but the portions were smaller. There were many more options for entrees, too, and some of them were pretty good, but my favorites remained the glazed chicken and the spaghetti with meat sauce.

Fast forward to the new millennium, where we don’t need no stinkin’ bags of frozen meat and veggies and carbs – we’re gonna put your meal right in a tray and all you need to do is poke a hole in it or peel it back, stick it in the microwave and BAM! Lunch is served. For those schlepping these meals to the office, the tray style made it much easier as you didn’t need to open up the pouches onto a plate. It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but it was edible and there are tons of options and hey, it’s less than 500 calories, wow! But the flavor wasn’t quite the same as I remembered. The pieces of glazed chicken had been hit by a shrink ray and looked woebegone in the little black plastic tray, next to a shotglass-sized amount of rice. The green beans were limp; the mushroom slices were tiny. Apparently the “lean” in the name now referred to the portion sizes.

I’ve never had the bite of a madeleine dipped in tea take me back in time, but I imagine that famous cookie was just as wonderful as the one Proust ate as a child – otherwise how could it prompt him to write so much about his childhood? In my case, I don’t think I’ll ever be hit by nostalgia courtesy of a frozen dinner. They’ve changed way too much, and, for that matter, so have I.