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A Comparison of Actual “Banquet” Frozen Dinners with their Box Cover Photographs

Today, I found myself standing completely still in the frozen food isle of the supermarket, without a single thought in my brain, lips slightly parted, staring blankly at the two dinners I held in each hand. One was a bag of something called “Sautes For Two” Steak Gorgonzola, by Stouffer’s. The other was some sort of miniaturized Philly cheesesteak, rendered in appetizer form, intended to (presumably) be eaten by the handful.

I was locked in a moment of self-doubt. I knew that they would be equally terrible, that each would contain weirdly salty meat, and some kind of vague chemical aftertaste. Where I was stuck was on the price. Each of these options cost about $7.00, which I couldn’t help but notice is what actual food costs. If I was going to spend seven bucks getting something for tonight’s beer to sit on, I could buy a real steak, and throw it on the grill. A cheap steak, sure. But I could saute up some mushrooms. Why, I could probably still have enough left over to add some spinach and a baked potato. Why was I going to waste the money and calories on something that was going to be so, so inferior to something I could actually make myself?

As I sat staring at these two options and thinking about how little I wanted either of them, the “Banquet” brand frozen foods caught my eye, and I decided to go another way. Costing just 97 cents each, I thought about how I could have seven dinners instead of just one. Instead of buying something that was trying to approximate the sensation of eating a real meal, I would spend as little money as possible, on something that was unapologetically basic. Each promised to be “a great source of protein,” if nothing else, and it got me wondering: Just what in the hell can you expect for under a dollar for a frozen dinner?

Presented without further comment are my seven dinners, as they actually came out of the oven, as well as how those dinners appeared on their boxes, where they were professionally lit and photographed.

Comments

  1. says

    Your work in the area of frozen foods is really brave, Malcolm. You’re pushing boundaries and braving culinary wildernesses that I’m not sure I could face.

    Some things that struck me:
    The mashed potatoes are really, really white.
    Is that hair in the Swedish meatballs? Are the meatballs growing hair?
    The sweet and sour chicken was the least horrifying to me, based on looks alone.

    • Malcolm says

      Thank you very much. That isn’t hair in the Swedish meatballs, though that is certainly a horrifying thought. It’s a trick of the light, playing off the congealing surface.

      Some other answers for questions you didn’t ask, but will if you keep looking:

      The meatloaf, Salisbury steak, and Swedish meatballs are all exactly the same meat.

      If I drove my car off a cliff in a snowstorm and was buried for three days, and was forced to eat one of these again to stay alive, but for some reason retained the power to make decisions, I would choose the Swedish meatballs.

      The peas were surprisingly bursty. Overall, the vegetables were the winners in each dinner.

      The brownie was delicious.

    • says

      The mashed potatoes struck me, too.

      To borrow phrasing from Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap, it’s like, how much more white could they be? And the answer is none. None more white.

  2. Stephanie says

    If I look at that turkey picture again I’ll…wait, you’ll have to excuse me…okay, that’s better. On the other hand I have what I always thought were fond memories of Swanson TV Dinners, particulary the fried chicken, mashed potatoes and the apple dessert, but that was in the, er, 1960s.

    • Malcolm says

      I’m in the same boat…I had somewhat fond memories of those metal trays, as well. You’re right: the turkey was particularly appalling, though I did eat the hell out of the peas.

  3. says

    This is so (disgustingly) funny ! I planned on doing the same thing with the ‘gourmet’ frozen dinners they sell in France… Costes, Robuchon, etc. I bought the Robochon ‘shrimp in coconut mild with rice’. After heating, the shrimp smelled so fishy I could hardly get down a bite. Experiment left uncompleted.

    However, I do find it totally hilarious that the sweet and sour chicken just has chicken nuggets in it…

  4. Lauren says

    The turkey and “stuffing” is particularly pallid. I also enjoy how the word “meal” is used as a necessary product descriptor.

    • Malcolm says

      I like the last “fun fact.” It’s almost thrown in as an afterthought. When I read it, it sounds mumbled.

  5. says

    I’m not sure how you ate that dark shiny thing that looks like it exploded out of a dog’s ass. Tasted good, you say? The sight of it makes me feel kind of cringey inside.

    • Malcolm says

      That’s a very good point. Put any of these items on a plastic tray with little sections, and you’ve got the US school lunch program.

  6. Kim says

    Did you happen to notice in the Turkey pic there is a pea, 2nd row down right in the middle, with a devil face on it. lolol

  7. says

    Funny, I found myself in the grocery store one day pondering which $3 Lean Cuisine or Healthy Choice I should buy and then my eye wandered to the Banquet meals and then the price tag that read $0.88 cents!!! Wow, next I examined the nutrition labels and they were not much different than the Lean Cuisines! So then I had to try them, I bought the Boneless Pork Rib and thought the ribs and corn were tasty but the mash potatoes tasted a little like grits…I added some ground pepper to the potatoes and I actually enjoyed this $0.88 cent lunch! Better than the last school lunch I had with my kids last month! :) ha!

  8. Jim in Texas says

    Banquet entrees actually look a lot better if you put them on a plate instead of leaving them in the plastic microwave tray. The mashed potatos look and taste much better if you mix them up with the meat and gravy and stuffing because after all who likes eating raw potatos? Potatos are big fat tasteless roots you need to mix up with something that actually tastes good like cheese or gravy. The Banquet spaghetti meals either with the popcorn chicken or italian saugage meatballs are the best especially if you mix in a little HEB chile con quesa dip.

    • Wembeley says

      I have to agree with you. While my first choice is not frozen foods, Banquet tastes the best and is so inexpensive it’s what I go for. I tried the Banquet chicken fried chicken and then the Marie Callendar chicken fried chicken and the Banquet was by far better tasting and so much cheaper. If you have the time and money to make dinner from scratch then of course that’s great but if you need to have a quick microwave meal then Banquet is the way to go.

  9. Matthew says

    I have been eating Banquet meals for lunch every day for 5 years. They are all actually quite good. I especially enjoy the turkey meal, and the swedish meatballs. Just needs a little pepper and for a buck, you have a whole meal.

    • GarE says

      I nearly wretched just reading this reply.

      Really? Really?

      Matthew, are you absolutely certain that it was the Banquet Swedish Meatballs that you ate?

      Because they are really, really, REALLY, really bad.

      And every day for five years??????

      Please, please visit some other brands in the frozen foods section. Please. And believe me when I tell you that you do not know what you are doing to your stomach. Or mine.

      Just mix another brand in at least occasionally. Or every day. Please. For me, if not for yourself.

      I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t care.

  10. says

    Malcolm, you are brave, except where are the taste comments. I provide one YAK! the potatoes are grainy, the vegies are even worse, too much H2O in each. I had the chicken one nite and pressed pork another and neither one tasted like what they were supposed to be, FOOD! Never again . . . The End!

  11. Ashlea says

    you obviously didn’t cook them like the directions said…. my banquets NEVER come out lookin like that

    • Malcolm says

      I cooked them exactly according to package directions. I am glad to hear you are enjoying them.

      • says

        Hi Matt! I don’t know what you did to those meals, but I’ve been eating them 2x per day for 3 months, for portion control to lose weight and have lost 17 lbs. AND I think they taste pretty good. Not to mention that I’ve had complete blood work done before and after 2 months to see what impact, if any they have had on my system. My Dr. reported that I am better AFTER eating Banquet meals VITAMIN wise than before…now how that is, I do not know, but something is working. I am saving $$$ since they are cheaper than Healthy Choice and Lean Cuisine, etc…and they taste pretty good if you cook them correctly. (you do have to adjust microwave ovens by the way…) Yes, they won’t look crispy but what food does cooked in a microwave, and for less than a $1, I’m a happy camper! Thanks Con Agra!

        • Malcolm Bedell says

          Hi Dakota. I cooked each meal exactly according to the printed package directions. Congratulations on your weight loss.

  12. Phil says

    What’s your point? What do you think you were going to get for less than a buck? I too have eaten Banquet dinners almost every day now for several years and like them. Sorry I don’t have your money and gormet taste to afford fancy stuff. I think you are unfair to Banquet, and a little bit of a snob.

    • Malcolm says

      My point is that the prepared meals look different than the photograph on the box. I don’t think I made any further comment. And what is unfair about buying, cooking, and photographing a company’s products?

    • says

      I TTOTALLY agree with Phil. Malcolm you already know that he is talking about the way you are saying they are disgusting and only the vegetables taste good and blah, blah, blah, But I also, along with many others, have eaten Banquet products all the time and have enjoyed them. They arent supposed to taste delicious and why do you think they cost less than a buck? Its not a gourmet meal but it will feed someone up for the night.

      • Malcolm says

        Dear Kayla/Monique,

        I didn’t say that Banquet meals were disgusting, and I didn’t say that “only the vegetables taste good.” I suppose if you did want to make my introduction to the photos more concise, “blah, blah, blah” would be as good a summation as any. All I did in this post was share photos of each Banquet box cover, juxtaposed with a photograph of how the meal actually appeared after cooking, without making any further comment or passing any further judgement. Any conclusions you are drawing from the comparison of the two photographs are your own.

        I’m glad to hear you are enjoying your frozen Banquet meals, and that they are “feeding you up.” I might suggest, though, that you seem to be getting a tad defensive about them.

        Your friend,
        Malcolm

  13. says

    Y’all being overly dainty. All frozen dinners look like this – that’s why I prefer my cheap frozen chow in pot pie form. Banquet pot pies are very consistent, with crusts top & bottom and a pleasant enough flavor, and my toaster oven will cook one perfectly with 2 button punches.

  14. Mark says

    Well, what do you expect for $1 or less? Anyway, you are supposed to stir the potatoes, etc. halfway during the microwave cooking. Maybe that makes them more appetizing.

  15. thinkdunson says

    you chose the wrong dinners, dude. i’m something of an expert on banquet dinners (as well as michelina’s), as i average at least twenty a month. these are ok, but there are others that are much tastier.

  16. Debb says

    Last night I tried the Banquet frozen chicken nuggets and I have to say they were the worst chicken nuggets I have ever tried! They actually tasted like potatoe nuggets instead of chicken! They were so disgusting that I fed them to my room-mates dog, and I never feed her dog.

  17. Scarlett says

    Hi Malcolm, I enjoyed your photos. I eat Banquet meals more frequently than I’d like, for the sake of cost and convenience, usually for lunch at work. I have often mused over the appetizing picture on the box vs. what’s actually inside, so I appreciated your post. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts:
    1. The best-tasting dinners for my money are the spaghetti & meatballs, the rigatoni & sausage, and occasionally the sweet & sour chicken. However, I doctor the first two with extra cheeses and the last with Sriracha.
    2. I would never consider these meals “healthy” choices, merely sustenance choices. Kudos to the gal who has lost weight on them, though. Makes me wonder what she was eating before.
    3. Some commenters seem way too defensive about your post. Are they ConAgra employees? Just curious.
    Thanks for sharing. I’d love to see your take on Hungry Man meals.

  18. Fran says

    Good Job.
    I am really glad someone can show the true form of things. It’s not bad at all, you are only telling the truth. If anyone has a problem with what you are doing, then they should be complaining to the food company for making them look unappealing in the first place. I think these actually look more appealing than when I cook them, except that I stir them after.

    I wanted to show these to my friend, to describe what my parents buy for me to eat, and why I prefer the more expensive frozen food or restaurant food. :(

    I have had a positive experience so far with Healthy Choice, but my dad will only buy me one or two boxes when we go, and only if I really insist on it.

    We’re not even close to poor, my parents are just cheap when it comes to health/nutrition… yet they have no problem buying things like new TVs, iPads, iPhones, furniture, etc. D: I don’t think I’ve even been to a doctor in over 5 years. Whenever I ask, they just say “another day”. >_<

    Anyway, I would like to also see other brands. Maybe that will help me decide in the future which dinners I should consider.

  19. Joe says

    The problem isn’t so much the final cooked product as it is the package photo. It is almost never a photo of the actual food, but a photo of fake food made by professionals to look as good/appetizing as possible (to increase/motivate sales). Most industries do this: Fast Food, Grocery stores, Restaurants (menus), Frozen/Packaged meals, etc…..
    And yes, just cooking the Banquet meal out of the package without any “clean up” will produce a less than appetizing product. It doesn’t help that these meals are put together by machine at a rather high speed, with an emphasis on speed/quantity versus appearance.
    I saw a program on one of the Discovery family of channels (Discovery, TLC, Science Channel, etc..) that went into details about the industry of photographing food/menu items for companies. It was very informative and a bit upsetting. A good example is to compare a Whopper or Big Mac you buy at the restaurant with the image of the same product on a TV ad, Circular/coupon, or even the menu board at the restaurant. The difference is like night and day.
    The bottom line is they are never going to look the same because it would cost too much to make that product look that good while still having the same convenience (In other words fast/instant cooking).
    As for the taste, most of them are actually pretty good. I just don’t understand why all major manufacturers of frozen vegetables can produce an excellent tasting product, but Banquet has to use the worst tasting corn on the market. I mean come on! What are they using Maze, or is it cattle feed? And the least said about their attempts at fried chicken, pizza, and chicken nuggets, the better.
    This is all just my experience and 2 cents worth.

    • Tracey says

      After watching all those shows on Discovery, you should know that it is illegal for a company to take pictures of “fake food”. They ONLY use real food – they can make it look as wonderful as possible, but it isn’t fake. Way to misinform people.

      • Joe says

        Tracey, I was going by what the programs said. They stated outright that many companies use this technique. I personally know of no such “law” that you mentioned. Of course, in all due fairness, I am not an expert or involved in any field related to this issue (or a lawyer). I will say this, if you know of such a law (or regulation), you should list it in your statement. I would never argue with facts, if you actually provide them. But don’t expect me (or anyone else) to just take it as fact without some type of details.
        I simply stated what the programs I saw had said. And those programs did disclose their sources at the end, as well as give details. My original statement was not an attack on anyone. It was simply my opinion about said products, as well as the details from those programs.
        And on a personal note: “Way to misinform people” ???? How exactly did I misinform anyone. I stated what the program said, and my opinion of these products.
        You stated, “After watching all those shows on Discovery, you should know that it is illegal for a company to take pictures of “fake food”. They ONLY use real food – they can make it look as wonderful as possible, but it isn’t fake.”. How exactly do you know what they use or if it’s fake. Your stating it doesn’t make it true. Back up such statement with more than just snide comments if your going to attack a benign statement. If and when you do, I will happily deffer to your expertise.

  20. John Lord says

    From the photos, it appears that the cooking instructions were not followed correctly. For example, the mashed potatos are supposed to get stirred between the first and second heatings. Ditto for the Swedish meatballs. I think also the rice and sauce in the Sweet & Sour Chicken had instructions to stir before serving. The mashed potatoes NEED to be stirred after the first heating so you can break up the slightly softened lump of ice that might still be in the center to get the potatoes to cook more evenly. Stirring the sauce and noodles in the Swedish Meatballs meal will also help the sauce flavor the noodles more evenly and also keep stray, dry noodles near an edge from cooking themselves back to crunchy for lack of moisture from the sauce. When instructions say to leave it sit in the microwave for 2 minutes after the cooking stops, they mean it. I find the potatoes are fully rehydrated if allowed the time specified. I sometimes might add a small pat of butter to either the mashed potatos or green peas, or both. I actually enjoy all the Banquet dinners and have 3 in the freezer at this moment (2 turkey pot pies, and one turkey dinner). Not many TV dinners out there work out to 11 or 12 cents per ounce. Nice photography on the home-heated TV dinners.

  21. Comet says

    Thanks–I have pondered these for easy meals or nights when I just cannot stay up til hubs gets home at 1 AM or later. As I have a handicap I am not able to always stand n stir and cook myself either. But–somehow—I just cannot bring myself to actually BUY them.

    OH I do buy frozen–Stouffers has a few he likes and the Pot Pies are very good—and the Michealangelos (I think?) Chicken Picatta is actually GOOD. A bit spendy but way better than some we have tried. We are lucky that the cost is not a major deal here. I DO think tho if I was a student or starting out–or as they say–IN THIS economy!!!—I would try and figure out the best tasting Banquet for the savings.

    The Stouffers Stuffed peppers–I can’t even stand the smell of peppers so he is happy when these show up on the “menu”! The mac n cheese is OK also and you can add this to another “meal” and have it be more complete. My son LOVES the French Bread Pizza. The meatloaf–again something I can’t stand altho if i have the time and the energy I do make this from scratch–they do seem to like this one! The giant lasagna is actually good but we do add extra mozz and other cheeses.

    Sooo—I dunno if I would still choose to buy these. But I DO admire someone who did this FOR US in the name of SCIENCE.

    And ya know you didn’t DIE sooooo——

  22. Julie says

    I have been trying to complete research for my daughter. My children go over to their fathers house and they have pretty much nothing but frozen dinners. She said that they are good and good for you. I shouldn’t complain about her eating them for their meals because they are better than home cooked meals. Sometimes she gets to have two of them since there are just SO good. Any tips for my daughter so she understands that she may not be right and her dad good be brain washing her?

  23. Robert says

    Having lived now on a fixed income for several years now, , I’ve tried about every frozen food out there that’s cheap. Some you try one time, and never look back, while others you find are as good, as some of the meals I’ve cooked from scratch for myself. Banquet has been a hot meal to go to bed on, some are good and some are not as tasty, but all fill you up. one to to try that will surprise you is the Banquet Boneless Pork Riblet Meal, this is by far the best one so far. enjoyed your article.

  24. Mike says

    I’m detecting ConAgra damage control all over this discussion. But, I can also see some people getting defensive over the pig slops they’ve allowed themselves to eat on the regular. Yes it’s cheap stuff and the pricing is pretty much up front about that. Banquet dresses their products up for the ads, nothing new there. But what you get inside the box is far less in quality or portion than they would have you believe. I was in a hurry at the grocery at wound up grabbing a Banquet meal of “turkey slices” in gravy. Two of them actually. Now I don’t know what to do with the second one. I could give it to a food bank, but I’m not that cruel. My dog may be in for a treat though. The alleged turkey medallions were rubbery and tough. They tasted vaguely like turkey but with that consistency they didn’t seem like anything a human being should be eating. The gravy made up about 75% of the meal itself and it tasted like almost nothing at all. Just warm snot with a tiny bit of beef bouillon mixed in for color. When you pull the meal out of the grocer’s freezer the weight of all that snot gravy is what you feel. ConAgra is hoping you believe most of that bulk is tasty meat. Nope, just gravy flavored with sadness.

    It’s actually depressing to think that people buy these meals for themselves and their families and wind up with a plastic tray full of schlop that’s really only fit for a dog. Sorry if that’s insulting to you but these Banquet entrees are insults in the first place. There are better options for eating on a budget than this crap. People deserve better than Banquet. And if you care to look for better alternatives you’ll find them. A lot of those alternatives come in cans and cost the same or maybe twenty-five or fifty cents more. Banquet is bad and ConAgra should feel bad.

  25. Krissy says

    I think these meal are okay. My husband and I are poor and we can only afford these for MEALS. sometimes we buy other things too but when were really struggling we buy these and were feed.
    I like the photos Malcolm. I know this is true because I eat them. The picture on the box looks appealing and yummy, as for the inside, it’s a surprise!
    Someone posted a comment about how only these banquet meals look different from the inside. So not true! How about fast-food. When was the last time you had a Big Mac look like the commercial. Never! Or how about Taco Bell. laugh out loud, literally. I worked both these jobs and tried mt hardest to make them perfect. Yeah right! I’m not complaining about these meals but Malcolm is right about what’s inside those boxes. There still good though!

  26. Rose says

    Thanks for the pictures Malcolm! I eat the sweet & sour chicken one which doesn’t look like the box but I have enjoyed it until here lately the rice isn’t cooked all the way & is hard on the teeth, but up until recently I did enjoy them. I am handicapped & just can’t stand at the stove for long periods of time anymore as much as I love my own cooking. The price is great especially on my fixed income. The turkey dinner & chicken marinara I don’t care for at all. It was really nice to see the pictures of what they look like inside the box so I thank you as I have wanted to try a couple of the others but knew they would look different than the box. People should understand, the more they add to these meals the more calories they have to add & the price would have to go up too. They are in competition with other companies to keep calories low, so of course the mashed potatoes are going to be very white. If you don’t add butter etc to them they SHOULD be white. They are plain, you add what you want but just remember you are adding more calories to them & taking more time to prepare them which kind of defeats the purpose of a quick dinner if you stand there remaking it. Nothing is as good as homemade (as long as your a good cook) but for me on the days when I can’t do much or for someone with very limited time or a very tight budget (again for 97 cents) it’s ok. You do have to waste a little money & buy several to find which ones you actually like but don’t we all do that at a buffet too? I really appreciate the pictures so I can have an idea of what I will try next or not. Thanks for posting for us all. I’m sorry you have to deal with some of the nasty comments.

  27. GarE says

    Interesting how long this post has been garnering comments.

    I remember, years ago, liking Banquet’s big boxes of frozen fried chicken. I once told a coworker how I was looking forward to going home and eating it and she just laughed. As my tastes matured, I discovered why.

    To be fair, I haven’t had their fried chicken (this is just a big box of frozen chicken, not a meal) in many years, but I have had their TV dinners.

    I wrote a letter to the company complaining about their Swedish Meatballs and never got a reply.

    They smelled and looked very, very bad. I bravely tried eating them but could only choke down a bite or two. They tasted like they looked and smelled. I couldn’t believe anyone could actually eat them, especially repeatedly, on purpose.

    I get it, you can’t expect gourmet meals for a buck or less, but I do expect something edible, at the very least.

    I really don’t recall having eaten any of their other meals, but I really didn’t feel it was necessary to do so after the “meatball incident.”

    Just throwing in my two cents’ worth.

  28. ducklucky1 says

    This is way too funny, and sorry I did not find it sooner. Great comments and great experiment. I do agree that the original TV dinners back in the 50s and 60s were much better quality and a lot more of it in the tray, and we did actually give Mom that night off from cooking and put up the flimsy TV trays and watch a movie together as a family. We usually saved those nights when King Kong or something like that was the 4PM show. Dad of course hated them as he worked hard outdoors all day and liked a homemade hot meal, but he endured, especially when it was Swanson fried chicken, which he loved back then, all that good greasy stuff…was never enough to fill him up tho, but always something left from we 5 kids for him to scarf up.

    I found your blog as I was looking for a way to doctor up Banquet fried chicken, will make my own veggie sides, but couldn’t find much other than sauces, spicy or whatever. Think I will just make some chicken milk gravy.

    My hub LOVES, LOVES, LOVES frozen dinners, altho for health reasons he should not be eating them often, once in a while a treat for him. He ADORED cafeteria food at his schools, as his mother was a horrible cook, canned Brussels or cold canned baked beans, canned hams, etc. She worked at the local supermarket as a cashier, so she got a discount, and then of course access to the dented can barrel. She tried to heat things up, but somehow they were always only half heated, before the days of microwaves.

    So he appreciated that terrible cafeteria food, the shephard’s pie was his absolute favorite, with all the canned vegetables in there and potato flake mashed topping. He looked forward to getting a hot meal at lunchtime, and talks about it all the time, how so very good it all was…yech!!! The best day was cheesesteak day with those pressed minute steaks for us, and you were only allowed to have one. The rest of the slop they dumped on your tray came out of those big cans. The ladies who worked behind the line were the best part of the whole deal, with their hairnets and red lipstick, rolled down knee high stocking, and their brutal personalities.

    But guess my hub must have been a cute kid, he says they all loved him and always gave him extra helpings. Which could very well explain his health issues and weight problem 50 years later, who knows what they put in that stuff to make it taste like SOMETHING. Did they use MSG back then, you know they sneak it into frozen dinners even today, but call it other things. Everyone should take a peak at what names they put it under, you will be amazed when you read the ingredients and see what you are really eating!!!

    But thanks for the blog, great idea, and isn’t it nice that after a few years, it’s still up and running! Good luck with it. Off to at least make homemade chicken milk gravy!

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