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The brave new world of HMR: making sense of the modern stovetop meal.

Sometimes the brave new world of food technology is more than an already overloaded brain can comprehend.

There I was, standing over a hot stove after a long day at work, stirring my brand new package of Stouffer's new Lean Cuisine Skillet Sensations, when I noticed there were water chestnuts mixed in with my chicken and potatoes. Lots of water chestnuts. So many water chestnuts, in fact, that I checked the package ingredient listing to find out what Chinese vegetables were doing in my all-American comfort food. Oddly enough, water chestnuts weren't even listed, but I quickly realized that those funny-looking disks must be the mushrooms - really hard, frozen mushrooms of amazingly uniform shape.

I didn't think anything more about it (although I did wonder, when I returned to the kitchen after a phone call, how the sauce had miraculously appeared in my saucepan), until I read in a Stouffer's press kit about the company's new use of IQF technology for freezing sauces. "Stouffer's hallmark sauces are frozen into disks just larger than the size of quarters..." said the press release, and suddenly a light dawned.

It was one of those "aha" moments that makes me respect just how far food technology has come in meeting the new needs of the marketplace - because that Stouffer's dinner was really good, unlike some of the original frozen meal kits just a few years ago. And I've tasted some others lately, like Agrilink's Chicken Voila! (profiled in our Top 15 story this month), that are taking affordable home meal replacement products to new heights. The meat is tender, non-fatty and flavorful, the sauces aren't gloppy or bland, and the whole thing is ready to go in an amazingly short period of time.

I've been a big fan of the Cooking Made Easy refrigerated line (formerly Mallard's, now owned by Tyson) since it first came out, and at that time I expressed doubt that the major food companies could duplicate the quality and flavor subtleties of the small processor's dinners. But now I stand corrected, because I think this new generation of frozen meal kits is offering a genuine alternative to takeout fare.

Nestle USA recently released some new study results to go along with its rollout of Skillet Sensations, suggesting that most working women are serving prepared meals because they don't have time to cook, not because they dislike cooking. And the women confirmed that taste is still the most important factor in a packaged meal, followed by good value, convenience, nutrition and appealing ingredients. As a food industry journalist and a working woman, I'm not surprised - I think the only reason the original frozen meal kits sold so well was because consumers had no good-quality alternatives.

So I say three cheers to the food technology that's making the new, improved meal kits possible. Even if some of them do have an awful lot of water chestnuts.

Elizabeth Brewster can be contacted at

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Title Annotation:home meal replacement
Author:Brewster, Elizabeth
Publication:Food Processing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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