Guide: Five Frozen Meals That Are Better Than You Think

The freezer packed full of frozen meals. (Kelly O'Mara)

Over the years, frozen meals have gotten a bad rap. We all remember the TV dinners of our youth — sad little plastic trays with their slab of meat-like loaf and that weirdly addicting cinnamon apple goo. But if you haven't perused the frozen aisle at the grocery store in the last ten years, let me tell you: frozen meals have come a long way.

In fact, there's a reason sales of frozen foods have started to rise recently. It's because there's a growing recognition that freezing food can preserve many of the nutrients in our fresh produce and meat — and can often be as healthy. The desire for healthy, sustainable, easy, and tasty meals has been reshaping the entire dinner market, from ready-to-cook meal boxes to frozen entrees. And the business is only going to get bigger, with more and more organic, vegetarian, and delicious options. That's probably why large companies are getting into the high-end healthy frozen meal market. (You'll notice, below, many of our favorite frozen meals have recently been bought or acquired by bigger corporations.) Even big brands, like Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice have rebranded recently and upped the ante in terms of what they offer. And I can attest, Healthy Choice's power bowls are tasty.

Some of our favorite frozen meals.
Some of our favorite frozen meals. (Kelly O'Mara)

That brings us to the point: I eat a lot of frozen meals. Primarily, I started relying on frozen foods — meals, bags of pasta, frozen vegetables, veggie burgers and nuggets — for convenience. But it quickly became clear in the last few years that the frozen meal options have exponentially improved. Frequently, what I can make from things in my freezer is now better than anything I can make fresh.

Here are a few of my favorites, with some local classics. And you'll notice that often I use the frozen meal as a base upon which to build — adding salad, avocado, hummus or even other frozen vegetables and proteins. Yes, I add avocado to almost everything. Sorry, not sorry.

Amy's veggie lasagna on a bed of lettuce with avocado.
Amy's veggie lasagna on a bed of lettuce with avocado. (Kelly O'Mara)

Amy's Kitchen

Based in Petaluma, Amy's is a local favorite. It was started by Andy and Rachel Berliner back in 1987 when they wanted to make organic, natural, vegetarian food for their new baby — whom the company is named after. They started with just a pot pie and soon were making pizzas and burritos out of their Sonoma County kitchen.

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Today, the company makes hundreds of products, from canned soups to veggie burgers to even candy. They now have plants in Santa Rosa, Oregon, and Idaho. And they opened a drive-thru restaurant in Rohnert Park in 2015, with a second planned for Corte Madera.

They're probably best known, though, for their frozen meals and prepared foods.

Why buy them

Amy's is one of the few frozen food purveyors fully committed to organic and vegetarian meals, without sacrificing any taste. All the tofu is made in-house, for example, and much of the produce is sourced locally — though they'll admit that can be difficult with their standards. Despite growing to sales of over $500 million annually, they continue to be owned privately by the family — which has said it won't sell. Along with pioneering organic labeling and non-GMO labeling, they also were one of the first to push for non-BPA cans.

What they make and what they taste like

Though they started with just a vegetable pot pie back in 1987, today Amy's makes lots and lots of stuff — and all of it is GMO-free, organic, and vegetarian. (There are also a number of vegan and gluten-free meals.) I can personally recommend the pad thai, the Indian meals, and most of the bowls. But for our taste test project, I picked two things: a staple of my frozen meal repertoire, the vegetable lasagna; and one of my favorite snacks, Amy's pesto swirls.

Amy's Kitchen vegetable lasagna in the microwave.
Amy's Kitchen vegetable lasagna in the microwave. (Kelly O'Mara)

The veggie lasagna doesn't look like much when you pull it out of the microwave, but it's actually delicious. That is, however, why I like to put it on a bed of lettuce and cut some avocado over the top to make a nice little healthy meal. To cook, just pop open one side of the plastic wrap and stick it in the microwave, but don't overcook it. The lasagna isn't as heavy as you expect a frozen lasagna to be, primarily since it's not meat-based, and it has an interesting flavor tinged with a mix of spices.

Amy's pesto swirls.
Amy's pesto swirls. (Kelly O'Mara)

For a hearty snack or even just an appetizer with guests, Amy's pesto swirls are tasty and filling. As with many of these kinds of snack, you can cook them in the microwave or toaster oven. The oven gives them more of a crisp, but the microwave works just fine because they're so thick and dough-y. A little bit salty and a little bit sweet, with a pesto flavor that's not overpowering, the swirls are heftier than bagel bites, but still fluffy and light. You could easily eat the whole box of six, but you probably shouldn't.

Where to get Amy's

Amy's is available at virtually all Bay Area grocery stories, from Whole Foods to Safeway to smaller local markets. Use the location search function on their site to find nearby stores.

Evol's ravioli and steak bowl.
Evol's ravioli and steak bowl. (Kelly O'Mara)

Evol

Yes, that's "love" spelled backwards.

Evol started as a University of Denver graduate hand-making burritos and delivering them. Once he realized the business was getting bigger than he could handle, he decided it was time to move into the frozen food realm. That's when one of the founders of Bear Naked Granola got involved — seeing an opportunity in frozen foods.

In 2013 Boulder Brands bought Evol for $48 million, and last year Pinnacle Foods bought Boulder Brands (which also makes Udi's gluten-free frozen foods) for $975 million, including quite a bit of debt. Since then, Evol has predictably been expanding its product line. But, the Boulder-based company has managed to maintain most of its quality and sourcing standards.

Why buy them

Evol's steak and rice bowl with lettuce and avocado.
Evol's steak and rice bowl with lettuce and avocado. (Kelly O'Mara)

Evol is one of the biggest "natural" frozen meal producers — with the understanding that the word "natural" doesn't have a firm definition. But even as they've massively expanded, they've continued to source all their ingredients from U.S. farmers. While most of it is not organic, the bacon does come from Certified Humane-raised pigs, the beef and chicken are raised without antibiotics or hormones, and the eggs come from cage-free hens.

The primary goal that Evol has been focused on, since that realization there was a space to fill in the frozen food market, is changing how we view frozen foods. Freezing was originally a way to preserve the highest quality foods, and microwaves were an innovation to make dinner easier. Making high-quality food easy and available via freezing is Evol's main mission.

What they make and what they taste like

I'll admit Evol is my go-to for meals, especially when I'm traveling and want something I can throw in the microwave that I know will be reliable and tasty. While their burritos are what they were originally known for, the single-serve frozen meals and bowls are their most popular items. They also make a line of gluten-free meals, and have recently been expanding into breakfast burritos, bowls, and sandwiches.

The fire-grilled steak bowl is my favorite frozen meal, hands-down. It comes with black beans, rice, some bell peppers and corn, and then a smattering of cheese. If you're just looking for a smaller meal (400 calories), it'll get the job done. But I also like to throw the whole thing in a bigger salad bowl, with some lettuce, and then top with avocado or hummus or whatever I'm feeling like on the day. Cooking is straight-forward: Pop open one side of the plastic, microwave just three to four minutes. I err on the shorter side to keep the meat juicy and fresh. Then stir it well to mix the cilantro, lime, light pesto, and cheese. It works out to a fresh, tasty bowl that's as good as anything you could get at a restaurant.

The butternut squash & sage ravioli.
The butternut squash & sage ravioli. (Kelly O'Mara)

The other popular staple we tried was the butternut squash and sage ravioli, which used to only come in a single-serve frozen meal, but now comes in a multi-person bag for the stovetop. While the ravioli itself would make a filling meal, it's a little light on protein for me, so I added a frozen veggie patty (Dr. Praeger's, in case you were wondering) and a few more frozen vegetables. And, of course avocado. It was easy to dump in a pan on the stove and cook, and the end result was a sweet ravioli which balanced nicely with the extra heft I'd throw in to the pan.

Ravioli with added vegetables and veggie burger, and avocado on top.
Ravioli with added vegetables and veggie burger, and avocado on top. (Kelly O'Mara)

Where to get Evol

Evol is available at a wide range of places, from the high-end grocery stores to Target. Use their online tool to find locations.

Saffron Road's beef bulgogi.
Saffron Road's beef bulgogi. (Kelly O'Mara)

Saffron Road

Started as the American Halal Company in 2009, the Saffron Road brand sells halal-certified, non-GMO frozen meals. Founder and CEO Adnan Durrani also founded Vermont Pure bottled water and is a partner in Stonyfield Farms. Saffron Road was started as a way to bring halal foods, and international flavors, to a larger market. In 2010, it debuted nationally at all Whole Foods stores and has expanded since then.

Today, the company makes single-serve frozen meals and bowls, as well as chicken nuggets, naan, and appetizers, like samosas. There are also non-frozen foods, like lentil chips and crackers, chickpeas, and broths. In 2015, American Halal bought Mediterranean Snack Foods, which makes lentil snack foods and was added to the Saffron Road line.

Why buy them

Saffron Road's beef bulgogi on lettuce with hummus.
Saffron Road's beef bulgogi on lettuce with hummus. (Kelly O'Mara)

Saffron Road was the first Halal-certified, antibiotic-free frozen food line. Much of the food now is also humanely raised and sustainable, with no hormones or GMOs. According to the company, the beef is grass-fed and the fish is all caught wild.

What they make and what they taste like

Most of the meals Saffron Road makes have an Indian or Asian flavor to them — like the chicken tikka masala and the palak paneer (both of which I can also attest are delicious). There are over 50 products now, but I went with a classic: beef bulgogi.

It's a simple four-minute microwave, stir, and then another short additional microwave. Don't let the beef dry out. I mixed it with some lettuce and hummus to add some balance to the slight spicy flavor. While it wasn't the fanciest bulgogi I've ever had, and was a bit on the small side, the spice and flavor gave it something extra beyond your standard frozen meal.

Where to get Saffron Road

Although it launched at Whole Foods, Saffron Road is now available in thousands of stores, like Safeway and Sprouts. Use their store locator to find a location nearby.

Sweet Earth's Kyoto burrito.
Sweet Earth's Kyoto burrito. (Kelly O'Mara)

Sweet Earth

I'll admit Sweet Earth is a recent addition to my frozen meal line-up, but the vegetarian and vegan Moss Landing-based company caught my attention with their interesting burritos — which they call "worldly." And they kept my attention with their bowls and plant-based protein patties.

The story is that Sweet Earth was founded by power couple Kelly and Brian Swette, who used to work in corporate brands, like Pepsi and Burger King. But when their daughter became a vegetarian in high school, they started looking into the benefits of a vegetarian diet. And, in 2012, they decided to buy a small Sweet Earth natural foods store in Pacific Grove and from it launch their own line of vegetarian and vegan frozen meals.

After a large expansion and making $25 million in revenue in 2016, the company was bought by Nestle at the end of 2017. It continues to be run by the Swettes.

Why buy them

Sweet Earth calls itself a plant-based food company. They make vegan and vegetarian meals, using plant-based proteins, with the goal of decreasing the environmental footprint of our food. Much of the food is also organic and non-GMO, but not all of it, and the company says it tries to sustainably source its ingredients. They also partner with small local companies down near Moss Landing for their tortillas and mushrooms.

The Kyoto burrito.
The Kyoto burrito. (Kelly O'Mara)

What they make and what they taste like

Sweet Earth is best known for its worldy burritos, with interesting and unique flavor combinations. The Kyoto burrito is one of their classic burritos: adzuki beans, edamame, baby bok choy, spinach and ginger. I microwaved mine, which made it slightly soggy and required a knife and fork to eat. But the flavor brings it together, with a crunch and quite a bit of spice. It's just 280 calories, so more of a snack than a meal, but an interesting snack at that.

Sweet Earth's pad thai.
Sweet Earth's pad thai. (Kelly O'Mara)
Pad thai in a lettuce bowl with avocado.
Pad thai in a lettuce bowl with avocado. (Kelly O'Mara)

They've also added breakfast meals, veggie burgers, mini-meals like empanadas, and frozen bowl entrees, like Moroccan tangine and basil pesto lasagna and pad thai. These are not your standard frozen meals; they all come with a little extra pizzazz and spice. I tend to go with the pad thai bowl, which, yes, I put in a bowl with some lettuce and avocado. The pad thai is a little juicier than most and the lettuce helps to mop up some of the extra sauce. It doesn't taste like your traditional pad thai, but has a unique flavor with the seasoned tofu, beansprouts, radishes, tamarind, and garlic.

Where to get Sweet Earth

It may have started as a small Bay Area company, but Sweet Earth can be bought now in large stores like Walmart, Target, and Whole Foods. Use their location finder to find stores near you.

Annie's pizza bagels.
Annie's pizza bagels. (Kelly O'Mara)

Annie's

Although it was founded on the East Coast, Annie's Homegrown is based in Berkeley and their famous bunny-shaped mac n' cheese is widespread around the Bay Area. Well, I'm here to tell you: the company also does frozen snacks.

Initially founded as a natural mac n' cheese company in 1989, Annie's eventually did an IPO and was later bought out by the owner of Homegrown Natural Foods. It then went public in 2012. Over the years, the company has since expanded its organic products. In 2014, General Mills bought Annie's Homegrown for $820 million.

Why buy them

After its acquisition by General Mills, Annie's promised their organic and sustainability standards wouldn't be compromised. While there is hot debate on the topic among the sustainable agriculture community, Annie's has expanded the number of organic products it sells. Its headquarters building is also LEED-certified and the company supports a handful of philanthropic projects, like sustainable agriculture scholarships and a grants for gardens program for kids.

Annie's pepperoni pizza poppers.
Annie's pepperoni pizza poppers. (Kelly O'Mara)

What they make and what they taste like

Annie's frozen foods are fairly limited: pizza bagels and pizza poppers (cheese and pepperoni). It's not a full meal, but it's a worthwhile snack.

You can cook both in either the microwave or the toaster oven. I recommend the toaster oven, if possible. Certainly, there's a microwave gooey-ness to classic pizza bagels, but in the toaster oven they get an extra crispness. Just don't overcook them. Annie's pizza bagels were better than your average pizza bagel. You don't feel as gross after accidentally eating a whole box. There's more bagel, with better dough and more filling than a typical pizza bagel, but the melted cheese still makes it a tasty snack. My favorite, however, are the pizza poppers. I ate the pepperoni version and, again, cooked them in the toaster oven. They're a little saltier than the bagels, but easier to pop into your mouth — just as long as you don't burn your tongue.

Pizza bagels.
Pizza bagels. (Kelly O'Mara)

Where to find Annie's

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Annie's products can be bought online and at many local stores. Use their store locator.

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