When my brother and I were kids, we looked forward to the nights when a babysitter would stay with us, because it meant we'd get to eat frozen meals for dinner. Back then, this meant Hungry-Man meals in the little foil trays, with compartments for a main course, side dish, and a tiny dessert.
Frozen entrées have come a long way since those days. Today, you can find them in virtually any cuisine, as well as vegan or vegetarian options, organic alternatives, and even dishes with exotic or trendy ingredients like hemp and cauliflower pizza. The flavors are brighter and more complex, and in many cases, the sodium content is far lower than the worrisome levels of their frozen antecedents.
No matter how much you pride yourself on cooking fresh, healthy, from-scratch meals, having a stack of these in the freezer just might save your sanity on a stressful night. These are some favorite frozen meals that I always look forward to eating.
Best Comfort Food: Southern Belle Lobster Mac & Cheese
This rich-tasting mac and cheese is flecked with tiny bits of lobster meat in an alfredo sauce. I like how it comes in a plastic bag so you can heat it by boiling the bag, sous vide-style, or transfer it to a baking dish and cook it in the microwave or the oven. I've been known to pass it off as homemade, baked in my prettiest casserole dish and topped with a generous sprinkling of crushed crackers.
Best Healthy Meal: Healthy Choice Power Bowls Buddha Bowl
This vegetable-forward bowl tastes like something you'd enjoy at an Asian fusion restaurant. The grains and vegetables offer a variety of textures, from tender mushrooms to crunchy broccoli to chewy barley and rice. It's all tossed with a spicy, super-flavorful sauce made with feta cheese and tahini. I love this meal for lunch, and the high protein and fiber content keeps me full all afternoon. Bonus: While most of the frozen meals on this list come in plastic bowls or trays, this one comes in a bowl comprising plant-based fiber.
Best Italian: Rao's Meat Lasagna
Let's face it: Lasagna is a pain to make, with those easily torn noodles and the fussy layering of ingredients. I might never make lasagna from scratch again now that I know about Rao's. It's seriously better than anything I could produce, with perfectly al dente noodles layered with Rao's trademark rich tomato sauce, ground beef and pork, and herb-studded ricotta. It comes in a single-serving package or a 27-ounce package containing three to four servings. Be sure to have some crusty bread or a roll on hand to sop up all that luscious sauce.
Best Old-School: Lazy Dog Roasted Turkey TV Dinner
Lazy Dog restaurant has locations throughout the Southeast as well as in California, Colorado, Nevada and Illinois. And while it's a great place to grab a bite to eat, I recently discovered that the company also makes retro TV dinners-updated versions of those same ones my brother and I ate on our parents' date nights. My favorite is the roasted turkey meal. It's like Thanksgiving on a foil tray, with slices of turkey smothered in gravy, mashed potatoes, corn stuffing and, best of all, a little huckleberry-apple cake in the dessert compartment. Just like the O.G. TV dinners, these must be cooked in the oven, not microwaved, but that just adds to their retro charm.
Best Thai Food: Saffron Road Vegetable Pad Thai
Also available in a chicken version, this veggie pad Thai rivals my favorite take-out. The rice noodles are just the right amount of chewy, there are plenty of fresh-tasting vegetables, and the little chunks of tofu are tender. Just about the only thing it's missing is a squeeze of lime and a sprinkling of chopped peanuts. I add those myself, which really ups the authentic flavor.
Best Indian: Trader Joe's Butter Chicken
This Trader Joe's entrée has developed somewhat of a cult following for its creamy and spicy sauce, tender chunks of chicken and perfectly cooked rice. It's packaged in a divided tray so the rice comes out perfectly cooked, and you can spoon the chicken over the rice yourself. I love to heat up Trader Joe's frozen garlic naan to mop up all that rich, flavorful sauce.
Best Vegan: Tattooed Chef Veggie Hemp Bowl with Turmeric Almond Butter Dressing
I'm a huge fan of the creative, plant-based frozen meals from Tattooed Chef, and my favorite is the Veggie Hemp Bowl. It's super-flavorful without being too spicy or salty, and has a nice variety of ingredients. Think: sweet potatoes, kale, red onion, and chickpeas, riced cauliflower, red quinoa, and a creamy almond-butter dressing flavored with turmeric, lemon, and garlic. For a frozen meal, it's also remarkably low in sodium.
Best Pot Pie: Marie Callender's Chicken Pot Pie
Marie Callender's sets the gold standard for frozen pot pies. If you can't make your own, this is the next best thing, with a flaky crust and chunks of chicken and veggies swimming in a velvety sauce. The fat and sodium content are high, so it's an every-so-often treat for me.
Best Mexican: Amy's Cheese Enchilada
Amy's is known for its solidly tasty snacks and meals, and their cheese enchiladas are no exception. Two corn tortillas coddle a gooey filling of cheese, onions, olives and peppers, with a flavorful, not-too-spicy sauce smothering the whole thing. I love to eat this with a side of chips and fresh pico de gallo for a crunchy, fresh contrast.
Best Chicken: Kirkwood Stuffed Chicken Cordon Bleu
Sold under Aldi's house brand, these stuffed chicken breasts come individually packaged in plastic wrappers. They bake in the oven for about 40 minutes (the chicken is raw, hence the long cooking time). Don't worry, it's worth the wait: The moist chicken breast is filled with a creamy cheese and ham mixture and sports a coat of crunchy breadcrumbs. Make it a full meal with a side of Aldi's Garlic Riced Cauliflower or rice pilaf.
With all the delicious options for frozen meals on the market, it only makes sense to stock up on some options for easy lunches or those nights when everyone's schedules pull them in different directions. The best part? Everyone can have what they crave, whether it's Thai food, Italian, vegan, Indian, or just about anything else under the sun.