Improved taste. We considered 14 of the meals tasty enough to try (that is, they rated very good in taste). That was an improvement over the last time we tested diet meals, in 2004, when most products rated only good in taste. This time around, only two meals rated less than good: the shelf-stable Compleats Sesame Chicken and Beef Steak & Peppers products from Hormel. Compared with their frozen counterparts, they had dry, flavorless meat; mushy, overly soft pasta; and tasteless vegetables.
Really low calorie counts. Though not all of the products are sold as full meals, we suspect many dieters use them that way. But most have insufficient calories to be eaten alone. Even on a typical 1,500-calorie-a-day diet, you should consume 400 to 500 calories for each meal in order to safely lose weight, and most of those products contain considerably less than that.
Luckily, the meals readily lend themselves to augmentation with healthful, easy-to-prepare side dishes. "There is absolutely no circumstance under which someone shouldn't add some vegetables or fruit or a salad to round out the meal," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and author of "The Flexitarian Diet."
Results from our 2007 survey of the weight-loss history of 21,600 subscribers support that approach. We found that using packaged diet meals didn't make a difference in whether or not people were able to lose weight and keep it off. But among packaged-meal users who did lose weight, 49 percent also reported eating five servings of fruits and vegetables most days of the week. In contrast, only 37 percent of unsuccessful dieters who used the meals did so.
New technologies. "The test kitchens are getting smarter," Lempert says. For instance, the Café Steamers line from Healthy Choice comes with meat, vegetables, and rice in a steamer bowl that hovers over a second dish that contains the sauce, so the meal is steamed from below in the microwave. Another advance makes the dishes more microwave-friendly. Manufacturers used to assemble the ingredients raw, then partially cook the entire dish before freezing it. After reheating, some components ended up overcooked and others undercooked. Some companies are now precooking each element separately to the optimum degree of doneness, Lempert says, so that when you zap the assembled dish in the microwave at home, everything comes out properly cooked.
Solid nutrition. All but two of the meals earned a very good rating for overall nutrition. Almost half provided 5 grams or more of dietary fiber per serving; one of those, Kashi Garden Vegetable Pasta, had a whopping 9 grams. For people looking to boost calcium intake, these had 20 percent of the daily value for that mineral: Weight Watchers Smart Ones Classic Favorites Creamy Rigatoni With Broccoli & Chicken, Lean Cuisine Spa Cuisine Classics Butternut Squash Ravioli, Lean Cuisine One Dish Favorites Chicken Fettuccini, Lean Cuisine One Dish Favorites Santa Fe-Style Rice & Beans, Weight Watchers Smart Ones Santa Fe Style Rice & Beans, and Lean Cuisine Cafe Classics Shrimp Alfredo. All were free of trans fat.
Sodium overload. Eight meals had more than the 600 milligrams of sodium we set as a benchmark maximum. Healthy Choice Complete Meals Sweet & Sour Chicken, Lean Cuisine Cafe Classics Steak Tips Portabello, and Kashi Black Bean Mango had the least sodium of the tested meals, each with an impressive 450 milligrams or less. Most healthy people should get no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. People who have high blood pressure, African-Americans (whose blood pressure tends to be especially sensitive to sodium), and older adults should get no more than 1,500 mg.
Better pasta/bean options. That category had more products that scored very good in taste than any of the other categories. Vegetarians should note that some of those seemingly "meatless" meals contain chicken broth, juices, or fat. Check labels to make sure.
Kashi is one to watch. While no clear winner emerged among brands, cereal maker Kashi was the only brand to earn a very good rating for all of its meals included in our test. They're a little pricier than most but could be a desirable choice for consumers looking for chicken or vegetarian dishes. (Kashi doesn't sell beef or shrimp meals.)