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Taste Test: Diet Frozen Lasagna

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[Photographs: Will Gordon]

The Ranking

  • #1: Lean Cuisine
  • #2: Smart Ones
  • #3: Healthy Choice

I did not eat a single shovelful of lasagna in 2012, a sad fact for which I blame the collective negligence of our nation's grandmas, as well as my own sloth. I can't speak for the grandmas, who may well have an excuse for failing to overstuff me with noodle casseroles and unconditional love (though no such excuse comes to mind). As for my own role in this dark saga: I'd planned to make my first career lasagna for Christmas dinner, but I passive-aggressively torpedoed that mission by waiting until noon on Christmas day to start my grocery shopping, and oops, pasta shop's closed, let's go throw $100 at a crappy hotel buffet.

I gave that buffet what for, but hate-eating my weight in dinner rolls and chicken croquettes was no replacement for the baked pasta I so slobbily craved. Thus the new year has found me in the tricky predicament of needing to lose weight while suffering from an unscratched lasagna itch. What's a repentant fat-ass with $3, a microwave, and no grandmas to do? Treat himself to some diet frozen lasagna, of course!

From time to time I'll catch a smug Internet thug disparaging the very notion of single-serve frozen entrees. "Oh ho ho, how sad, you want beef stroganoff but don't feel like cooking all day, you have a pet and your pants fit weird." Phooey. It's perfectly reasonable for a happy, well-adjusted person to let the freezer do the prep work every now and then. With that in mind I tracked down lasagna with meat sauce from three leading purveyors of health-conscious (or at least health-marketed) frozen food: Healthy Choice, Lean Cuisine, and Weight Watchers' Smart Ones.

Healthy Choice Baked Taste Lasagna with Meat Sauce

($2.99 for 9.5 ounces, 280 calories)

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This was the tallest laz slab in the lineup (an inch and a half; the others were a single wimpy inch tall), making it my pre-eating favorite. The other two actually weighed an ounce more apiece, but I'm a sucker for a nice, high pile of food, you know? The Healthy Choicer had three noodle layers, assembled like so: pasta on the bottom, then a thin sheen of tomato sauce and a couple crumbles of beef-soy barely holding up the middle noodle, then a layer of cottage cheese* topped by a noodle bearing shreds of part-skim mozzarella.

This one was the most pasta-heavy. I love pasta, and so should every other sensible lasagnist, but the supplementary elements were too light on flavor, and the noodles were fine but also just frozen pasta and therefore not up to the task of carrying an entire meal. The watery sauce didn't even taste like tomatoes, never mind any of the alleged garlic and spices, and I don't know what the green flecks in the cottage cheese were pretending to do. The mozzarella was predictably tasteless, though the cottage cheese did have a slight tang. I found Healthy Choice lasagna to be acceptable but also the weakest of the three, as the overall experience was a bit too reminiscent of undercooked Ellio's pizza.

* Healthy Choice also uses trace amounts of ricotta, romano, and parmesan, but the interior cheese is predominantly of the cottage variety, presumably to dodge calories.

Weight Watchers Smart Ones Classic Favorites Traditional Lasagna with Meat Sauce

($2.99 for 10.5 ounces, 290 calories)

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The Smart One was another tri-noodle affair, with matching layers of ricotta and meat beneath a blanket of thick sauce and a smattering of seemingly unmeltable mozzarella shards. The sauce was almost wholly lacking in flavor—it reminded me of jarred pizza sauce marketed to the very meek or omni-allergic—but at least it was plentiful and viscous. The meat role was ably played by little balls of a beef-soy mix that managed to taste somewhat meaty and even a little bit herbed and spiced. The ricotta was on the granular side, and also a touch runny, but it had the rare-for-the-breed distinction of tasting like actual cheese. The noodles were gummier than ideal, but still eminently edible. Smart Ones frozen lasagna is a shade better than the Healthy Choice rendition.

Lean Cuisine Simple Favorites Lasagna with Meat Sauce

($3.29 for 10.5 ounces, 320 calories)

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Lean Cuisine distinguished itself from the competition by boldly employing just two noodles and barely any interior cheese (just a thimbleful of cottage crumbles), making way for big chunks of a beef-pork-soy blend that felt like real meat and tasted like mild Italian sausage. The sauce was the most flavorful of the bunch, which is to say it had a faint hint of dried basil and a couple tiny chunks of dehydrated onion. The desultory mozzarella crown did nothing but melt, but at least it didn't take up too many of the calories better spent on the meat and wheat. Lean Cuisine lasagna was by far the class of this tasting.

About the author: Will Gordon loves life, particularly the parts of life that involve bourbon and Totino's Pizza Rolls. You can eat and drink with him in Boston or follow him @WillGordonAgain.

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