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I can be a nosy person.
My nose grows especially curious if I see people who live differently from myself.
And I’ve noticed a peculiar lunchtime choice that’s piqued my interest for some time. On a whim, I decided to keep a tally of how often it occurs in a given week. You know, for science.
In a week, I see 20 coworkers eating frozen TV dinners for lunch. This isn’t to say that I’m judging people’s choices; I was just surprised that TV dinners were such a popular lunch choice. And it got me thinking.
Growing up I was obsessed with Hungry Man fried chicken and mashed potato TV dinners. And don’t even get me started on the addictive, sodium-laden wonders that were Banquet chicken finger meals.
But as Mr. Picky Pincher and I started saving money by slashing our grocery budget, we switched away from packaged foods and gravitated towards whole foods to save money.
But this whole lunchtime situation has the cogs in my head turning. Why do people eat TV dinners? Are frozen, packaged foods frugal?
Why do people eat frozen TV dinners?
Here are a few reasons that TV dinners were so appealing to me as a kid and broke college student.
1. They’re fast and easy
You just have to take the meal out of the package, heat it for a few minutes, and presto! You have a full meal that you didn’t have to prep. Magic!
2. They taste good
Some people think TV dinners taste better than anything they can cook at home.
As a former horrible cook, I sympathize! Mr. Picky Pincher and I created some truly disgusting meals as we tried to create dishes we both would eat. Stuck with peanut butter Rotel chicken for dinner? Toss that crap out and have an edible and predictable Healthy Choice chicken lo mein!
3. They look cheap
Before our food budget overhaul, I would buy four Lean Cuisine meals at HEB for $6 with a coupon. This sounded like a great deal! I always had prepared meals in the freezer if dinner didn’t work out or if I wanted a quick lunch. Without a coupon, I could still buy the Lean Cuisine meals for about $2 a pop.
4. They look healthy
In my frozen food days, I would check the calorie content on the frozen meals. I would think, “Oh, only 250 calories, awesome! This stuff must be pretty healthy!” It was even better if I could see small flecks of what appeared to be green vegetables thrown into the meal. Look Ma, I’m eating vegetables.
Cue the record-scratching noise.
Now I can’t look at TV dinners without scrunching my nose. I’ve found that the above reasons for choosing TV dinners weren’t as airtight as I thought.
Let’s look at why frozen foods weren’t doing me any favors after all.
Are Frozen Foods Frugal?
Before I get into the financial implications of choosing frozen meals, let’s debunk the above “pros” I listed for these go-to quick meals.
Yes, TV dinners are fast, but…
When you choose a TV dinner, you sacrifice a few things: flavor and health.
It’s hard to notice that TV dinners taste weird if you eat them all the time—I certainly used to think they were a-maz-ing. But once you steer away from a diet with artificial ingredients and sodium, it’s easier to see how the addictive substances in these commercial foods can affect taste. There aren’t many TV dinners out there winning James Beard awards!
Another alarming thing about TV dinners is that they’re packaged in plastic. That you heat up for several minutes. I’m totally guilty of heating my meals in plastic every now and then, but I know it’s carcinogen city. Why expose yourself to the chemicals released from heated plastic for subpar food?
TV dinners also aren’t as filling as a traditional meal.
I would always get hungry after eating my 300 calorie Stouffer’s spaghetti and meatballs, and go searching for (unhealthy) snacks shortly afterwards. While I would initially click my heels with glee about a 300 calorie meal, those 300 calories were from a very small portion. When translated into a proper adult meal, these meals wouldn’t look so diet-friendly.
They also aren’t nutritionally balanced. They’re high in sodium, heavily processed, and lacking in nutrients typically found in fresh fruits and vegetables.
So now that we’ve seen how TV dinners aren’t all they’re cracked up to be on flavor and nutrition, let’s look at the hard numbers to see why TV dinners aren’t good for the finances.
The Math Behind Choosing Fresh Foods
While everyone talks about how fresh food is cheaper, many people still prefer to buy premade meals for convenience. As a person who grew up on Hamburger Helper, I can see the allure of a meal that costs only $1-$4 off the shelf. It sounds so cheap!
But that’s because it’s harder to do the math on the true cost of scratch-made meals. If we all tracked our budgeting down to the penny, we’d easily see that homemade food is almost always cheaper.
But let’s do some real math to see!
I used to eat the hell out of Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowls. You can get different varieties, but I loved to get the potato, bacon, and egg ones at the store.
But I now make my own at home, and here’s why.
A Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowl costs $2 at my HEB. If I ate one of these a week, like I used to, that would give me a yearly cost of about $104.
To make a breakfast bowl at home, it costs far less than $2 per meal.
I make my breakfast bowls ahead of time in a large batch and freeze them in individual portions. To make one large batch it costs:
- $1.86 for 6 ounces of bacon
- $1 for half a pound of potatoes
- $0.50 for various spices
- ($0.50 per egg)
Total cost for a large batch: $3.36.
The most expensive part of this meal is the eggs, but that’s because I buy the fancy schmancy ones.
One large batch makes about four breakfasts. So let’s add $2 to the total for one egg for each breakfast.
That gives us a real total of $5.36 for four meals, or $1.34 per meal. If I eat one homemade breakfast bowl a week, my annual cost is $69.68.
In a given year, I can save about $35 just with the homemade version, which tastes better. And if I omitted the eggs, my costs would be even lower.
While the margins aren’t as large for this particular meal, the savings add up if you can replace all of your frozen favorites with fresh versions. Here’s an analysis Wise Bread conducted comparing the costs of frozen foods and their fresh counterparts—spoiler alert, fresh usually wins!
And even if the fresh food doesn’t win in the cost category, it will win in the health, taste, and happiness category.
The Bottom Line
As a former frozen food fanatic, I know how alluring these quick meals can be. You’re tired, you’re hungry, they’re ready in minutes. But the frugal choice isn’t always the easiest choice. I’m a total lazybutt, but I’ve managed to transition from commercially frozen foods to homemade suppers. And I’m happier, healthier, and richer for it.
We want to know: Have you made the switch from frozen to fresh foods?