Cramming into a tiny dining room with hordes of friends and relatives for a pass-and-share feast is a recipe for disaster right now. Thanksgiving: The Pandemic Edition promises a lot of small gatherings of the weary, wary, and worried.
It’s the perfect year to serve individual, hermetically sealed turkey frozen entrees for Thanksgiving.
I love frozen entrees: I eat them almost daily. This love dates back to my parents' rare “date nights,” when the then-called “TV dinners” were a welcome respite from my mom’s cooking. I loved the chance to choose my own dinner destiny, the compartments that kept the fried chicken safe from the pea juice, and, best of all, the option (often exercised, in the absence of the aforementioned 'rents) to eat dessert first. I genuinely liked the apple compote and the rest of the prefab fare.
I still do. Like me, frozen meals have evolved: their original industrial-grade rectangular aluminum trays of mushy meat and pasty potatoes giving way to well-rounded whole grain and veggie delights in natural brown paper bowls.
Like Mom, I hitched my ego to my career rather than my cooking abilities. One of the things I thank God for at Thanksgiving are the professionals at Nestle and Conagra who feed me all year while I fulfill my profession as a writer of unopened emails.
In my house, “making dinner” means perusing the freezer to see where my stomach wants to go that evening: Mexico, courtesy Birds Eye Fiesta Chicken Bowl? India, thanks to Amy’s Mattar Paneer? The past, via Lean Cuisine’s Salisbury Steak with Macaroni & Cheese? Then it’s just a matter of slapping placemats on the table and rotating trays in and out of the microwave with robotic ease.
I know not everyone shares my enthusiasm for factory food, especially not on America’s big national cooking holiday. But who wants to cook a 20-pound turkey and 10 side dishes for a pandemic pod of two or three? That’s not dinner — that’s a sentence: three weeks of hard times eating leftovers. If COVID doesn’t get you from family-style serving, food poisoning will.
» READ MORE: Don’t want to cook Thanksgiving dinner? No problem.
Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice’s frozen turkey bowl dinners to the rescue. They’re safer, cheaper and easier than making a traditional Thanksgiving dinner from scratch and also more in-line with how we live and eat today.
We live online, and coax dinner to our doorsteps by touch and swipe versus gather and hunt. The Pilgrims and Native Americans needed all the carbs and calories in stuffing, gravy, pie, and potatoes. But the 240 to 300 calories of string bean pieces and turkey and potato chunks under these dinners' plastic shrink-wrap are more than enough to fuel our flying fingers.
These products' Thanksgiving dish updates include that darling of dietitians, the sweet potato (begone yee stodgy white!)—chunked and baked or roasted, rather than mashed with retro marshmallow. (I actually prefer Healthy Choice’s roasted version for a char reminiscent of my own rare attempts at real cooking.)
Unadorned green beans and sweetened dried cranberries give props to the classic fried-onion-topped green bean casserole and jellied cranberry sauce, respectively, without their soporific effects, thus keeping you from nodding off during the post-feast extended-family Zoom (maybe).
Thanksgiving traditionalists might protest these products' lack of stuffing or gravy. Buy them Hungry-Man’s one-pound Roasted Carved White Meat Turkey with mixed vegetables and apple cranberry dessert instead. (Unless they’re a Hungry-Feminist.) Serve dieters Smart Ones' zero-sum-game Slow Roasted Turkey Breast with gravy and mashed potatoes (i.e. raising a fork up and down should wipe out its 170 calories). Please a vegetarian with a purchase of Evol’s Butternut Squash & Sage Ravioli.
In fact, the true beauty of a frozen dinner Thanksgiving is in the way it allows people of different backgrounds and tastes to sit down together at the same table without killing one another (by COVID or anything else). Isn’t that what this holiday is supposed to be all about?
Carolyn Wyman is a South Philly-based junk food fan, journalist, and historian, and author of Better Than Homemade: Amazing Foods That Changed the Way We Eat (Quirk Books) and The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book (Running Press).