After a hard day at the office, rush-hour traffic, and a quick stop at the day-care center, the last thing most people want to do is cook dinner for the kids. So it's no surprise that manufacturers have begun to market frozen meals for children younger than 12. These feature foods that kids, ages 3 to 11, ranked as their favorites in a Gallup poll. Pizza, chicken nuggets, macaroni-and-cheese and spaghetti are a few that made the cut.
Both the Tyson and Banquet varieties have brightly colored packaging, cartoon characters and toy surprises. The claim "no artificial colors or flavors" is prominently displayed on the front panel of these products.
In a Times taste test of 10 boys and girls ages 5 to 10, the dinners were received with both nods of approval and frowns of disgust.
Familiar vegetables, such as green beans, carrots and corn, were accepted as an inevitable part of dinner. On the other hand, the desserts, which ranged from oatmeal cookies to chocolate chip bars and brownies, were greeted with oohs and aahs.
As expected, the pizza, chicken nuggets and spaghetti were favorites, although Banquet's spaghetti was voted the ugliest. Fried chicken and fish sticks received lukewarm approval.
Overall, the tasters said they liked the food offered in both varieties. Only the corn fritters and a fruity applesauce concoction, made of apples, sugar, corn syrup, apple juice, pineapple juice and plum juice concentrates, banana puree and passion fruit juice were given the "thumbs down" by all tasters. "It's too weird," most of them said. Another critic complained, "I don't want to eat this stuff."
Work-weary moms may find these dinners attractive because they feature foods that they might feed their kids if they had the time. And the dinners are advertised as convenient, affordable and nutritious. Well, affordable, anyway.
"I guess my overall concern with all of those dinners is they have lots of modified starch, thickeners and other things that you wouldn't have in the product if you made it at home," said Dr. Audrey Cross, associate clinical professor at the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University.
Cross also expressed concern about children preparing the meals, since they are marketed to appeal both to working mothers and their hungry offspring.
Cross, who evaluated reduced-calorie dinners and entrees for a study last year, explained that cumbersome heating instructions might lead to uneven heating and hot spots if not carefully followed.
Tyson's Looney Tunes dinners, for example, require an initial two-minute heating; then the plate is turned halfway. Cooking is resumed for one to two minutes longer, then the package must stay in the oven an additional two to three minutes.
Banquet's version can be equally complicated for a child. First, the "Funpak" is removed. Then the dessert packet is set aside before the rest of the meal goes into the oven. In most cases, the plastic covering for the entree must be slit or partially removed before cooking. Then, after heating, the main entree is stirred, the dessert returned to the plate and the entire tray cooked 30 seconds longer. As with the Tyson dinner, a two- to three-minute rest period is required before eating.
"In our emergency room we're seeing an increasing number of burns--especially mouth--but sometimes finger burns from using the microwave without a parent present," Cross said.
To be safe, she said, it is important for the child to understand that the dinners must stand before they are uncovered.
Cross also suggested that parents read the ingredient label carefully and not be distracted by claims on the front panel. One variety of Kids Cuisine, for instance, has about 43% fat.
She also recommended that parents offer fresh fruit, salad or bread along with the dinners. Despite their appearance, she said, these are not complete meals.