I’m a total food snob, so I was shocked to really like my Trader Joe’s steamed chicken soup dumplings, which I plucked from the freezer aisle and microwaved according to the package directions for two minutes in their cute little tray. The broth was gingery and satisfying, the dumpling skin was tender but not gluey and the whole meal only set me back $2.99. But I was still a little hungry — the soup dumplings were half the size of the ones at my local Chinese restaurant — so I defrosted a few Applegate organic chicken strips, which were lightly breaded and perfect dunked in jalapeno ketchup. For dessert, a Diana’s Bananas frozen dark chocolate dipped banana, made from only banana, chocolate and peanut oil, virtuous yet satisfactorily decadent. My first frozen meal in a very long time was a success.
Shannon Sarna, 35, author of “Modern Jewish Baker” and mother of two is combing through her freezer in South Orange, NJ. Her stash consists of frozen pizza from Trader Joe’s, French fries, chicken fingers, mangoes, strawberries and butternut squash.
“What about Eggos?” I’ve heard that "Stranger Things" has inspired a nostalgic fondness for the treats.
“We do have frozen waffles,” Sarna says, “But they’re the Kashi whole grain blueberry kind.”
Sarna’s freezer has nothing on her fridge, which overflows with fresh fruits and veggies from multiple farmers’ markets. Sarna admits that her own kitchen is “bougie-er and pickier” than the one she grew up in. “Frozen food is not in line with how we were taught to consume,” she says of a generation obsessed with organic/local/sustainable/handcrafted everything. “I’m more inclined to pay attention to how something was sourced than to browse the freezer aisle. I’m sure it also has to do with my socioeconomic bracket,” Sarna reflects. “You can’t make kale chips out of frozen kale.”
In my own freezer: some pricey beef that I wasn’t going to get a chance to cook in time while fresh, Talenti Black Cherry Gelato (the best flavor, hands down), a bunch of boxes of popsicles and an ice pack for my fiancé’s achy knee. That’s it.
“Frozen foods have had to fight an uphill battle from the perception of TV dinners in the 60s through the 90s, when the majority of frozen food was industrialized and processed,” says millennial food writer Gowri Chandra. In this moment where consumers care more than ever about “real” and “clean” food, microwaving a plastic container full of a long list of unpronounceable ingredients seems sacrilege. But frozen food is getting a serious makeover. “People are just starting to find out that frozen produce, for example, can rival or exceed fresh produce in nutrients and quality because it can be picked at ripeness and then frozen versus being picked weeks before” as is often the case, Chandra explains.
The frozen food industry is optimistic that its reputation is on the up and up and that millennials are giving their goods, from appetizers and entrees to fruits and veggies, a real chance. Market Watch reported that frozen food sales are growing for the first time in five years, according to the latest RBC Capital Markets report. They point to “quick freeze” technology that seals in flavor and nutrients without unwanted artificial additives, the serious convenience factor of appetizers and fast meals straight from the freezer, and gentle price tags that make frozen options appeal to young families and single shoppers. “The recent uptick in popularity stems in part from a record-high level of single Americans as millennials wait to form families,” Moneyweb writes. “Frozen meals are an easy way to control portions, and there’s typically very little waste.” Ice cold practicality.
A new generation of brands are revamping the image of the freezer aisle — sexier and of the moment, less TV-dinner-dreary. When Elisabeth de Kergorlay lived in Paris (in Paris!), she discovered the joys of fancy frozen food. The city boasted whole shops devoted to the pleasures of frozen delicacies. All she’d have to do was reheat, and voila! Dinner was served. Upon moving to back New York, de Kergorlay found the selection of high quality frozen eats scarce. So in 2014, she set out to create her own line of flash-frozen dishes that could live up to her discerning palate, Babeth’s Feast. Her offerings include Brussels sprout and shallot crumble, antibiotic-free Hudson Valley Beef Bourguignon and fluffy chocolate soufflé. “Our creative chefs craft small-batch, French-inspired, restaurant-quality food,” the company swaggers. Why shouldn’t the frozen food aisle adopt highbrow foodie speak?
Babeth’s Feast is in good company. The competition — companies like Amy’s, Evol Foods and Kashi among them — celebrates high quality ingredients, eschews preservatives and artificial ingredients, and boasts low levels of sodium and fat — an ideal combination of convenience and nutrition. Saffron Road sells global-inspired frozen entrees like Lemongrass Basil Chicken and Lamb Saag with Basmati Rice made with “grass-fed cattle, wild-caught fish and no hormones, antibiotics or GMOs” at places like Whole Foods. The Perfect Gourmet’s “chic but classic Parisian lamb is prepared in a traditional demi-glace sauce, with a hint of rosemary and mint.” Their catalog’s soft lighting and casually elegant tablescapes channel the look of a food magazine or a stylish lifestyle blog. Gone is the depressing vibe of a lonely Lean Cuisine or a bleak breakfast burrito — it’s a whole new frozen world.
If millennials are more discerning than ever about their food, they can also be more flexible. Their sometimes-fastidious diets and close attention to ingredients have created more opportunities for frozen food products, not less. Chandra believes her generation is opening their minds to frozen possibilities, especially when it comes to categories like gluten-free. “I'd say 80% of the time frozen gluten-free breads are better than anything that you can find non-frozen because of the stabilizers needed for the big brand packaged breads to give them shelf life,” Chandra explains. “Some of the best frozen gluten-free bread brands — Whole Foods has an excellent one — far outrival their shelf-stable counterparts. Same with gluten-free pastas: give me frozen (or refrigerated) gluten free ravioli over the dried stuff, and I'm not going to think of it as inferior.”
The frozen food aisle is a boon to shoppers with dietary restrictions. Consumers search frozen aisles for vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and kosher products. “There are so many great plant-based meat brands out there, many of which simply have to be frozen for distribution,” says Chandra.
As for Sarna’s freezer, all those items have a purpose. The pizza and fries are foods she’ll serve her kids for a treat or in a pinch. She can whir the frozen butternut squash into a quick soup if her refrigerator is low on fresh options. The mangoes and berries will get baked into a crumble or a coffee cake or blended into a smoothie. “My six-year-old daughter knows mangoes aren’t in season,” Sarna says. “We are spoiled. I didn’t grow up with blood oranges and Asian pears. My kids are exposed to more fruits, vegetables, cuisines and flavors — a greater variety than ever before.” And as we become increasingly sophisticated and particular, so do our frozen food options.