The Untold Truth Of Lean Cuisine

When Lean Cuisine came on the market in 1981, the slim frozen dinners were geared towards the diet trends of the decade. Created by parent company Stouffer's, who largely dealt in heartier fare, Lean Cuisine boasted an appealingly light caloric load (somewhere in the 200 to 300 calorie range, depending on the dish), as well as an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at folks trying to shed a few pounds.

Viewers of early ad campaigns may remember that Lean Cuisine was not shy about playing up the brand's weight loss appeal to their female market, as Vox confirms. Get a load of this ad for chicken a l'orange with a side of aerobics, or this relic featuring zucchini lasagna and beach-goers ogling women in high cut one pieces. Advertising the opposite of body positivity, this 30 second spot highlighting a housewife talking about watching her figure might not fly these days, but frankly, neither would something called filet of fish Divan.

Stocking freezers for nearly 40 years

But Lean Cuisine's dated ad campaigning got plenty of attention in the '80s. In 1986, The New York Times reported that diet foods were among the the biggest moneymakers in the food industry, calling it "the ever-fatter business of thinness." Frozen light entrees and dinners had exploded into an $800 million business since 1980, and Lean Cuisine had established itself as the top performer. 

Over the years Lean Cuisine has rebranded countless times to keep up with trends, introducing everything from early '90s friendly fat-free fare to mid-aughts popular skillet meals, and a line for those in the market for vegetarian and gluten-free options. The most recent addition to the Lean Cuisine family is a subdivision called Life Cuisine. Food Dive explains that leaving off the "lean" is a nod to wellness over weigh loss. The new lineup features of the moment dishes like tomato and spinach egg bites, cauliflower crust pizza, and protein forward, low carb bowls.

Are these so called healthy meals really good for you?

In order to get to the bottom of which Lean Cuisines are worth the freezer space, Eat This, Not That! lined up 33 of the company's most popular offerings and ranked them on an underwhelming "okay to best" scale, weighing in on both taste and nutritional value. Winners included longstanding Lean Cuisine classics like glazed chicken in a lemon tarragon sauce and newcomers along the lines of a chicken ranch flatbread. Among the losers were nutritionally bankrupt dishes such as cheddar potatoes with broccoli and ricotta and spinach ravioli. The takeaway from reviewing these take out alternatives basically comes down to the fact that Lean Cuisines are not meant to be complete meals. Adding a side of fruit or veggies will boost the good for you value and even out the nutritional ups and downs of the microwavable meals. 

But there's one question that remains throughout the brand's nearly 40 year history, are these supposedly healthy meals really good for you?

Lining up the pros and cons of microwaveable meals

The folks at Live Strong dug deep into the topic and the verdict is hardly cut and dry. With 103 highly processed products ranging from four cheese cannelloni to coconut chickpea curry listed on Lean Cuisine's current product page, the only common denominators are the low calorie count and an ever appealing convenience factor. From there, variables like fat content and carbs are all over the place, sodium levels are exceedingly high, and fiber count is low. These factors risk negating the benefits of the smaller, low calorie serving sizes. Lining up the pros and cons of these microwaveable meals, registered dietician Jonathan Valdez at Very Well Fit says that Lean Cuisine meals are best when eaten in moderation, as a once in a while convenience in diets otherwise made up of more wholesome meals, i.e. those that don't come from microwavable cardboard boxes.