For many Americans, the term "frozen entree" conjures images of warped lasagna and crusty macaroni and cheese, not haute cuisine.
But a walk down the chilly aisles of most grocery stores today begins to yield a different picture. With a few exceptions, the flag bearers of microwaveable mediocrity, such as flaky fish fillets and beef pot pies, are giving way to bigger and better meals with more flavor and hardier portions.
The reason, experts suggest, is Americans' growing hunger for low-maintenance food that doesn't strain the definition of edible. It's a desire prompting food marketers, most notably restaurants, to bring their top recipes to the grocery store.
New contributors to the frozen- and refrigerated-food section include familiar names like Boston Market, California Pizza Kitchen, Legal Seafood, TGI Fridays, and Los Angeles chef Wolfgang Puck. Some of their offerings come straight off their restaurant menus and can feed a family of four.
The meals mark the first installment in what many analysts predict will be a flood of packaged restaurant food for the home.
The current and coming generations of parents, they suggest, lack the time and know-how to cook regularly. But rather than hand over dinner duties to the pizza delivery man, parents are looking for a role in the kitchen, even if limited to turning oven knobs.
For many, frozen meals from national restaurants offer the best of both worlds: the promise of quality and a hint of the cooking mystique, but without the hassle.
Janette Antokel is one devotee. The Sharon, Mass., native began purchasing restaurant-quality meals in her local grocery store a few years ago. She frequently buys refrigerated products under the national Pizzeria UNO label to feed her three kids after school.
"When I see the [restaurant's] name, I assume they bring the same quality to their products for the freezer," says Ms Antokel.
Other top performers include TGI Friday's assortment of appetizers and Boston Market's "Homestyle" meals, like country-fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, owner of Spago and other ritzy L.A. spots, headlines the high-end category.
All of these upper-crust offerings have contributed to the growing sales of frozen-dinner entrees, which have risen 18 percent since 1995, according to market-research firm NPD group. On average, they cost less than the in-restaurant version and taste better than the standard fare from Lean Cuisine or Stouffer's.
The popularity of frozen meals is closely tied to the shifting profile of the American family. Most baby boomers were brought up eating home-cooked meals. And they cooked for their children, some of whom were raised before the microwave went mainstream.
But the boomers' children aren't very practiced with a measuring cup. A decade of affluence, where eating out became more of a regularity than a privilege, has made eating well possible without slaving away in the kitchen.
As a result, Americans' tolerance for complicated meal preparation is quickly narrowing. Forty-four percent of at-home meals are now prepared in 30 minutes or less, NPD says.
And the trend is likely to accelerate. By 2010, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co., 31 percent of meals eaten at home will be made of food prepared outside the home - a mix between takeout and frozen meals. Much of Generations X and Y - those now aged between 15 and 35 - don't know how to cook, says McKinsey, and aren't likely to ever buy a cookbook. For many teenagers, cooking means little more than assembling a variety of prepared foods into a larger meal.
Working parents, however, are reluctant to abandon the kitchen altogether. According to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, there's a growing nostalgia among parents to help make their kids a traditional meat and potatoes dinner at home.
Arun Jain, a marketing professor at the University of Buffalo, says dishes like those from Boston Market do much to assuage parents' guilt for not preparing a meal from scratch.
"There are parents who will feel badly about going to a restaurant every day," says Mr. Jain. "In the back of their minds they are thinking, 'Gee, I should be preparing meals for my family.' "
Foodmakers credit the "frozen revolution" to advances in technology, which have largely phased out the freezer-induced rigor mortis that rendered many a pot pie inedible. Now, manufacturers can freeze recipes as delicate as Oven-Roasted Turkey Medallions With Garlic Dill Potatoes, and without disastrous results.
Advances include the Individual Quick Freezing process, which cools food in a flash so it stays crisp, and Boil-in-bag technology that locks in flavor better than microwave packaging.
But does frozen quality really stack up?
Most restaurateurs admit there's a definite taste gap.
"The frozen-food version will never taste as good," says Keith Robertson, a spokesman for Boston Market. "Consumers don't expect it to taste the same way, but they want it to be the best in that category of frozen entrees."
Yet others are quick to point out that restaurants have long made use of frozen food in their mainline business.
"It's one of the untold secrets in the restaurant business," says Robert Vosburgh, fresh market editor of Supermarket News. "In some cases the food you eat has come frozen, just like you get it at the grocers."
As restaurants offer more meals in the supermarket, consumers can expect them to incorporate gimmicks that try to replicate the social experience of eating out. Options on the drawing board range from patterned napkins with the restaurant's brand to compact discs that play background noise from the restaurant itself.
Steve Schimoler, a food manufacturer who plans to offer refrigerated meals from America's top chefs later this year, says the push to bring the restaurant experience home is indicative of its status in American society. "If the point of reference for what they think of the best quality is coming from restaurants, that's where the next generation of food and different products will be coming from," he says.
The popularity of ethnic restaurants, like Indian and Thai, influenced Americans to cook similar dishes at home. ("Thai Chef" microwaveable meals are now in many grocery stores.) And salsa, which was first introduced in Mexican restaurants 20 years ago, is now the top condiment in the nation.
"Food service was always the redheaded stepchild of the food world," says Mr. Schimoler. But "it's now the incubator for the next generation of retail food."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor