Food engineering sits in that uneasy space between inspirational and apocalyptic, like climate hacking or the Svalbard Seed Vault. When I see a frozen TV dinner filled with turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, bread stuffing, vegetables, and cranberry sauce, I stand in awe at how many strands of science and technology have come together. Quantitative genetics for the turkey breeding. Agronomy for the potatoes and vegetables. Biology and pathology to ensure the safety of the product. The processing of the foods requires detailed knowledge of the chemical components of the food, and the additives used to make it edible months after it was first cooked. And automated production lines actually do the "cooking."

On the other hand, all that engineering changes the nature of the food. For example, take turkey frozen dinners, which sit at the very apex of the processed food pyramid, just above Twinkies and Doritos Tacos Locos. Making cranberry sauce on its own is relatively simple, but it requires time to gel together. TV dinner production lines are not compatible with that kind of production, though, so to make cranberry sauce work on a TV dinner, a 1967 Ocean Spray patent explains, food manufacturers simply toss in more starch. That's one reason why many TV dinner sauces are so shiny: they use all kinds of gelling agents like "algins, vegetable gums, carboxy methyl cellulose."

The turkey is modified, too. Generally, the turkey in these products is not sliced off a roasted bird. Instead, some turkey bits are mixed with some combination of starch, carrageenan, broth, soy products, and preservatives. It's sort of a turkeyloafthing that can then be sliced very thinly and smothered in thick gravy.

I like my food simple and fresh, so, generally, I steer clear of these products. But, sometimes things go awry. Not everyone is living out an episode of Parenthood. Maybe some day, you'll find yourself in the frozen dinner aisle at Walmart, wondering if it is worth taking a chance on a frozen Thanksgiving dinner.

Should you find yourself in a situation like this, I'm here to help. These are my tasting notes for five different frozen turkey dinners I found at Walmart, with special attention to how the actual dinners stack up with the serving suggestions on their boxes.

Advertisement

In all cases, I followed the microwaving instructions precisely, photographed the dinners as they were, then styled them for maximum Instagrammability.

Hungry-Man Roasted Carved White Meat Turkey

This one is really the classic. It's got your turkey, your mashed potatoes, your gravy, your mixed vegetables, your cranberry stuff. Hungry-Man distinguished itself by being largely edible. The turkey slices did not have the texture of actual breast meat, and I assume they were reconstituted from ground up turkey bits and pressed together like particle board. The mashed potatoes were indistinguishable from KFC mashed potatoes, as far as I'm concerned. And the vegetables actually tasted good; they were, by far, the least adulterated thing on the plate.

Advertisement

And, I should note, Hungry-Man was the only frozen dinner that was large enough to actually fill up a plate, at least a salad plate, like the one I used in the photograph.

Box:

Advertisement

Unboxed:

Instagram:

Advertisement

Banquet Homestyle Gravy & Sliced White Turkey Meat

Banquet's entry hardly qualified as food. The turkey was both tough and somehow tasted like bologna. The gravy was shiny and viscous, like sweet and sour sauce at the worst Chinese restaurant in town. I had to switch to manual focus because my camera couldn't zero in on the turkey through the glaze/daze of "homestyle" gravy. One thing to note in the image on the box: the turkey slices seem to have some sort of internal wavey structure, almost like manta ray wings. In real life, they sat dead flat with none of the undulations of the package image. I imagine they had to prop up the turkey slices with toothpicks (or tiny yoga blocks). Consider that someone was probably handsomely paid to do so.

Box:

Advertisement

Unboxed:

Instagram:

Advertisement

Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers

This would be your choice for a Diet Thanksgiving. And, happily, this is not the worst food I've ever tasted. It's basically nine turkey chunks in a semi-sweet sauce with some vegetables. Sum total: 220 calories, or about 12 Triscuits' worth. I worry about anyone who could eat one of these for dinner and feel like they had dinner.

Box:

Advertisement

Unboxed:

Instagram:

Advertisement

Smart Ones Homestyle Turkey Breast with Stuffing

Take a very close look at the picture on this box. It is, according to the laws of physics and with the food contained in the box, impossible. In order to get the turkey angling upward and the vegetables sitting that high, spilling over the turkey, there would have to be a lot of food underneath that turkey and vegetables.I spent half an hour trying to style the plate so that it looked like the box, and I can assure you that it is so far from possible as to become a lie. Because this is a 260-calorie dinner and the portion size is almost laughably small: the plate I present it on below is about six inches across. The gravy was the consistency and stickiness of jam. The only positive thing I can say about the food was that the stuffing tasted like Stove Top, which I will love until I die.

Box:

Advertisement

Unboxed:

Instagram:

Advertisement

Healthy Choice Golden Roasted Turkey Breast

I saved the best for last. This meal was, I dare say, actually decent. The turkey actually tasted like turkey carved off of an actual bird, instead of extruded from a machine. The green beans were green beany and the dessert was … well, it was kind of sweet. Presentation wise, it even could be made to look nice, as the components kept their color. But the idea that you could pour the gravy as we see on the box is laughable. The gravy simply is not a liquid, or if it is, it would be in the same category as tree sap.

Box:

Advertisement

Unboxed:

Instagram:

Advertisement

Having consumed bits of all these food-like substances over the course of an hour or two, I can say that I did not die. But I also felt like my insides were congealing into a mass of turkeyloafgravystuff that could only be broken up with scalding hot water and a week's worth of salad.

In a pinch, though, like if you the apocalypse came and you happened to find yourself in a freezer aisle as the world collapsed around you, one of these rations could definitely satisfy your desire for one last taste of the wonderful world that was.