You have to take food endorsements by athletes with a grain of salt, but it’s hard not to get sucked in by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s infomercials on the Instagram account for Performance Kitchen, a new brand of microwavable frozen meals.
“I’m doing everything I can to eat clean and eat right, and that way I can live long and play long,” says the 31-year-old Super Bowl champion, who adds that he grew up eating cheap fast food and lost his dad at 55 to diabetes.
You can see him tossing spirals, hustling across a grassy field, and wolfing down a bowl of cauliflower mac ’n’ cheese. Wilson wants “a healthy option that’s quick and easy” for himself, his kids, and probably even his R&B-superstar wife, Ciara.
And he isn’t alone. The brand’s parent company, Luvo, counts New York Yankees icon Derek Jeter and Olympic swimming medalist Natalie Coughlin as brand reps.
Performance Kitchen also uses glamour shots of everyday people acting sporty, alongside photos of the seemingly delicious food and the sort of nutrition-stat porn often reserved for energy bars.
The roasted cauliflower mac ’n’ cheese bowl, for instance, advertises 11 grams of protein, half a cup of vegetables, and five grams of fiber.
And here’s the best part: You nuke it—in a microwave—for about 4 1/2 minutes, and the roasted vegetables don’t suffer in the nuking. It’s like an old-fashioned microwave dinner, only actually good, and maybe even actually good for you.
But to be taken seriously, fitness-focused frozen-meal companies like Performance Kitchen will need to upend the generations-old idea that TV dinners are for couch potatoes.
Fit Kitchen, a line that Stouffer’s started in 2015, offers bowls in masculine red-and-black packaging with super-sized callouts to their protein content, and it has teamed up with Tough Mudder for events.
But do these companies have what it takes to lure men back to the tundra of the frozen-food aisle?
“Wellness” is a big shift in a category that began as a way to offload surplus Thanksgiving turkey, according to Swanson company lore. The first prepackaged turkey dinners were created in 1953. Other companies later identified the true advantage of the all-in-one tray: It makes cooking and cleanup easier, especially for that era’s men, who might not have wanted to do either.
The trade-offs are that frozen foods go gooey when nuked and taste mostly of added sugar and salt. By the mid-’70s, Swanson was targeting men specifically with its Hungry Man line, tempting diners with massive portions of fried chicken. Later, commercials with burly NFL stars like Rocky Bleier and Mean Joe Greene pushed the idea that eating a frozen meal was macho.
Next came the Hungry Man–sponsored NFL highlight films, which gave diners another reason to stay seated. Hungry Man continues to be one of the top-selling brands. But the cheap-but-unhealthy stigma caused frozen-meal sales to cool a few years ago, says Jeremy Moses, an analyst for the research firm IBISWorld.
“To counteract this, frozen food manufacturers are trying to promote their products through popular trends around food, including tying them to wellness and fitness,” he says.
Brands like Amy’s, Healthy Choice, the FishPeople, Salt & Sky, and Love the Wild are making their own wellness pitches, albeit not fitness-forward ones. And consumers have responded: Sales of frozen food rose 3 percent from 2016 to 2018.
That represents nearly $2 billion in new revenue for a $57 billion industry, according to a 2019 joint report by the American Frozen Food Institute and the Food Marketing Institute.
Simply put: There’s a lot of cold, hard cash to be made.
Initially, Luvo, which was founded in 2013, sold frozen meals under its own name, with most totaling between 300 and 400 calories. (At Fit Kitchen, the calorie count is about the same.)
But Luvo rebranded its meals under the Performance Kitchen banner because it realized it had to sell fitness harder to distance itself from the competition.
“Images promoting an active lifestyle are key to signaling the nutritional support we need to lead our busy and active lifestyles,” says CEO Christine Day.
While competitors may sell, say, an “organic vegetarian” item that sounds healthy, the meal itself might not be nutritionally balanced for high protein, high fiber, and low sodium.
That’s true for protein-rich meals, too.
For example, Hungry Man’s boneless fried chicken and waffles has 26 grams of protein (that’s good) but also 58 grams of sugar and 1,240 grams of sodium (that’s bad).
Performance Kitchen dishes have between 10 and 20 grams of protein, less than four grams of sugar, and less than 500 milligrams of sodium.
None of that matters, however, if Russell Wilson can’t convince you how good that cauliflower mac ’n’ cheese tastes.
“I think every person will love it, and kids will love it, too,” he says in a spot dedicated almost entirely to the dish.
One reason that may be true is that frozen-food companies are employing a technology to make their meals taste better. It’s called individual quick freezing (IQF)—basically using a nitrogen blast instead of a typical freezer to seal in flavor and nutritional value at the molecular level, so they don’t degrade on store shelves.
A British study found higher beta carotene and lutein levels in some frozen foods (IQF’d or otherwise), including broccoli, carrots, and Brussels sprouts, versus those that had spent three days in a refrigerator. Frozen cauliflower, blueberries, and spinach also had significantly less nutritional degradation.
Companies like Conagra (which owns Healthy Choice, Evol, and Frontera), Birds Eye, and B&G Foods (the producer of Green Giant) now all use IQF. Keep the food fresher, the logic goes, and you don’t need so much sodium. But if you want a healthy frozen meal, look beyond the marketing to make sure balanced nutrition is below the ice.
“There’s still plenty of frozen junk out there, but there are more healthy and delicious products appearing on the market,” says Jessica Cording, a registered dietitian in New York City.
So far, Performance Kitchen’s playbook seems to be working. The company claims that about 60 percent of its customers are men. A Fit Kitchen spokesperson reports that men are also more likely to buy its meals.
Wilson’s only regret is that the glacier of terrible frozen options didn’t melt sooner. He considers Performance Kitchen to be almost his new superfood: “If I’d had Performance Kitchen when I was . . . 18 years old, I wonder . . . how much further I could go.”
Best Chicken Dinner: Life Cuisine Chicken Enchilada Bowl
This filling meal in Nestle’s new line has a whopping 24 grams of protein and six grams of fiber for 370 calories, with no added sugar.
Best Beef Dinner: Beetnik Shepherd’s Pie with Grass Fed Beef
Most frozen meals don’t disclose the quality of their meats. Beetnik prides itself on it. This dish supplies 19 grams of protein and a whole bunch of flavor.
Best Seafood Dinner: Salt & Sky Lobster Macaroni & Cheese
Okay, maybe it’s a little indulgent. But that’s kind of the point. Hunks of lobster contribute to the 19 grams of protein.
Best Vegetarian Dinner: Healthy Choice Power Bowls Falafel and Tahini
Big orbs of plant protein nestled in a bed of greens and grains. There are 10 grams of fiber in here, which is a lot for any frozen meal.
Best Classic Dinner: Performance Kitchen Stroganoff Pasta with Chicken Meatballs
Sixteen grams of protein. Six grams of fiber. Only two grams of sugar. Satisfying. Delicious.
Best Office Lunch: Stouffer’s Fit Kitchen Moroccan Style Chicken
White-meat chicken, couscous, raisins, chickpeas, and tomato sauce deliver 24 grams of protein and a hearty 11 grams of fiber.
Best Egg-Based Breakfast: Evol Spicy Chipotle Chorizo Morning Bowl
Eggs and sausage provide 14 grams of protein. Roasted potatoes, black beans, and bell peppers sneak in a few vegetables.
Best Smoothie (Yes, Smoothie!): Daily Harvest Acai and Cherry
There’s kale, but the bananas, raspberries, blueberries, and acai berries even it out. Just pour the contents of the container into your blender, blend, and gulp.