Product Love: Lean Cuisine Spinach, Chicken & Mushroom Panini


Better than it has any right to be.

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to know the “healthy” TV-dinner industry intimately. I’m the one who can spot, out of an entire freezer case, the one new product at first glance.

I probably shouldn’t be bragging about that. It’s sad, I know. But the truth is, when you work full-time and have kids, TV-dinners are pretty handy. It’s nice to have a supply of them in the freezer to grab from on a morning after a late night when I didn’t feel like preparing my sack lunch to take to work. Or when the family is having a “regular” dinner and you realize that to stay “on plan” for the night, you’ll only get to eat three fish sticks and a carrot.

And some of the frozen diet dinners aren’t bad. Yes, many of them are insanely gross. But a few of them are so good I legitimately look forward to eating them.

Again, I probably shouldn’t be confessing to that, either, but here we are.

paniniI’ve always been leery of the frozen sandwiches — even the non-diet versions — because they seem like a recipe for a soggy, sloppy mess. On a recent trip to the store, I accidentally grabbed a Lean Cuisine Spinach, Chicken & Mushroom Panini instead of the Lean Cuisine Spinach & Mushroom Pizza (one of my all-time faves) because the boxes looked so similar and I was in a hurry. I pulled it out of the shopping bag at home and honestly considered returning it when I realized the mistake I’d made. But I didn’t because…well, extra driving and explaining and returning seemed like a pain. So I threw it in the freezer, figuring I’d possibly get desperate enough to eat it eventually.

I did. And immediately bought 3 more to stick in my freezer.

First off, the bread stays amazingly good through the freezing/thawing/cooking. The crust has a bite to it, the center is chewy (not soggy!), and the bread even has a nice sweet, buttery kiss to it that I love. The filling is generous but not just plopped on there in a frozen lump. It’s spread evenly around on the bread (you cook it open-face style and then fold it together after it’s heated) and nothing really falls out when you’re eating it. There is more chicken than I expected and there are red peppers and white cheese as well. It has more flavor than most frozen meals and a great texture. It absolutely does not taste like “diet food.”

In fact, I was shocked when I did the math and realized it actually has fewer Weight Watchers Points than the LC spinach/mushroom pizza I’m used to. I recently mentioned that I went back to using the old WW points system (not PointsPlus), so with the old math the LC pizza is 8 points, while the similar LC panini is only 6 points. I was really impressed. It’s far better than a lot of the 7- and 8-point options out there and it’s actually better and more filling than the similar pizza version.

I like to slice up half a red pepper into sticks and bring them as a side, but honestly, the sandwich is completely satisfying on its own. I like that since it gets cooked open-faced and then assembled afterwards, you can stick lettuce or tomatoes or whatever in the middle to dress it up and add extra fresh veggies that way. I’m thinking I should try some pepperoncini on it next time.

I love when I discover frozen entrees that are both diet-friendly and tasty. It’s a rare thing, and I tend to stick inside my comfort zone a lot. If I buy 10 entrees at the store, there will probably be only 1 in that stack that I’ve never tried before, and the rest is made up of maybe 3 other kinds that I buy several each of. I tend to stick with what I know, and there are a lot of stinkers out there. At this point, I’ve basically sworn off anything with tomato sauce (the way it gets all watery and over-garlicky in the microwave means I kill another WW point or two sopping it up with tons of Parmesan Cheese when it’s done just to make it swallow-able).

But there are a few good ones out there. Some of my regular favorites include:

  1. Lean Cuisine Deep Dish Spinach & Mushroom Pizza: What can I say? I really like all the ones that involve spinach. This one’s a little higher on the points scale (I think it’s 8 old points and 10 new points plus) but still better than ordering in. When my coworkers order from the delicious local pizzaria, I’m always happy if I know I have one of these stashed in the work fridge. As long as I heat it up before their “real food” arrives, I know I won’t be tempted. This one tastes better to me if I sprinkle a little salt over it after it comes out of the microwave. Also, sometimes I like to fold it in half when it comes out and eat it like a gyro, depending on how well the crisping tray did its job that time around.
  2. Lean Cuisine Asian-Style Pot Stickers: My favorite Asian food is steamed dumplings/pot stickers. These ones are so good I actually prefer them to the heavier, fattier ones at restaurants now. The rice is a little bit lacking in this one (kind of watery and flavorless) but I still buy it because the dumplings are so good.
  3. WW Smart Ones Chicken Enchilada Suiza: This one’s even better than Lean Cuisine’s version of it which I already liked. The sauce is a little more plentiful (and flavorful) in this one, and the rice doesn’t get weird if you ignore the actual directions of stopping midway, stirring, etc. I know this because I rarely follow these directions on any nuked dinner. Sometimes it makes a difference, sometimes it doesn’t. In this one’s case, you can just add up the times, set it all at once, and walk away. It will still taste good.
  4. WW Smart Ones Pasta with Ricotta & Spinach: This one’s decent. I do like to sprinkle a small amount of Parmesan cheese on top of it afterwards, but it doesn’t take much, and the pasta doesn’t get all limp and mushy or dried out around the edges. It will, however, give you garlic breath, so…be warned if you have an afternoon meeting.
  5. Michelina’s Lean Gourmet Pepperoni Pizza Snacks: Okay, even I’ll admit this one is pretty ghetto, but sometimes that’s the comfort food I want. Honestly, I always hated pizza rolls like Totino’s because they came out so greasy and chewy even when I made them in the oven. I thought I hated all pizza rolls. But I bought this kind for my kids once, tried some with a tablespoon or so of cold pizza sauce we had in the fridge, and was genuinely surprised that I liked it. Technically, the box says there are 1.5 servings, and my two boys are still little, so on nights when Hubby’s working late, I buy 2 packages and my two kids and I split them into 3 servings. They’re not fine dining or anything, but they’re better than Totino’s pizza rolls (definitely less greasy), and nice when we want something we can eat off of paper plates while watching TV together. Plus, they’re only $1 per package, so they’re definitely easy on the wallet.
  6. Michelina’s Lean Gourmet Sante Fe Style Rice & Beans: Another from the cheapie-rack, this version actually tastes better (to me) than the similar versions that both Smart Ones and Lean Cuisine make. Mainly, I’ve found that the beans don’t turn into dried out pebbles as easily in this version. Not eating bean pebbles is a plus in my book.

I’ve tried a lot of the Healthy Choice brand entrees, but honestly, the styles that most appeal to me always end up being too saucy or watery after it goes in the microwave. Has anyone else stumbled across some great ones hidden in the freezer section at the market?



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