By Request: I design frozen dinners, AMA
I work for Nestle Prepared Foods in Solon, Ohio. I'm a member of the team that designs products for brands like Stouffer's, Lean Cuisine, and Buitoni. I'm happy to answer any questions that you have. Just keep in mind that I can't divulge anything confidential.
The requester had some questions:
Q: Does it ever look like what's on the packaging?
We use the actual product when we do photo shoots, but the photographers take some "artistic liberties." They might position the ingredients in a particular way or put the product on a plate or something like that. Part of our job as the food technologists is to make sure that the photographers don't go too far to the point that the photo is misleading.
Q: What is in TV Dinners that we're happy not knowing about?
Not much really. This is a bit of a misconception. Actually our frozen meals don't need to be formulated with preservatives because freezing is the only preservative we need. The weirdest thing you're going to find on the label is probably xanthan gum, which is just a carbohydrate that serves as a thickener. In our factories, we make the meal from scratch, assemble the components in a tray, freeze it, put it in a box, and ship it to you. Pretty simple.
Q: What kind of testing goes on?
We do all sorts of tests. We're given lots of contstraints that we have to meet, and our job as food technologists is to formulate a product that meets all of the requirements. We have to design something that can feasibly be made in our factory, at a particular cost limit, within a set of nutritional requirements, without posing any safety concerns, while still delivering on product quality. So we begin by trying out different formulations in our test kitchen that meet those requirements. We test and test until we get a product that we're happy with, and then we scale it up. We do tests on a larger scale to make sure that the product we envisioned can actually be made in the factory. We test just about anything you can imagine as long as the company feels the cost of the test is justified.
Edit1: Thanks for the questions, guys. I need to go to bed now, but I can answer more questions in the morning. Cheers!
Edit 2: Wow, lots of questions! I'll do my best before I have to leave for work.
Edit 3: I did my best...forgot to drink the tea that I brewed...but I have to go to work. I'll answer some more questions as I get time. Bye for now!
Edit 4: To be safe, I have to make it clear that anything I posted in this AMA is solely reflective of my personal views and not necessarily those of Nestle.