It might be parents who buy the new meals packaged for kids, but it's children who have to eat them. So whom better to ask if the food measures up than a group of 10- and 11-year-olds, and whom could we trust more than a Girl Scout troop? So The Washington Post Food section asked 10 girls from Junior Troop 346 of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital to taste-test unidentified spaghetti and chicken dinners and give us their impressions.

The Montgomery County scouts tested five frozen and shelf-stable dinners from each category. In each case, three special children's meals were tasted. We threw in two ringers -- a standard frozen dinner plus one of the new healthier meals that are lower in fat and sodium than the standards.

The results show that a jazzy package targeted to kids may not be enough: Swanson's Fried Chicken Dinner and Stouffer's Spaghetti with Meatballs easily won first places.

One explanation may be that the girls are familiar with the taste of Swanson's TV dinners or Stouffer's products. Nevertheless, most of the girls said they rarely ate frozen dinners at home.

Another possibility is that in comparison, the old favorites are simply better prepared. With the children's dinners, it seems that manufacturers paid more attention to the packaging than to the meal inside, and the girls weren't fooled. There were complaints of mushiness, gummy sauces and bizarre colorings.

Still, two of the newcomers, Tyson Foods' Looney Tunes and My Own Meal chicken and spaghetti meals did well. Annie Bellenger, 11, said the Looney Tunes spaghetti "could have a little less salt, but it was pretty good." And the My Own Meal Chicken, Please dinner was "great, wonderful!!" effused 10-year-old Jenna Mills.

The healthful entrees, a Right Course chicken meal and a Healthy Choice spaghetti with meat sauce, did about as well as could be expected, considering they are lower in the fat and sodium so dear to children's hearts.

The big loser was Conagra's Kid Cuisine dinners, which the scouts thought ranked as low as school cafeteria food. The fried chicken finished second-to-last place in the chicken category and the spaghetti with meat sauce was dead last.

The girls were put off by the chicken's slim pickings, saying there was "too much skin -- I can't find the meat," and "they gyp you on the food; it was all bone and skin."

The spaghetti was blasted for its meat sauce, with the texture identified as "slimy and rubbery" and the color as too "orngy." The tasters were also confused by the tiny balls of meat in the sauce, thinking that they were too big to make it meat sauce and too small to be meatballs. Emily Morrison, a 10-year-old who looks like Winnie on "The Wonder Years," wrote indignantly, "Well? Meatballs?"

The only thing Kid Cuisine has going for it is that, at $1.99, both the chicken and spaghetti dinners are almost a dollar cheaper than the other brands we tested, including Swanson's and Stouffer's.

While some of them cost less, the child-sized meals' skimpy servings may not be enough for children who are big eaters. In general, since all frozen meals are portion-controlled, noted Annie Bellenger, "if you want seconds, you're {already} done with dinner."

What kids would really like to see at the supermarket (manufacturers, take note) are more frozen pizzas, but "real pizza, not mushy or burned." Shannon Blankenship suggested a microwaveable grilled cheese sandwich. And Jenna Mills, 10, was all for pre-measured peanut butter and jelly fixings. As with all children's products, it would just require a little assembly.

The results:


1. Swanson

2. My Own Meal

3. Looney Tunes (Tyson)

4. Kid Cuisine (Conagra)

5. Right Course (Stouffer Food Corp.)


1. Stouffer

2. Loony Tunes (Tyson)

3. Tie: Healthy Choice (Conagra) and My Own Meal

4. Kid Cuisine (Conagra)