If you are what you eat, then the very foundation of my cells is built upon Banquet Frozen Dinners. As a child, momma worked full-time, and poppa was passed out, in rehab or homeless for most of my childhood. (Sorry, dad! He’s doing well now, for the record.) This is to say, I made myself dinner quite often growing up. Which is also to say, I ate like shit.
But I didn’t mind it too much. Chicken tenders, mac and cheese and a brownie are the only items most kids want to eat anyway, regardless of quality. Sure, I would have preferred a Kid’s Cuisine, but those $2.20 meals were out of the question when Banquet’s meals were essentially the same thing in a different box for only $1. Eventually, I became comforted by the cryptically rubbery dinners.
It’s been a decade since I last ate them with any regularity, but it seems the only thing that’s changed is me. In my local grocery stores, Banquet frozen meals still have the same offerings, the same red box, and most significantly, the same price. Even McDonald’s has retired the Dollar Menu, yet somehow, Banquet hasn’t been touched by inflation. How have they managed to keep their prices almost suspiciously low?
Well, for starters, let’s be real: In an honest world, these meals are valued at a dollar at best. They’re essentially made entirely of corn, grain and meat scraps: Seriously, those are the primary components of all of their $1 frozen meals. Considering that corn and grain are both heavily subsidized, they’re incredibly cheap for major food corporations — like Banquet’s parent company Con-Agra — to buy. Frozen foods are also cheap to manufacture, particularly because the production process is largely mechanized and requires little human labor.
Further, while they’re classified as a “meal,” they’re only nutritionally substantial enough for a depressed tween. Most are around 300 calories, and none exceed 500. Basically, it’s a tiny portion of some low-quality food, frozen by robots.
But there’s more to the Banquet equation. Despite the general trend of living becoming more and more expensive, Americans spend far less of their income on food today than in previous generations. In 1900, families spent around half of their budget on groceries. Today, that figure is closer to 11 percent. Food prices have generally increased year after year with inflation, but only around 1 percent on average.
The fact that at most grocery stores, Banquet meals haven’t budged in cost, is a sign that either Banquet or the stores themselves are playing the long game. They know that people drawn to a bargain or some kind of tragic nostalgia will seek out these cheap meals. Once they get us into the Banquet section of the freezer aisle, they can hook us with their more expensive products — the dollar meals are simply the bait.
And it works. Even today, I still hear the siren song of that chocolate-flavored brick of hot Play-Doh they call a brownie.