Plate Your Microwaved Meals—you'll Be Glad You Did

As you're already well aware, the pandemic has led to a surge in home-cooked lunches and dinners. And, thanks to that phenomenon, meal kit delivery services have seen a big spike in business. I recently spoke to the co-founder and CEO of Freshly, Mike Wystrach, who boldly predicted that 2021 would be the year of the microwave. While some people might enjoy making their meals from scratch, and others enjoy the step-by-step approach of DIY kits like Blue Apron, Freshly is the option for people who want healthy, balanced meals that they can stick in the microwave on high for three minutes, rather than dirty an entire kitchen preparing lunch. I haven't been in the habit of eating fully microwavable meals since the Lean Cuisine craze of the early 2000s, so I was intrigued by Freshly's approach to food delivery. The company sent me six different meals to try, and I was eager to taste a product that is evidently popular enough to have shipped 50 million times in 2020.

The meals arrive in sleek, well-designed packaging, making each one feel like part of a larger lifestyle brand: bold colors, sans-serif fonts, and beautiful photography of the meal contained within. Seeing them in the fridge, you are reassured by how simple your eating week is going to be: nothing to plan, nothing to moderate. Just heat, eat, and enjoy. Hell, I won't even have to do dishes! I thought. This was my fatal mistake.

It says it right on the package, as step 5 of the microwave instructions: "Our chefs suggest plating your meal before enjoying." I initially scoffed, thinking that if I wanted to dirty a plate, I'd have scrambled eggs like always. I took my steaming plastic tray of Zingy Buffalo Chicken out of the microwave, grabbed a fork and knife, and dug right in.

First of all, this isn't exactly a safe thing to do. The chicken, doused in a buffalo sauce, went slip-sliding around the glossy plastic, evading my knife as I tried to cut into it. Not only will this lead to potential injury, but you also stand a good chance of slicing through the plastic and right into your tabletop. So transferring the food to a plate is best if you need to maneuver a knife.

But even once I cut everything safely into bite-sized pieces, the meal felt... lacking. Because I remained bullishly unwilling to plate the food, the failings of this Zingy Buffalo Chicken were its environs and context. When I speared a piece with my fork, the extra sauce dripped back into the tray with unappetizing thwap sounds, and the deep compartments of the container left me digging around for my remaining food like I was scooping the last stubborn bit of yogurt out of a Dannon cup. There is no plastic smell, per se, but the plastic walls did seem to concentrate and circulate an aromatic steam around the food that made it smell overly pungent and off-putting.

The next day, I heated my meal in the tray as directed, but transferred it to a ceramic plate before eating. I used a small salad plate so that the food crowded out to the edges and covered more white space, making it feel more substantial. I went with a "striped" plating, where all the meal's components sat beside one another without space between them. It looked plentiful, especially for a weekday lunch.

I simply cannot tell you how much better the second meal was than the first. My Ultra-Umami Turkey Meatloaf with creamed spinach was enjoyable and filling in a way that didn't remind me at all of the plastic film I had peeled off its cooking vessel moments earlier. Psychologically, I'm shocked at how well plating works. And Freshly is aware of this, too. Here's some advice for upgrading your microwaved meals that Freshly provided The Takeout:

Use colorful bowls, plates, and silverware. Make the food you're eating feel like an occasion, not an obligation. "Look for shallow bowls and plates as these are more versatile and popular in restaurants," says product manager Audrey Baeza. She also recommends gold utensils, which can brighten things up and make the meal feel more sophisticated.

Add garnishes. This is a way to add extra dimension to microwave food that doesn't result in any extra dishes. "Garnish your meal with fresh components like herbs, spices, and seeds of different colors," recommends product manager Brooke Baevsky. "Add your own sauces and dressings to boost flavor and/or heat to the meal, add some grated cheese, nuts or seeds to add texture and brighten the appearance of a meal without making it heavy."

Try finding a new way to eat it. "I like to pop a meal over greens like spinach or kale, garnish with grape tomatoes, or even plate a meal into a butter lettuce wrap for a handheld variation," says Dr. Brooke Scheller, director of nutrition. This also adds textural variation, since everything else comes out of the microwave heated and steamed.