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Lean Cuisine doesn’t want to be part of diet culture anymore. Does it have a choice?

The cheap diet dinners are stuffed with a near-impossible amount of significance — and fewer than 350 calories.

a pile of Lean Cuisine frozen dinners
Lean Cuisine has updated its packaging — and its marketing — but not changed much about what’s inside the box.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

My mom drank SlimFast when I was a kid, and my mom keeps the freezer packed with Lean Cuisine now. On a recent trip home, I ate “Santa Fe-style rice and beans” or “classic five-cheese lasagna” for lunch every day without noticeably depleting the pile of boxes.

She doesn’t always eat these things, and I’ve never heard her express any particular conflict when she chooses to. She was young during the diet-obsessed ’80s, a time when women were told flat-out to be thin, which was dangerous and cruel and a tragic waste of women’s energy and creativity, but also, maybe, at the very least clear. There was — despite the toxicity — something a lot less contorted for the generation that could just walk calmly through the family barbecue with a meal replacement shake, explaining that they were in the mood to drop a few pounds.

My mom was raised on women’s magazines, and I was raised on women’s blogs. The latter tried to undo the criminal handiwork of the former, but it could only offer up a much more complicated recipe for happiness as replacement.

A Lean Cuisine billboard from 1985.
Duke University

Lean Cuisines, obviously, are bad. Lean Cuisines are diet culture, insisting that 250 calories is enough for a dinner, and the name “Lean Cuisine” is understood by the Food and Drug Administration as a “nutrient content claim,” so Lean Cuisines are required by the government to be “lean” (less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat). But that leanness doesn’t even translate to health, especially in the way we think of it now; as nutritionist Laura Silver explains, Lean Cuisines are mostly white pasta or meat, with potatoes and without nearly enough vegetables. At the very least, Lean Cuisine’s parent company Nestlé is bad — known for looking for loopholes in water laws in economically depressed cities, an idea most of us probably could not even have come up with in a Mad Libs of scams.

Maybe, in some circles, Lean Cuisine is most famous for the Vine in which Guy Fieri throws a signed Lean Cuisine into a crowd. That would be nice. But in other circles, Lean Cuisine is famous for a sexy jingle about “satisfaction” and men stuffing towels in their mouths to avoid screaming at thin women’s hot bods. Lean Cuisine has more or less successfully pivoted its branding to “wellness” — it’s contorted around the body positivity movement and done what it needed to in order to survive and resumed making lots of money. But the product remains Lean Cuisine.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the Food and Drug Administration led a shockingly noble war on dieting products. In 1977, it issued a broad warning about liquid protein weight loss products — including the popular drink Metrecal — and in 1978 pulled many of them from stores after they were connected with close to 70 deaths (mostly due to heart irregularities after losing dangerous amounts of weight). In 1982, the New York Times reported, the agency made starch blockers illegal, “rounded up millions of [the] pills and bulldozed them into landfills.” Asked for comment by the Times on the prevalence of weight-loss sauna suits and waistbands, an FDA spokesperson said, “You could wake up slimmer, but you might also wake up dead.”

But, as I’m sure you know, this didn’t exactly work. The 1980s was the decade of villainizing fat and cholesterol, and by the middle of it, the field was dominated by the familiar players: Weight Watchers, Lean Cuisine, and SlimFast, the meal replacement shake that launched the same year Metrecal tanked. It was a $10 billion global industry, and more than 60 percent of American women were participating. The pie was so big, the major companies were more than happy to share it: Lean Cuisine provided Weight Watchers points conversions on its packaging, SlimFast was suggested to replace only breakfast and lunch, leaving dieters the option of a Lean Cuisine dinner.

Lean Cuisine launched in 1981 as Stouffer’s “healthy” sub-brand. One of its first taglines was “You’ll love the way it looks on you,” which is a joke because the whole point of Lean Cuisine is that you won’t see it on you. In fact, you’ll begin to disappear! By 1983, Lean Cuisine was so popular that grocery stores suffered frequent Lean Cuisine shortages, and Lean Cuisine wisely ran print ads apologizing for not being able to keep up with our insatiable hunger for leanness.

That year, the competition in the frozen food business became absolutely vicious. Lean Cuisine sold an estimated $300 million worth of its 14 meal options, and an executive from competitor Swanson told the New York Times that companies were “hurling trees and mountains at each other to take over,” which is a confusing metaphor but I assume means that people were being aggressive. According to the Times, which cited various industry analysts, the rapid growth in the market was due almost exclusively to “the younger, more affluent, more health conscious and sophisticated shopper,” a group that includes “the nation’s growing population of working women.”

The microwave dinner — which has never quite gone out of style and remains a standard pop culture signifier of the put-upon go-getter eating alone over the sink — was for dieters, and dieting was for women, and the diet microwave dinner was for ambitious women, who didn’t have very much time to spare but needed to be thin, and these things bubbled and spun under a 700-watt bulb until they were one hot, gooey mess.

From 1983 to 1988, the Times reported, sales of low-calorie frozen dinners rose 24 percent, nearly twice as much as typical frozen meals. Lean Cuisine was blunt about its appeal, and told the paper that the product was specifically for “young women on a diet or concerned about their appearance.”

This is not the world we live in now — or it’s not the words we use to describe it. “‘Dieting’ was now considered tacky. It was anti-feminist. It was arcane. In the new millennium, all bodies should be accepted, and any inclination to change a body was proof of a lack of acceptance of it,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes in her landmark report on the revitalization of Weight Watchers (a year before it decided to go by “WW” alone). “People were now fasting and eating clean and cleansing and making lifestyle changes, which, by all available evidence, is exactly like dieting,” she adds.

In June 2015, Lean Cuisine brand manager Chris Flora told AdAge that “diets are dead” and that his company wanted “to show that we are truly shifting away from diet.” In other words, Lean Cuisines would still be lean, because they are mandated by decades of tradition and by the gaze of the government (which has pierced the company before), but women should not feel that this is on purpose, or the point. Lean Cuisine sales had dropped 20 percent over the previous two years, Bloomberg had recently reported, and Flora admitted that the company had effectively shut down its advertising operations for more than a year while trying to figure out what it could or should say about food and women and what they want and what they can have.

In July 2015, the company launched its “Feed Your Phenomenal” campaign. The first TV ad showed a Boston delivery nurse coming home from a night shift and eating a Lean Cuisine mac and cheese. Soon after, Lean Cuisine put a scale in Grand Central Station and asked women to put not their bodies but the things they cared about on it. For example, a college degree. A divorce. Their young daughters. (Wait, what?) “The new Lean Cuisine — here to feed what really matters to you,” went the tagline, which, while less objectively offensive than “You’ll love the way it looks on you,” also makes no sense.

Though Lean Cuisine has been criticized for focusing its marketing so heavily on women, it can’t exactly be blamed. The men of Silicon Valley are dieting now too, but they call it “intermittent fasting.” (They call meal replacement shakes “meal replacement shakes,” except in their case, almost nobody assumes they are speaking in code about wanting to shuck 5 to 10 pounds.) They are not trying to “lose weight” so much as they are trying to become hyperproductive pieces of muscle machinery in drop-crotch pants. In 2019, Soylent chief executive Bryan Crowley told the New York Times that Soylent Squared, the company’s new 100-calorie “mini-meal” in the shape of a square, was designed in part to “bring more females into the fold.”

(SlimFast’s Meal Replacement bars are 200 calories, and its Snack bars are 100 calories. Dieters are encouraged to follow a 3-2-1 plan, which includes three 100-calorie snacks, two 200-calorie meal replacements, and one actual meal per day.)

Even if it wanted to, Lean Cuisine would have a hard time tearing itself away from its origins completely: Modern wellness has demanded that everybody be “healthy” insofar as they are functional, and “optimized” insofar as they look fit, which is negligibly different from telling them to be thin.

And that healthy posture is a little more complicated for Lean Cuisine. Silver, a Brooklyn-based dietitian and nutritionist certified by New York University, says most Lean Cuisines aren’t balanced meals: “Almost all of these Lean Cuisine dinners are between 200 and 300 calories, which is just not enough food for a meal.” They are largely refined pasta, and when they do have vegetables, the portion size is too small.

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Anyone else buy their Lean Cuisine’s in bulk?

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On top of that, the idea that the cholesterol a person consumes in their food has any effect on the levels of cholesterol in their body has been debunked for at least 15 years, so the low-cholesterol promise of Lean Cuisine is pretty much pointless. “Even the low-fat part of it — we can’t categorically say that fat is bad for you, it’s not,” Silver says. “It matters where it comes from. There’s certainly a difference in getting our fat from extra-virgin olive oil or avocados or nuts versus super-processed foods.”

Though you could obviously supplement a Lean Cuisine with your own sides, Silver suggests the damage is already done: “It makes no sense that it should be the same portion size for a petite teenage girl and a middle-aged man who weighs 250 pounds. Of course it’s not going to be the right portion for both people, but both people might go into it thinking it should be the right portion for them and wind up feeling unsatisfied and then feeling like, what’s wrong with me here?”

In 2004, I was 11, and Lean Cuisine had a slate of TV commercials that were slightly different but all centered on a group of four female friends — just like Sex and the City! Three friends, looking glum, low-energy, and thin, would say what they’d eaten recently. “I licked the butter off a piece of toast,” for example. The fourth woman — peppy, carefree, thin — would describe a rich, complicated-sounding meal with many delicious components. I had grilled chicken in a creamy three-cheese sauce with crisp broccoli and red peppers,” for example. Three jaws go slack with jealousy and horror. “It was, uh, one of those new dinners from Lean Cuisine,” the woman clarifies.

When I was a teenager, magazines were packed with “Thanks, Lean Cuisine” print ads, which said things like “Thanks for my skinny jeans” and “Behind every successful woman is her microwave.”

In 2013, when I was in my second year of college, in a Jezebel post titled “Sad Singletons Go Hungry After 500,000 Lean Cuisines Recalled Because They Are Full of Glass,” Lindy West laid out the website’s general stance on Lean Cuisine, writing, “If you think about it, broken glass is a fantastic weight-loss supplement! Just try absorbing calories when your stomach and esophagus are riddled with holes!” I’m sure I laughed at this, and agreed that Lean Cuisine was disgusting and anti-feminist and therefore not for me.

Magazine ad from 1985.

Later, when I graduated and moved to New York, I ate it daily. This was, I hoped, just a personal choice, another idea I had been coached on by women’s blogs and Sex and the City reruns. I’m the sort of person who thinks almost all food tastes fine — “I have a Protestant suburban church dinner palate!” I often shout when other people discuss restaurants — and I find Lean Cuisine familiar and reassuring. If I wanted to eat comforting, cheap, not particularly healthy food that was less likely to make me gain weight than other comforting, cheap, not particularly healthy foods, who was I hurting?

Then again, what is a personal choice? The great tradition of dieting in America is one of the advertising industry’s most emphatic victories: Lucky Strike used to sell smoking cigarettes as a way to avoid eating (“Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet!”), and three generations of women ate Ayds diet candy — the active ingredient was originally an oral anesthetic, numbing the tongue so it couldn’t experience flavor. The pressure to be thin is not something I can remove from myself, or others, regardless of what a formerly-known-as-diet company may say about itself now.

Nate Hill, the marketing director for Lean Cuisine, provided information for this story via email. “Lean Cuisine focuses on helping women live their best lives by encouraging every woman to define what that means for herself,” he wrote to me, asked about the company’s recent advertising strategy. When I wondered if Lean Cuisine had ever contemplated a name change — along the lines of Weight Watchers, to distance itself from the 1980s diet era it was born in — he replied, “We’ve had discussions over the years about the brand name and it’s always come back to the fact that Lean Cuisine is a leading brand that consumers know, love and count on to deliver great-tasting meals.”

But just a few years ago, when the company was desperate, Lean Cuisine executives were more candid about the situation they’d found themselves in. In 2016, Jeff Hamilton, president of Nestlé Prepared Foods, publicly estimated that Lean Cuisine had lost more than $400 million in sales in the previous five years.

“Consumers were embarrassed to be in line with boxes of Lean Cuisine,” Hamilton told a marketing trade journal. “We had become a diet food for skinny white women.”

They reversed course by deleting the word “diet” from all of their marketing and redesigning the Lean Cuisine box — typically stark white and medicinal-looking — to be warm and friendly, implying hearth and carbohydrates, like an advertisement for Panera Bread. The new box won the grand prize at the first Nielsen Design Impact Awards, which are not for good packaging or product design, exactly, but for packaging or product design that results directly in a revenue spike.

In presenting the award, Nielsen said simply, “The design makeover helped drive a sales increase of $58 million in the year following the redesign compared to the year prior — a significant amount for a large brand innovating in the declining frozen food category.”

Lean Cuisine’s brand refresh has worked the way the company hoped, in that its sales rebounded and it is widely known that it is trying to put less emphasis on dieting — a successful public relations campaign. But Lean Cuisine talking less about weight loss doesn’t mean that Lean Cuisine is talked about any less by people who care about weight loss. A product is a product. It doesn’t matter what you say about it if that doesn’t actually change what ends it’s used for.

In my cursory searches of Reddit and Tumblr, in hopes of finding some millennial or Gen Z opinions on Lean Cuisine, it took mere seconds to wind up looking at subreddits dedicated to eating fewer than 1,200 calories a day (the moderators ask that everyone include their starting weight, current weight, and goal weight in the badge next to their username), or pro-anorexia and “thinspo” tags with strange spellings to get them past Tumblr’s content filters. The people in these spaces are not buying Lean Cuisine because it’s on sale, and they are not even a little bit joking.

Lean Cuisine is still Lean Cuisine. You search for it and you find thinspo blogs. You eat it and you still feel hungry.

Last summer, Lean Cuisine launched its #ItAll campaign, which was about women having it all. “What does having it all mean to you?” The company asked women to answer the question privately and then in front of their friends, at which point, a beautiful woman confronted them on camera to point out the discrepancies between their answers. Privately, one woman said she didn’t want kids, and in front of her friends, she said she wanted three. Another was interested in a career in marketing all of a sudden, when she wasn’t before.

In the final ad, each woman laughs an open-mouthed laugh, flashing perfect teeth, and the point of the experiment is never quite addressed — likely because, if it were, it would be impossible not to associate these low-calorie “wellness” meals with a similar sort of duplicity, as flimsy and sweaty as so many pieces of microwaved plastic wrap.

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