Point/Counterpoint: Is canned pasta a viable entrée?

Cans of Chef Boyardee products in a stack
Photo: Dorann Weber (Getty Images)

The Chef Boiardi Food Company launched in 1928 with a single product: a pre-packaged spaghetti dinner in a carton, served with a little canister of grated parmesan and a large jar of spaghetti sauce. Founded by Ettore “Hector” Boiardi, an Italian chef who supposedly used a wire whisk for a rattle, the company adopted the phonetic “Boy-Ar-Dee” name shortly after. Now, nearly 100 years later, Chef Boyardee’s canned delights are the saving grace of babysitters and picky eaters everywhere. But is canned pasta an acceptable pick after the age of seven, or is it an affront to the pasta gods? Two Takeout staffers sound off.

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Totally, as long as you have fun eatin’ it

By Lillian Stone

I’m six years older than my eldest sibling and almost eight years older than the youngest. That meant that, from the time I was old enough to reach the top of the stove, I was spending summers babysitting the brats while our parents worked. (The brats are real people now and I love them very much.) Most days, my mom left us with easily heatable lunch options that didn’t require sharp knives—stuff like ramen noodles, PB&J fixings, and canned Chef Boyardee ravioli, which was my favorite. Canned ravioli was quick and filling, but most importantly, it was fun to eat. I even developed a patented method for juicing maximum flavor out of each bite:

  • Spear center of ravioli with fork.
  • Gently tap ravioli on side of bowl to remove excess sauce. Light licking is also acceptable.
  • Slowly nibble around edges of ravioli until meat pocket is all that remains.
  • Use tongue to peel off top of meat pocket. Eat top of meat pocket.
  • Use tongue to scoop meat out of meat pocket. Eat meat.
  • Eat rest of ravioli wrapper.

In conclusion: canned pasta is great when you’re in a pinch. It’s cheap and it’s fun to eat. It’s not in the same realm as grown-up pasta, but I don’t think it needs to be. It’s an utterly singular treat. Only exception: SpaghettiO’s. SpaghettiO’s are gross.


OMFG, no

By Allison Robicelli

I am not a food snob. There’s room for all sorts of edible experiences in this world, and I do my best to appreciate whatever I’m eating for exactly what it is. So I would never expect canned pasta to remotely resemble what I, an Italian-American from Brooklyn, eat for Sunday dinner. Still, I’ll never be able to appreciate canned pasta in any way, shape, or form, because I refuse to eat it. I don’t consider this “food snobbery” as much as “a show of respect for my ancestors.” I am not stupid enough to subject myself to the wrath of ghosts.

While I appreciate that canned pasta was popularized by a hardworking Italian immigrant, this is a food that was invented in the 1920s when people were still impressed by that sort of thing. A bunch of ravioli crammed into a metal tube seemed cutting-edge and futuristic, and I understand how exciting something like that can be (I was alive when Go-Gurt was invented and saw with my own eyes how society can radically change). But it’s been just about a century since Chef Boyardee first appeared on supermarket shelves, and in that time, there have been some astounding food innovations. Why, in the 1920s most Americans didn’t even have refrigerators. People ate canned pasta because it was shelf-stable, not necessarily because it was the most delicious option. If Ettore “Hector” Boiardi could have made a frozen pasta dinner instead of a can full of salty mush, I’m sure he would have done it in a second.

If I could travel back in time and taste the real Chef Boiardi’s home cooking, I bet I would lick my plate clean and ask for seconds. As for the pastabominations that bear his name at the grocery store, well, I think that by the year 2021 he would have wanted us to move past them. Maybe we should want that, too.

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Allison Robicelli is a writer, recipe czar, former professional chef, author of four (quite good) books, and The People's Hot Pocket Princess. Tweet me for recipe help: @Robicellis.

Staff writer @ The Takeout, joke writer elsewhere. Wrangling dogs and pork shoulder in Chicago.

DISCUSSION

burnersbabyburners
Burners Baby Burners: Discussion Inferno

Sometimes when I was a kid we were quite poor and canned pasta was what we had. It wasn’t something I loved the way other kids did. Growing up, I gave a lot of thought to the pros and cons of food and poverty, canned pasta like this is an excellent example of it, I’ll break it down below.

Let’s look at the raw numbers to compare as one-to-one as we can with:

  • Chef Boyardee Spaghetti & Meatballs - $1.25 at my local store for a 14.5oz can, 2 servings @ 257g each. Each serving contains 260 calories, 800mg of sodium, 31g of carbohydrates including 3g of dietary fiber, and 9g of protein.

vs. what we’ll call a “real meal” of...

  • Generic spaghetti - $1 at my local store for a 16oz uncooked box, 8 servings @ 56g per uncooked serving at a cost of $0.125. Each serving contains 200 calories, 0mg sodium, 42g of carbohydrates including 2g of dietary fiber, and 7g of protein.
  • Barilla Marinara pasta sauce (a sauce recommended by this very site) - $2.99 for a 24oz jar, 5 servings @ 125g per uncooked serving at a cost of $0.60. Each serving contains 60 calories, 420mg of sodium (nice), 14g of carbohydrates including 3g of dietary fiber, and 2g of protein.
  • Generic frozen meatballs - $2.99 for a 14oz bag, ~4 servings @ 85g or 3 meatballs per serving at a cost of $0.75. Each serving contains 190 calories, 540mg of sodium, 7g of carbohydrates including 2g of dietary fiber, and 14g of protein.

What does that tell us?

Cost: Chef Boyardee costs $0.63 while each serving of a “real meal” version costs $1.48 per serving

Serving size: Chef Boyardee is 257g, the “real meal” version is 344g after cooking the pasta to match (it’s 266g before cooking, but al dente pasta absorbs enough water to get about 2.25x the weight, while overcooked is closer to 2.4x, I used that number since Chef Boyardee is also overcooked pasta).

Calories: Chef Boyardee is 260 calories, the “real meal” version is 450 calories. The US recommended daily calories for an adult is 2250 (2500 for men, 2000 for women)

Carbohydrates: Chef Boyardee is 31g, the “real meal” version is 63g. The US recommended daily carbohydrates for an adult is between 225g and 325g.

Dietary Fiber: Chef Boyardee is 3g, while the “real meal” version is 7g. The US recommended daily fiber for an adult is 31.5g (38g for men, 25g for women)

Protein: Chef Boyardee is 9g, while the “real meal” version is 23g. The US recommended daily calories for an adult is 64.5g (0.8g per kilogram of weight, average US weight is 178lb or 80.7kg)

Per dollar: the Chef Boyardee is 408g, 413 calories, 49g of carbs, 4.8g of dietary fiber, and 14.3g of protein; while the “real meal” version per dollar is 232g, 304 calories, 42.6g of carbs, 4.7g of dietary fiber, and 15.5g of protein.

Per 100 grams: the Chef Boyardee is $0.245, 101.2 calories, 12g of carbs, 1.17g of dietary fiber, and 3.5g of protein; while the “real meal” version per 100g is $0.43, 130.8 calories, 18.3g of carbs, 2.03g of dietary fiber, and 6.68g of protein.

So, what we can take away from that is that, despite both being prepared foods, the Chef Boyardee is a better value than the “real meal” but that value comes with a cost. Every bite of Chef Boyardee has less calories and way less dietary fiber and protein, but also costs about 43% less. Every dollar spent on Chef Boyardee has way more volume, more calories and more carbohydrates than the “real meal” equivalent.