Ready meals: The cost of convenience

Posted on Feb 20 2019 - 9:00am by Claire Herbaux
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Most of us will browse the ready meal isle once in a while. For some it is a more common occurrence than for others, but overall, when we know life gets stressful, it is easier to just pick up a meal for two than spend hours in the kitchen, cooking a meal.

They have also become a staple for the elderly who otherwise wouldn’t cook a full meal for a single person.

After all, a ready meal is one of the great inventions of modern life, is it not?
It’s definition could be the wording of a television advert. Harper Collins defines it: “Ready meals are complete meals that are sold in shops. They are already prepared and you need only heat them before eating them.”

Similarly, in the Oxford Dictionary, it is “a meal that you can buy from a supermarket that has already been prepared and cooked, so you only need to heat it.”

Sounds perfect!

A complete meal… and a little more

Looking at your ready meal, you may think it is an easy way to control your portions and get a balanced meal with carbs and vegetables and sides.

But what should be a complete meal only looks like it on the outside. In 2010, the British Medical Journal published a study, looking at main meal recipes from five bestselling cookery books by UK television chefs and 100 own brand ready meals from the three leading UK supermarkets. The outcome was astounding:

“No recipe or ready meal fully complied with the WHO recommendations. The ready meals were more likely to comply with the recommended proportions.

“The distributions of traffic light colours under the FSA’s food labelling recommendations differed: the modal traffic light was red for the recipes (47%) and green for ready meals (42%). Overall, the recipes contained significantly more energy (2530 kJ v 2067 kJ), protein (37.5 g v 27.9 g), fat (27.1 g v 17.2 g), and saturated fat (9.2 g v 6.8 g; P<0.01 for all) and significantly less fibre (3.3 g v 6.5 g, P<0.01) per portion than the ready meals.”

What is in our ready meals

So there is more energy, protein and a lot more fat in ready meals than there should be, and significantly less fibre.

But to make meal like this, precooked and packaged and microwavable, it takes a few additives, and these are – while listed – not always obvious.

In Britain we eat a lot of ready meals compared to our European neighbours – so what exactly are we eating there?

In order to create our ready meals, companies often use derivatives of the products we expect.

This may be preservatives, added salt (for flavour and for conservation), more fat than necessary, and even cheese powder instead of cheese. None of this sounds like a meal you would eat if you had the choice.

Somehow though, most people ignore those details.
Food is now clearly labelled with a “traffic light” colour system, indicating how much fat, sugar, salt, saturates and energy are in the meal (a percentage based on the total amount the average adult should consume each day).

Unless you pick from the options provided by some weight loss companies, the majority of ready meals are in the amber to red colouring section. (You can also find the list and colours if you shop for meals online. Pick your favourite and take a closer look!)

Something as simple as salt can have a huge effect on your body.
The average ready meal you can buy in the chilled section of supermarkets is around 2.2g. While this may not seem like a lot, you should know the recommended amount for a healthy adult is just 2.5-6g per day – that is around one teaspoon. This means over a third of your maximum salt intake is in one meal. This does not include a side, a sandwich at lunch, or even the salt in the paracetamol you may take that day.
This tiny substance makes a big difference to our body and too much of it will quickly affect your health.

The NHS explains: “A diet high in salt can cause raised blood pressure, which can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. High blood pressure often has no symptoms, and many people who have high blood pressure don’t know it.”

Sugar (which we should have up to six teaspoons of a day) is very present in ready meals and levels in any “sweet and sour” meals are dangerously high. Eating more than the recommended 30g a day (that’s less than is in a can of coke) can lead to obesity, but also diabetes.

What isn’t in ready meals

Ingredients are only as good as their preparation.

While we can’t all go out to the market every week for fresh produce, we can keep an eye on how we cook our food.

Just like some fruit holds a lot of its nutrients in the peel, and when we remove it we remove them as well, there are good and bad ways to cook your food to retain as much of the nutrients as possible.

These are not things you can check or count on with a ready meal. The meat will be cuts left over from other pieces, the cheese the shavings, and the vegetables will have lost a lot of nutrients in the cooking process (and again when you heat it up at home).

What you don’t see when you eat, is how the healthy oil you could choose to use at home is replaced by vegetable oil and artificial flavour.

A lot of the ingredients listed on the back are there to extend the shelf life of the product. Your health is not the priority here, the product’s shelf life is.

So what may feel like a balanced meal is far from it. And you would never prepare this yourself.

Other options

We know ready meals are no replacement for a homecooked meal. And yet, we buy them and eat them regularly.

Why? Because they are convenient and maybe we aren’t quite aware just how much we damage our bodies and health for convenience, when there are other options which will let you monitor your sugar, salt and fat intake, cut out (or cut down) on processed foods and additives.

Convenience means something is useful and suited to us. It is designed to make our lives easier.

So why not make our lives easier by making meals ready in advance?

From freezing to batch cooking and slow cooking, you can prepare your own food when you have time and have it ready when it is useful and convenient for us.

Check back next week on how to plan your meals ahead and have convenient, healthy food!

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