Read for change: Instant dinners are getting a makeover

How do you fancy tucking into a Thai coconut curry instead of a curling cheese sandwich in your lunch hour? Or sitting down to a pea and mint risotto, or canellini and borlotti beans with curly kale and broccoli just minutes after you get home from a long day at work? Over the past few years, ready meals have been undergoing a revolutionary makeover, but they still have as many enemies as champions: are microwave dinners exemplary of all that is slothful and unhealthy about the British public? Or the ideal short cut to fitting a proper meal into a hectic schedule?

The campaigning organisation Stop Ready Meals is battling the food giants who manufacture instant dinners, and the supermarket chains who stock them. It is not just convenience that attracts consumers to ready meals; competitive pricing compared with fresh food encourages shoppers to reach for packets rather than ingredients. But research from Mintel found that the ready-meal market has continued to grow because of its focus on healthy recipes and natural ingredients, which means that, whether you can't cook, won't cook or don't have time to cook, you can still kid yourself that you are enjoying a home-cooked meal.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) praises the efforts of manufacturers to improve the nutritional value of ready meals and provide clear labelling so that shoppers know what they are putting into their baskets. "People don't need to avoid ready meals," says an FSA spokesperson, "but should be aiming to enjoy a balanced and varied diet. It's true that some are high in salt and fat, but not all of them."

Britain's favourite ready meal is Young's Admiral's Pie. We eat 11 million of these each year and, as unappetising as frozen pollock in a mass-produced butter sauce may sound, the pie is at least in line with the FSA's guidelines on levels of fat, salt and sugar.

Still, just last summer, the FSA revealed that the size of ready meals has ballooned over the past 15 years. Some curries, cottage pies, pasta dishes and casseroles are more than 50 per cent bigger than they were in the 1990s.

This leaves those of us too pressed for time to cook in a bit of a pickle. Half of us eat ready meals every week – twice as many as five years ago – should we be cutting back, or embracing the healthier options on offer? Stop Ready Meals acknowledges the image change the meals have undergone, but says it's spin over substance. It is concerned that the obsession with telling consumers how healthy ready meals are has overtaken the emphasis on their convenience.

Two brands that have tapped into the vogue for healthy and home-cooked ready meals are Innocent and Pick Me. The Pick Me range of vegetarian ready meals launched late last year and is available at Tesco. The dishes were devised by Elizabeth Leath, a vegetarian mother, and are all hand-prepared using no preservatives.

Innocent, which created a massive market for fruit smoothies from scratch, has entered the fray with its Innocent Veg Pots, available at Waitrose. The recipes include a Tuscan bean stew and a coconut curry, all rather glamorously devised by chefs from The Fat Duck restaurant.

Waitrose also sells its own range of "Deliciously Different" ready meals, which contain at least one of the recommended five-a-day vegetable portions and are made without artificial colours, flavours, preservatives or hydrogenated vegetable oils. Sales of this range are up 25 per cent on last year, a sign that consumers are wising up to the nutritional value of ready meals.

Marks & Spencer popularised the "posh" ready meal – microwaveable food that tastes almost as good as the real thing – and is also improving its offerings this year with its "Eat Well Kitchen" pots, to be launched later this month. Each one will provide you with three of your recommended five fruit and vegetable portions.

Another health concern with microwaveable food is that the cooking process destroys all the goodness in fresh fruit and vegetables. In fact, say experts, cooking vegetables, fruit and brown rice in a microwave may be the best way, because they lose less nutrients than they would during the longer boiling process.

So, as long as you check the label, there's no reason why a ready meal won't be as healthy or tasty as a home-made one. Just remember to hide the packets before any dinner guests arrive.

VIDEO
News
people
Life & Style
The new low cost smartphone of Motorola, 'Motorola Moto G', is displayed in Sao Paulo, Brazil on November 13, 2013. The smartphone, with dimensions 65.9mm W x 129.9mm H x 6.0 - 11.6mm D is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 with quad-core 1,2 GHz CPU, a 4.5-inch display and Android Operating System 4.3 and a suggested price of $ 179 USD.
techData assessing smartphones has revealed tens of millions of phones are at risk of being harvested
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as the troubled, melancholy Don Draper
tvAnd six other questions we hope Mad Men series seven will answer
Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film
News
David Beckham is planning to build a stadium in Miami’s port for a new football team he will own
news... in his fight for a football stadium in Miami's port area
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?