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.