Eating: Britain's cooks turn to convenient option

Despite the popularity of television chefs, Britain has become a nation of convenience eaters. A recent survey showed that 95 per cent of the country uses ready-made meals. Kate Watson-Smyth reports on the rise of pre-prepared food.
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The Independent Online
Some months ago, there was a joke doing the rounds among society hostesses who, on being complimented on the excellence of their cuisine, would airily mention that Mrs Sieff was in the kitchen.

Those in on the joke would smile quietly to themselves while the others would request the lady's phone number and resolve to book her themselves.

But the venerable Mrs Sieff turned out to be a euphemism for a ready- made meal bought in from Marks & Spencer - artfully arranged on the best china, the damning evidence of the cartons hastily concealed in the bin.

It is a far cry from dinner parties of 20 years ago, when no self-respecting hostess would spend less than three days in the kitchen with several pots of double cream before even the most informal of get-togethers.

Nowadays, convenience foods are an accepted part of life and an NOP survey has revealed that 95 per cent of Britain's cooks now admit to using ready- made meals.

More than two thirds use supermarket meals from the chill cabinet such as pizzas, pasta and pasta sauces at least once a week and 11 per cent claim to use them at least once a day.

Consumption of ready-made meals in the UK has doubled in five years to 99,000 tonnes last year, making a shopping bill of pounds 505m. The most popular dish is lasagne, followed by curry. Britons also ate their way through 47,000 tonnes of fresh pasta.

This is despite the fact that national terrestrial television is at present showing 15 hours of food and cookery programmes in a week and one cable channel is entirely devoted to the subject.

Tim Sutton, of Geest Prepared Foods which commissioned the Taste 2000 research report, said: "People love to titillate their taste buds by watching sumptuous cookery programmes on TV, but it's often more for entertainment value. For everyday cooking, we don't have the time and are relying more and more on the quality and convenience of fresh prepared food."

But some things never change. Although most people now cheerfully own up to cheating, in the North-east, for example, 16 per cent still pretend they have been slaving over a hot stove in order to satisfy their guests.