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The rise and rise of the ready meal: So what's for TV dinner tonight?

In the past decade, Britain's appetite for convenience food has ballooned - new figures show that we scoffed an incredible £18bn of pre-prepared delicacies last year. John Walsh digests an unsavoury culinary love affair

Wednesday 13 July 2005 00:00 BST

How Jacques Chirac would sneer if he knew. Despite indignant British protests about the French premier's ignorant little jokes regarding our cooking, despite the tabloid press's insistence that, au contraire, we are the most accomplished cooks and most sophisticated eaters in the world, the shaming truth is: we're ready-meal junkies.

Mintel, the market-research organisation, reports that British people now spend a staggering £18bn on supermarket meals, 63 per cent more than in 1994.

You know the meals they're talking about - the chicken tikka masala dinner that comes in a thin polythene pack covered with a transparent film, through which you can see a compartment of dark orange soup and another containing lemon-hued rice flecked with bits of dark matter, possibly cloves. They come packaged with a colour photograph promising that the contents, once heated, will be irresistibly tasty and visually appealing, a prospect cruelly dashed when you remove it from the oven.

Not only do 70 per cent of us admit to eating convenience food, but more than 80 per cent of us eat chips that are pre-sliced and frozen, and over a third of us consume that toxic modern aberration, the Pot Noodle snack. No other race in Europe joins in our enthusiasm for chicken and noodle dust irrigated by boiling water.

Mintel took a sample of 25,000 people, and blamed the convenience-food boom on the pressure of modern life and the reluctance of working women to make the supper any more. "A key consequence of the inexorable trend of the rise in the number of women who work full- or part-time, has been a progressive loss in traditional skills and greater reliance on prepared foods, such as cooking sauces, frozen foods and chilled ready meals, in large part driven by time-poverty," the report noted.

Ironically, this trend has coincided with several counter-trends: Processed foods have been under attack throughout the spring months. Jamie Oliver's campaign for healthy school dinners, the Sudan 1 scare in supermarkets, and a battery of reports from health watchdogs have meant that, by rights, we should all be shopping at farmers' markets and not go near another Tesco Oriental Pork with Plum Sauce ever again.

More than a third of the Mintel sample vowed they'd happily pay a premium for foods that don't contain artificial additives. But somebody is buying Asda's own-brand Chicken Roast Dinner, that features (it says proudly on the box) "Succulent cooked skin-on chicken breast with added dextrose, with rich chicken gravy, roast potatoes and tender carrots". (This bold admission of the presence of additives is unusual. Mostly, you have to search for the presence of Maltodextrin and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids in the small print on the back.)

Lower-income families may be attracted by the rock-bottom prices of some ready-meal varieties, which may seem the last word in pauper cuisine to some delicate sensibilities. But on both sides of the Atlantic, we have for many years enjoyed a changing love-hate relationship with the bung-in-the-oven dinner.

Remember the scene in Bullitt when Steve McQueen, then the coolest man on earth, buys seven frozen dinners to share with his glamorous girlfriend Jacqueline Bissett? It was a nod to a time when television and packaged food were exciting innovations for groovy people.

The man behind it all was Gerald Thomas, a salesman at C A Swanson and Sons, frozen food retailers from Omaha, Nebraska. His invention was born of necessity - the necessity of finding a home, in 1953, for 270 tons of unsold turkey. Sales of poultry at Thanksgiving had been disappointing, and his company now had 10 refrigerated railway box cars full of turkey carcasses. The company bosses, Gilbert and Clark Swanson, asked their staff to find a solution. Thomas had a brainwave. He'd seen aluminium trays used to keep food hot in the kitchens of Pan Am. So he asked for a spare tray and spent the flight home designing a new tray with three sections for meat, vegetable and potato. Back home he showed the thunderstruck brothers his invention and suggested they market it as an adjunct of the nation's favourite new pastime - watching TV.

The first Swanson TV Dinner in 1954 was turkey with cornbread stuffing, buttered peas and sweet potatoes, the meal was cleverly packaged in an aluminium rectangle designed to look like a television and it retailed at $0.98. The Swansons warily produced 5,000 of the things and watched as, over the next 12 months, 10 million were sold.

A frozen fried-chicken dinner came out in 1955, followed by steak and meatloaf, each devoured in huge amounts by families grouped around tiny, eight-inch, monochrome TV screens. In 1960, in a radical departure, a fourth tray compartment was added to house a dollop of pudding (tinned peaches, ice-cream, chocolate brownie).

Two years later, the name "TV dinner" was dropped to encourage consumers to eat ready-made meals any time of the day. In 1969, Swanson Frozen Breakfasts arrived: the nation's favourite was Pancakes and Sausage.

In the UK, consumers were slower to embrace the concept of eating with your eyes fixed on a TV screen. After the war, the nation's ideal meal, right up to 1960 (according to a Gallup poll) remained tomato soup, Dover sole, chicken with potatoes, peas and sprouts, followed by trifle.

The only convenience foods were the out-of-season fish and vegetables developed in the Sixties by Birds Eye and Findus. TV dinners hit the UK in the 1970s, mostly in the form of lasagne and frozen cakes. In the 1980s, as the number of working women boomed, the microwave cooker answered the demand for more convenient ways of preparing meals. Every spouse got used to having a plate of cold meat, veg and gravy transformed into a tongue-scalding, lip-scorching repast in a matter of seconds.

By the 1990s, the concept of "fast food" had moved on from meaning only McDonald's burgers: it now meant pre-sliced haricots verts, the prepared salad and other labour-saving conveniences; while our new fondness for Mexican and Thai food was indulged by enterprising supermarket chains.

In the US, the TV dinner became a national icon, like the Coca-Cola bottle. As the Swanson website (which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2003) proudly informs you, the original aluminium dinner tray is in the Smithsonian Institution, while Gerry Thomas's handprints (and an impression of a dinner tray) are immortalised in the concrete outside Mann's Chinese Theatre, along with the prints of Monroe and Bogart.

In England we're a little embarrassed about our fondness for suppers prepared and processed by a company rather than a loving spouse. We're slightly disgusted with ourselves (see the Pot Noodle TV commercials). We may be becoming better educated about the dangers of saturated fats, sodium and artificial additives. But for the moment, we're finding it hard to give up our Chicken in a Pot supper, "in a rich gravy topped with fried potato chunks".


Marks & Spencer: Fresh salmon in a watercress sauce

On the fertile terraces of the chilled cabinets the harvest is bountiful. It's a land where everything is rich and creamy, nothing fattening. For this one, M&S adds "classic" and "fresh" for the watercress sauce. It pays off. It really tastes of watercress. There are carrots and peas, mash and fish for a complete meal made with ingredients recognisable as food: onion, fromage frais, fennel seeds. Their serving suggestion is that you put it on a plate and use a linen napkin. It needs nothing else to go with it. Just a life.

Asda Good For You!: Steamed in your microwave chicken breast with a creamy white wine & tarragon sauce

The ingredients list makes grim reading. Sucrose esters of fatty acids? Is this the school bully come back to haunt me? This is the kind of thing that gives healthy eating a bad name. And the warning that due to high pressure the pack will distort and make high-pitched sounds during cooking is almost as scary as the prospect of eating the sorry bowl of chicken and veg with its vile sauce.

Waitrose: Chicken tikka masala with pilau rice

Who is going to grind up garam masala for a CTM supper and this is a match for many a takeaway. Pukka ingredients, "tender pieces of chargrilled chicken breast in a rich cream and tomato sauce served with pilau rice" and whole spices in the rice. It doesn't even look that different from the picture on the pack. But the British invention of CTM still tastes a little like evaporated milk mixed with ketchup. That's the way we like it.

Sainsbury's: Taste the difference chicken breasts with gruyere & smoked garlic

"The sweet pungency of smoked garlic gently infuses these plump chicken breasts, enriched with the smooth nuttiness of Swiss Gruyère cheese," it says on Sainsbury's Taste the Difference chicken breasts in Gruyère & smoked garlic.

But difference, what difference? For plump read spongy breasts - but then they have been marinated in water, dextrose, salt, modified tapioca starch, stabilisers, tri and poly phosphates. So that's the difference.

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