The truth about ready meals

Abbey Stanford profile photo
Former Specialist Health Editor at Bupa UK
17 March 2022
Next review due March 2025

After a long and tiring day, reaching into the fridge for a ready meal might be much more appealing than preparing a meal from scratch. There’s no denying that ready meals are quick, easy and often pretty cheap. But do they provide the nutrients your body needs to live well? Here, I explain what you need to know about ready meals and share my tips for keeping them as healthy as possible.

people chopping vegetables

Are ready meals bad for you?

Did you know that in the UK, 2 in 5 adults eat ready meals every week? There are many reasons why you might opt for a ready meal over a home-cooked one. Perhaps you don’t have time to cook, or live on your own and don’t feel motivated. Maybe you don’t know how to cook or just don’t enjoy it.

Whatever your reasons, ready meals aren’t always as nutritious as cooking a meal from scratch. This is because they don’t always provide your body with the nutrients it needs to stay healthy.

Ready meals can be high in salt and fat and low in other nutrients. Eating foods high in calories may cause you to put on weight. And too much salt in your diet is linked to high blood pressure. So, if you eat foods high in salt and fat often, you may increase your risk of health problems like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Are some ready meals healthier than others?

Many supermarkets and food companies now have their own range of ‘healthier’ ready meals as an alternative to traditional ready meals. These may be lower in calories, fat, salt and sugar.

Some supermarkets also have a premium range of their own-brand ready meals. But, while these may taste better, they might not be any better for your health. In fact, a few studies have found that premium supermarket ready meals tend to be higher in calories, fat and salt than ‘value’ ready meals.

How to make ready meals healthier

Get to know your labels

In the UK, a traffic light food labelling system is used on the front of some food packaging. This is done to show you the nutritional content of different ready meals, so you can make healthier choices. It lists, for example, the amount of calories, fat, salt and sugar in the food. These are categorised as either red, amber or green. This helps you see whether a food or drink is a healthier choice.

  • Green = low amount in the food or drink.
  • Amber = medium amount in the food or drink.
  • Red = high amount in the food or drink.

The ingredients list on the back of packaging also appears in order of quantity. So, if fat, salt and sugar are listed high up in the ingredients, this means that the product contains a lot of these.

Check that the nutritional information relates to the serving size you’re going to eat as well. For example, the label may display calories per 100g, but the product might weigh 120g. So double check the portion you’ll actually be eating and adjust your calculations if you need to.

An image showing a food label

Add a side of fresh vegetables or salad

One of the easiest ways to make any meal healthier is to include at least one portion of fresh vegetables or salad. This also helps to boost the nutritional content of a ready meal. Or try adding frozen food such as peas, sweetcorn and spinach to your meal. You could also buy a portion of fresh fruit to have for dessert.

Quick and easy healthy meal ideas

Cooking a healthy meal may take less time than you think. The internet is packed with lots of quick and easy nutritious recipes, and can be a great source of cooking inspiration for mealtimes. Choose meals that don’t need lots of ingredients, and keep it simple by using frozen or pre-chopped vegetables.

There are also lots of helpful tips online for eating healthily if you don’t like cooking, or don’t feel in the mood to cook.

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Abbey Stanford profile photo
Abbey Stanford (she/her)
Former Specialist Health Editor at Bupa UK

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    • Fruit and vegetables – how to get five-a-day. British Dietetic Association., accessed March 2022
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    • An analysis of the nutritional value of UK supermarket ready meals. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society (2020), 79 (OCE3), E794. doi:10.1017/S0029665120007806

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