Ready meals and your health
Whether you know them as microwave meals, frozen meals, convenience meals or TV dinners, there are lots of reasons why you might opt for a ready meal over a home-cooked one. Perhaps you don’t have time to cook, live on your own and don’t feel motivated, don’t know how to cook or don’t enjoy it. In the UK, it’s estimated that 79 million ready meals are eaten by adults every week. But while they might be convenient, ready meals are no substitute for cooking a meal from scratch, as they don’t always provide your body with the nutrients it needs to stay healthy.
One study analysed 100 UK supermarket ready meals and found not even one fully complied with nutritional guidelines set by the World Health Organization.
Ready meals are often high in salt and fat and low in other nutrients. Eating foods high in calories often may cause you to gain weight, while eating too much salt could increase your blood pressure. So if you eat ready meals regularly, it’s thought you increase your risk of related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
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, but are also still low in other important nutrients.
Lots of supermarkets also have a luxury or premium range of their own-brand ready meals. While these may taste better, they don’t seem to be any better for your health. They cost more, are high in calories, fat and salt and don’t contain any more nutrients than other ready meals. In fact, one study found that despite what the packaging might imply, luxury supermarket ready meals tended to be higher in calories, fat and salt than ‘value’ ready meals.
How to make ready meals healthier
Get to know your labels
The traffic light labelling found on the front of some food packaging can help you to compare the nutritional content of different ready meals and guide you to make a healthier choice. This lists the amount of calories, fat, salt and sugar in the food and categorises these as either red, amber or green depending on whether the level is high, medium or low. Opt for as many green categories as possible where you can.
It’s also helpful to remember that the ingredients on the back of packaging are listed in order of quantity. So if fat, salt and sugar are listed high up, this means that the product is made up mostly of these ingredients.
Finally, remember to check the nutritional information relates to the serving size you’re going to eat. 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 needs be.
Add a side of fresh vegetables or salad
One of the easiest ways to make any meal healthier is to add at least one portion of fresh vegetables or salad to your meal. So this is a great way to boost the nutritional content of a ready meal. Boil some veg like broccoli while you wait for your meal to cook, or keep frozen peas, sweetcorn and spinach on hand in the freezer. You could also try buying 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 - try my delicious vegetable pasta recipe below to help you get started. Even if you don't like cooking or are tired and don’t have the time, there are lots of quick and easy healthy meals you can make.
Wholemeal veggie pasta recipe
- Boil up to 60g (dried, per person) of wholemeal pasta.
- When it’s almost cooked, drain the water.
- Add a carton of chopped tomatoes, three tablespoons of frozen or fresh veg of your choice and half a can of cooked beans to the pasta.
- Gently simmer until the sauce is hot.
- Add herbs and spices such as basil, oregano or chilli to your preferred taste and serve.
Note: This delicious and simple dish can count as over two servings of your five-a-day.