Ready meals – the inconvenient truth

06 July 2016
A woman making a salad

Ready meals are a part of life in the UK. Over a third of us eat them at least once a week; contributing to £1.4 billion in sales each year. But while they’re convenient, are we getting the nutrients we need from them?

Ready meals and your health

It’s understandable why so many of us opt for ready meals. You might not have time to cook, or feel demotivated by living alone, or perhaps you feel you’re a disaster in the kitchen! But remember the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is? Well this pretty much describes ready meals. Simply put, they’re no substitute for making a healthy meal from scratch.

A team of researchers analysed 100 supermarket ready meals and found not even one fully complied with nutritional guidelines set by the World Health Organization. Ready meals have been linked with obesity too – often because they contain lots of fat. And if you eat them regularly, it’s thought you increase your risk of related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

The perils of mass production

Ready meals may appear to be healthy, particularly if they’re packed with vegetables, so what’s the problem? The answer lies in mass production – as well as efforts to make them taste better.

Ready meals are often loaded with salt, and sometimes sugar too. And the amount of nutrients they actually contain can vary. Nutritional information on food packaging is permitted by law to vary by 15 percent from the values – this allows for fluctuation in manufacturing processes. There may be variations from batch to batch and from where the meals are made.

Are some healthier than others?

Ready meals generally aren’t very nutritious. But if you eat them occasionally as part of a balanced diet, there are better choices out there than others. ‘Healthier’ versions can contain less salt and sugar, for example.

But don’t be fooled into thinking labels like ‘finest’ and ‘extra special’ give any extra nutritional benefit. Studies have suggested this doesn’t seem to be the case. And the same can be said for ready meals endorsed by celebrity chefs. While the flavour of ready meals may be getting better, there doesn’t seem to be the same effort in boosting nutrients to make them healthier.

Look past the picture

Food labelling is one clue to how healthy a ready meal is. Check the labels on the back of the pack to see just how much fat, salt and sugar they contain. The traffic light labelling system is helpful – go for as many greens as you can. And add a side of veg to your meal, to top up on nutrients.

An image showing a food label

Eat quickly the healthy way

Cooking from scratch can take less time than you think. Here’s just one meal you can easily whip up. Trust me, you can prep and cook in less time than it takes to heat up a ready meal in the oven. Not only is cooking yourself more nutritious, your meals will taste better too!

A balanced veggie meal – pasta the way you like it

Pasta salad

Boil up to 60g (per portion, raw weight) pasta shells.

Once almost cooked, drain the water. Add a carton of chopped tomatoes, three tablespoons of frozen or fresh chopped veg of your choice, and half a can of cooked beans.

Simmer until piping hot.

According to your personal taste, add herbs and spices, such as fresh basil, garlic powder and a pinch of chilli.

Enjoy!

Fact: This simple dish can count to over two of your daily five-a-day.


Dietitian at Bupa UK

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