At the end of a long hectic day at work, often the last thing you feel like doing is preparing a meal from scratch. At this point, you may find yourself searching your freezer for a ready meal as a quick, fuss-free option.
Ready meals have earned a pretty negative reputation over the years, often being criticised for being high in fat and salt and lacking in beneficial nutrients. However, have they out-grown this criticism and are there ways to choose a little more wisely?
They can certainly be incorporated into a healthy balanced diet and we’re here to tell you both how and why!
There are so many options on the market. As a result, we would like to help better your understanding of what is available and provide some guidance on the more favourable options to go for.
Firstly, what is a ready meal?
Simply put, it is a meal that is sold pre-cooked and that only requires reheating – whether that be straight from the fridge or frozen.
Typically, they are dishes that tend to require a large number of ingredients and/ or relatively lengthy preparation time, for example, lasagna, curries and shepherd’s pie.
They do also include items such as sandwiches and salads, but for the purpose of this piece, we will be focussing on cooked ready meals.
What should you be aware of when purchasing ready meals?
Ready meals often tend to be laden with fat and salt, often to increase the palatability of the meals themselves – to increase enjoyment and satisfaction. Further, they can be lacking in veggies and so could be seen to be a less than optimal choice in terms of nutritional value.
Look out for the following:
- Fat – we need fat as part of a healthy balanced diet, but it is important to consume a variety of high quality fat sources, minimising our intake of saturated and especially trans fats, due to the links with detrimental health outcomes. Cooked ready meals will often have the traffic light system shown on the front of the packaging. Try to avoid or limit the number of instances whereby you opt for ones which are classed as ‘red’/ high for saturated fat.
- Salt – salt is often used to enhance the flavour of a meal. The salt content of some ready meals can be staggering! It is recommended adults consume no more than 6g per day in total and so this is certainly something to be aware of when making your choice.
- Quantity of vegetables – as noted, the amount and variety of veggies is often lacking in ready meals. Aim to opt for meals which contain a variety of brightly coloured veggies if possible. This will help contribute towards hitting your 5-a-day! Look out for the 5-a-day symbol on the meal labels.
- Portion size – be aware of the serving size noted on the packaging. The traffic light system will show per portion, but there may be multiple servings in a pack.
- Total calories – cooked ready meals, often tend to be high in fat, which is energy dense – providing a large amount of calories, without much volume. As a result, some ready meals can be very high in calories. It is therefore important to be mindful of this, depending on your goal and/ or overall requirements.
What should you ensure your ready meal contains?
- Protein – make sure your chosen meal contains a good quality, lean source of protein, for example chicken, turkey, white fish, salmon and eggs or perhaps plant-based alternatives such as beans, lentils and chickpeas.
- Carbohydrates – try to aim for meals containing a source of complex carbohydrates, for example brown rice, sweet potato or quinoa. Complex carbohydrates are digested at a slower rate, have less of an immediate effect on blood sugar levels and provide us with a prolonged, steady energy release.
- Fat – try to select meals which can be classed as low in saturated fat (meaning there is no more than 1.5 g per 100 g for solids). Opt for those with a focus on monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, or ‘healthy’ fats as they’re often referred to, as can be found in foods such as nuts, seeds, salmon and avocado.
Are there any benefits to ready meals?
Yes, there are some beneficial qualities to carefully selected ready meals:
- Saves time – no long shopping list, no preparation time – simply pop it in the oven or microwave and voilà!
- Practicality – ready to eat meals are extremely convenient for those who cannot afford to spend hours in the kitchen cooking. It is a very convenient way to eat home-cooked style meals without all of the hassle.
- Avoid meal time stress – as you do not need to plan meals ahead of time – especially handy if you are inexperienced in the kitchen or just don’t like cooking.
- May minimise food waste – each meal is sold portioned up and ready to eat, so this allows you to purchase no more than what you plan to eat.
However, as with most other nutrition-related matters, we would always advocate things in moderation and would not advocate them making up the bulk of your diet.