For many years now, ready meals have been a huge success in the UK and the biggest market is for people living alone, who often don't feel like a lot of cooking just for themselves, as well as for people in a hurry, and people (a growing band, sadly) who can't cook.
They are also very popular with dieters as the portions are controlled, tend to be small, and the nutrition on the pack can mean it's easier to keep track of what you're eating.
All that said, author, journalist and scourge of the food industry, Joanna Blythman has revealed, in her new book*, so many rather distasteful facts about what really goes into many of those fast food meals that I daresay many people are ditching them as we speak.
I agree with much of what she says – one of the reasons I rarely buy them is that what you get inside usually looks nothing whatsoever like the splendid photo on the carton, and I think that's a disgraceful con. Then, if you dare to look at the list of ingredients, you'll find a list at least twice as long as you'd assemble if making the same thing in your own kitchen. And even if you don't spy many E numbers or loads or sugar and fat, the food companies have found ways to add them in other guises, as Joanne explains.
Lastly, and I found this out myself when researching The Green Food Bible, a book I had published a few years ago, even if a pack is labelled 'made in the UK', or similar, that is no guarantee that all or any of the contents actually come from the UK.
One recent TV programme found that a lamb ready meal contained items from ten different countries, and this is by no means unusual. Even if you find something like 'British beef' on the label, it probably isn't, believe it or, as the labelling rules are quirky to say the least.
So if, like my sister and brother, both of whom live alone and have better things to do with their time than do a great deal of cooking for one, what are you to do, now you know the score?
Here's my plan:
First, be assured you can find ready meals both fresh and frozen that are decent quality, made with all or most of their ingredients from the UK (sometimes local), and that look good and taste good and come without any unnecessary preservatives, fillers, flavour enhancers and so on.
If you key 'home-made ready meals' into your search engine you'll find several small producers who'll deliver to you and pride themselves on ready meals like you'd make yourself. My local farm shop also sell locally-produced ready meals, and I'm sure yours will, too.
There are also one or two bigger companies who sell decent, honest food. Donald Russell, who started very small with top quality beef, are big now but still have values and do a very good range of ready meals. I can vouch at least for their lasagnes, moussakas and fish pies as I bought some in for the freezer when I was extremely pushed with work recently as well as ill, and all looked good, tasted good and had a fairly exemplary list of ingredients.
And you can pick up good things in the supermarkets if you're careful. I happened to be in our new Waitrose a couple of weeks ago and, still being too busy to do a lot of cooking, picked up a Charlie Bigham fish pie. It was wonderful to look at and tasted divine. Yes, it cost quite a bit but actually when you work out the ingredients cost for making one from scratch, plus your time, and the energy costs, there probably isn't much in it.
Second, think laterally about producing your own 'ready meals' at home. If you have a freezer and some containers, simply pick one or two meals you like, set aside a morning, make quadruple of everything, then freeze it. I've some ideas below for what you could prepare which really doesn't take a lot of time or effort or knowhow, and all freeze well. In the long run, this method saves masses of time and you know what's in your meal. Add a fresh veg or some salad (and a little carb such as new potatoes or brown rice or pasta if the meal doesn't have it in there already) and you have no need to feel guilty whatsoever!
Make-your-own ready meals ideas
Bolognese sauce made with lean beef or turkey mince or even Quorn mince, with masses of finely-chopped veg including onion, carrot, celery, and maybe mushrooms or leeks. Add canned chopped tomatoes, a bit of red pesto or tomato puree, some dried Italian herb mix, simmer it all for an hour on low, and there you have it. Made with 500g of mince, this will easily make 4-5 portions.
A vegetable tagine made with diced squash and sweet potato, chopped onions and garlic, good vegetable stock, a few chopped dried apricots, a can of drained chickpeas and some ready-made tagine paste - cook on the hob to save fuel. Using one medium squash and one medium sweet potato, this also will make 4 portions. Serve with ready-to-eat couscous or bulghar wheat for a true ready meal.
A pasta and vegetable bake, made with wholewheat penne or similar pasta shapes (around 300g to make four servings), chopped red pepper and small broccoli florets, all pre-cooked then tipped into four freezable baking dishes. Stir in 500ml of cheese sauce made in the traditional way (use reduced-fat Cheddar and skimmed milk if you want to save calories and fat), cover with sliced tomatoes and a sprinkling of cheese, cook for around 30 minutes, and there you are. If you want meat, add some sliced chicken to the mix.
Fish pie. Buy a fish pie mix which will save money and time, or buy a mix of white fish fillets, salmon and smoked haddock to a weight of around 500g. Add a few prawns if you like and put all in four baking dishes. Stir in a white sauce made in the traditional way, some chopped dill if you like and top with mashed potato and plenty of grated cheese, again using individual baking dishes. Cook for 30 minutes.
Ready meals will keep in the freezer for at least a month if not more, and you can freeze them cooked or uncooked.