Diet blog: healthy ready meals

If you don’t like cooking, or can’t cook, what are the options for healthy eating? Our diet expert looks at the options.

Apparently one in five of us cooks a meal from scratch only once a week at the most, a recent survey* finds – while of those who do cook more regularly, most of us rely on a small repertoire of only 7 – 9 dishes.

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This survey finds that it is young people who are more likely never to cook (18 to 24 year olds) but if my older relatives are anything to go by, I think 70-plussers are equally as likely to pass by the cooker and wonder what it is.

My brother, 78, who used to be a conservative but reasonably regular cook has, for the past few years since his long-term partner died, prided himself on cooking nothing except poached eggs on toast, relying totally on ready meals for his suppers, soups and instant meals such as cheese, ham or cooked chicken and salad for his lunch, and cereal and toast for breakfast.  Oh, and he pops down to the local pub/restaurant once or twice a week, and if we go to stay we have to go there or starve!

And my sister, 74, who was a superb cook in her younger days and entertained regularly, but now lives a quiet life, happily on her own, also relies on ready meals from her local Sainsbury’s every evening she’s at home.

They are happy, that is fine – especially as they do supplement the ready-made meals with salad, fruit, and so on.  And I can sympathise with the many people who lead super-busy lives and find cooking one chore too many.  Not everyone has to love to cook.  I have not loved to cook for the past few months, as I’ve battled to meet a book deadline (I’ve been producing an up-to-date version of my old bestseller, The Food Bible, ironically), deal with various close family illnesses, and so on. 

Most evenings, I am sure, if there had been a takeaway or Deliveroo near me, I would have taken advantage of it.  I’ve ruined more quick home-made meals lately than I ever thought possible. 

I would hesitate to recommend ordering meals from the fairly new clutch of companies delivering boxes of ready-portioned ingredients with recipe, so all you have to do is open and cook.  But at least the portions are usually on the small side, which for those of us wanting to watch our calorie intake, could be a good thing.

Sadly, the two ready meals I really love, and find as good as the home-cooked versions, are not exactly slimming, at all.  One is Charlie Bigham’s Fish Pie, and the other is Donald Russell’s individual beef lasagnes.  The few others I’ve tried haven’t exactly thrilled me, but maybe there will be a day when I rely on them more.

So I was interested to read that M&S are getting all healthy diet police on us.  It is considering ditching its ‘healthy eating’ meal options and instead simply making every ready meal it sells healthy by default.  Now, actually I like this, because I’ve often thought that when supermarkets have a section for ready meals with names such as ‘Be Good to Yourself’ (Sainsburys) ‘Healthy Living’ (Tesco) ‘Love Life’ (Waitrose) or ‘Balanced for You’ (yes, M & S), they are, by inference, saying that the rest of the ready meals they sell aren’t  healthy or good for you.  So why are they selling them, one might ask.  I think it will be interesting to see if they carry through their idea – and even more interesting to see how well their new, all-healthy range of meals will sell in the future.  I expect some people, my brother included, may be mighty annoyed.

Meanwhile, as I get into the last three days of finishing my book, I stagger to the kitchen tonight to make a complicated, but at least healthy enough, dish of leftover roast chicken, a small baked potato, and some leftover ratatouille.  Thank goodness for leftovers.  And thank goodness for the last days of summer, as yesterday lunchtime we enjoyed some homemade beetroot hummus (healthy, and so very easy to make!) with simple salad and some rye crispbreads.

Now it’s nearly soup season again, at least I can get Husband to do the lunch – soup is his one remaining speciality!

Beetroot hummus

Beetroot Hummus 

serves 4, will keep in fridge for 3 days or so

Just drain a can of chickpeas and pulse in a small electric blender (or mash with fork or pestle) with a little good olive oil, seasoning, a level tb of tahini, a bit of lemon juice and about 150g cooked beetroots until blended but not as smooth as bought hummus.  Check for seasoning.  I like to serve with veggie crudites and some toasted pitta strips.  What could be easier, really?  Even I didn’t get cross making it.

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