Ready meals. A product of the demand for more time in a day; time we don’t feel we have. But maybe we do? There is an argument that the growth in consumption of ready meals is simply down to the laziness of consumers, but what if that isn’t it at all? What if we actually are ‘running out of time’? That precious, finite commodity.
Words by TOM RICKARD
Ready meals could be the answer to freeing up our lives, giving us another precious drop of time that we can spend elsewhere. And yet perhaps we are failing to ask a more prevalent question; what about dinner time?
The Need For Speed
Since the 1950’s, the dinner-table dynamic shifted to putting TV as the center of focus. A new innovation, the ready-meal, born out of the need for kitchenless cooking, swept the world and the UK. Dinner-time was merging with leisure time.
From the mid 60’s less time was being set aside for food. By 1995 the average family dinner was slashed from 44 minutes to a mere 27 minutes. Technology provided options. Microwaving sped up cooking times, plastic-wrapped pre-chopped veg replaced food preparation, and ready-meals now found themselves substituting fresh home-cooking. (Celnik, Gilleslpie and Lean, 2012) The time conscious consumer loved it, and it’s popularity grew. In 2017, the UK alone spent £4.7bn on ready-made foods (Alford and Corrieri, 2018).
The trend for faster foods has continued to grow fuelled by the social perception of an increasing lack of time. Unfortunately, efficiency has a habit of removing humanity from the equation.
The Knock-On Of Nutrition
Although ready-meals can have various social advantages, they currently pose genuine hazards to our health. They have an association with obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and 73% of ready-meals fail to meet the Caroline Walker Trust nutrition standards, with high fat and salt content (also evidenced by my product sampling)(Hillier et al., 2018). A large proportion of the blame lies with manufacturers, who fail to put healthier alternatives into our food, and fail to give proper instruction on maintaining a balanced diet by providing accompaniment suggestions like salad. (Celnik, Gillespie and Lean, 2012)
Nutritionist Natalie Liu-Roach told me some of the sweeteners we use in ready-meals are under debate as being carcinogenic, and others may effect insulin production. Most people are under the impression that natural flavourings are better, but that’s not the case; the only difference is how they’re made. I was also told that our preserved foods lack micronutrients and over consumption of ready-meals would cause vitamin deficiencies.
Have We Got An Attitude Problem?
Unfortunately, we’re currently treating health as a premium as opposed to a right. For example, meat-free ready-meal options are on average 34p more expensive. At current we are seemingly satisfied with low quality and unhealthy food, justifying it with the price. Less than half the meat in British ready-meals comes from the UK, the majority being Thai or Brazilian, which raises further questions (Alford and Corrieri, 2018). From my discussions with a food preservation expert I learnt that Maize starch is used to bulk up foods cheaply, and unless you’re paying more, you can expect flavourings rather than seasoning.
I conducted an experiment showing participants questionable ingredients found in ready-meals, and between all of my participants, none of them could identify or recognise more than 5 of the 21. The subsequent reactions to their poor results was genuine shock, and even fear. If that information was on the box the whole time, then why do people buy the food at all?
86% of the people I surveyed enjoy cooking. I was frequently told that food preparation was a display of care, and that the result was an embodiment of the time they’d given themselves. From shadowing a frequent ready-meal consumer I noticed the lack of stimulation in his experience, as he meaninglessly browsed Reddit whilst waiting for the food. Is this the kind of time we are buying? Ready-meals are rarely consumed in a social context. Allocating more time for food is proven to lower cases of obesity (Celnik, Gillespie and Lean, 2012), and more family meals are associated with better diet and BMI (Dallacker, Hertwig and Mata, 2018). In short, we need to better perceive the time we have in order to move away from damaging diets.
So, Is The Future Ready?
Ready-meals have a number of obvious pitfalls with health impacts scoring high, and yet the industry shows no sign of declining. However, supermarkets such as Waitrose are challenging traditional ready-meals by offering the increasingly popular meat-free alternatives which now make up 24% of their meals. (Alford and Corrieri, 2018) If we continue this trend it is easy to predict an end for meat, and the rise of organic substitutes such as mushrooms, bugs and cannabis (Saven and Swain, 2017)(Bordewijk, 2018). It’s not legislation which is being the change, but public outcry and demand. When salt in bread was seen as an issue, companies halved the amount to 1%, and without fuss, particularly for such small cases. (Coultate and Blackburn, 2018) We could easily see this happening again as people begin to wake up to what they are putting inside them.
My findings from surveys revealed demand for healthier quality food that requires more stimulating interaction to produce than microwaveables, so an increase in ‘semi-ready-meal’ services such as Gousto and Simply Cook Spice Box is more than likely.
Our desire for time is insatiable, but perhaps in the future we will focus on the quality of our time rather than the quantity of it. If our obsessions with productivity can be replaced by ritualised wellness, then this is how we will be choosing our food. This will be complimented by more transparent and conscious food chains. A certain level of automation may provide this, but expect to see a more collaborative relationship between us and robots as we paly upon each-others abilities.
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Hillier, S., Greene, R., Thakkar, H., Dangerfield, S. and Clegg, M. (2018). The effects of ready meal consumption on appetite, satiety and subsequent energy intake. Appetite, [online] 130, pp.307-308. Available at: https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.brunel.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S0195666318312236.
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