Ready-made meals are now more available than ever in both supermarkets and online, but are they nutritious and worthwhile?
The last nutrition blog looked at potential pros and cons of meal kit delivery services in which recipes and ingredients are delivered with the meals to be made at home. Ready-made meals are another meal service in which pre-cooked meals can be bought or delivered and simply need to be re-heated at home.
The wide variety of ready-made meals on the market can make it hard to choose which is best for you and your goals. See the below information to help inform your decisions.
Like meal kit delivery services, convenience is a huge factor for ready-made meals. For many busy individuals, cutting out all cooking time in the week as well as the reduced need to shop for groceries or plan meals can support a healthy, consistent diet.
Ready-made meals can also be versatile to suit needs as they can be:
- Bought in store for immediate consumption
- Kept in the fridge as meal options for busy days, late night work scenarios or feeding hungry family members when you have your own commitments to attend to
- Frozen and used for emergencies, reducing the reliance on nutrient poor take out options
- Delivered to your front doorstep as a part of a weekly “meal plan” that matches your health and nutrition goals
- Specifically chosen to address certain medical or nutrition requirements such as weight loss, insulin resistance/diabetes management or food intolerance
- More economically viable due to a potential reduction in food wastage
Variety can be a barrier, as consuming ready-made meals regularly may limit flavour options which can result in menu fatigue over time. Reduced enjoyment from meals can subsequently lead to skipping meals and/or turning to other less nutritious options to replace the flavour satisfaction you missed in your meal.
The wide range in portion sizes of ready-made meals can also be a barrier if you do not know what total energy and/or macronutrient (carbohydrate, fat and protein) portions are best for you. Energy content can greatly differ from 300-900 calories (1260-3780kJ) a meal, so having an understanding your individual needs before purchasing is important.
Furthermore, some ready-made meals may not contain adequate portions of specific components to meet your needs, like carbohydrates for example. Inadequate carbohydrate intake could negatively impact how much energy you have in the petrol tank to actively exercise and think clearly at work. Or they may not have enough vegetables to contribute to your daily fibre and nutrient needs.
To make sure ready-made meals are both tasty and able to be preserved, manufacturers will often add generous amounts of salt. For those with an existing elevated blood pressure (And cardiovascular disease is the #1 killer in Australia), salt reduction can be beneficial to lower these levels. Our general recommendation as dietitians is to look for brands with salt <120mg/100g.
A barrier to some individuals would be that many ready-made meals will also not take into account intolerances. Although there are many gluten and lactose-free options available, other intolerances like FODMAPs and food chemical intolerances aren’t as easily accessible.
Lastly, while it may be more confronting to begin or more time consuming, learning how to meal plan and cook healthy meals can be a life-long skill that supports not just yourself, but also your family. This type of meal can be super convenient but try to not reply on it so much that you don’t give some time to improving your cooking and meal prep skills.
If you can find more nutritious brands and varieties of ready-made meals and integrate these options along with cooking some healthy meals weekly, this would be your best option. Seeking professional guidance before you begin could be helpful to understand not only your own, but also your family’s nutrition requirements and how you can achieve these requirements through tailored strategies.
- Seek out ready-made meals that have been designed by an Accredited Practising Dietitian
- Look for main meal options that hit 400-500 calories (1680-2100kJ) per serve
- Make sure your meal contains some form of quality carbohydrate/wholegrains, lean protein and plenty of fibrous vegetables/fruit
- Remember to check the use by dates and storage considerations to ensure you comply with optimal food hygiene
- Trial one meal before you buy ten – what if you don’t like it?!