We take a look at the array of ready-to-eat meals on offer to find healthy options.
True convenience is a complete meal that can be popped in the microwave straight from the freezer. But quick and easy meals are no longer only frozen cabinet fare. A wide selection of ready meals is also available in shelf-stable packs and in the chilled section at your local supermarket.
Frozen meals have until recently been the mainstay of the ready meal product range. Easily stored in the freezer for extended periods, many can be stored for up to two years. Frozen meals are a great back-up for that last-minute meal when the cook isn't feeling well.
Shelf-stable meals – available in pouches, cans, tubs and boxes – are generally found with tinned food on supermarket shelves. Shelf-stable meals can be stored for months in the pantry – just check the expiry dates. They are easy to throw in your bag for lunch at work, or when you are working late in the evenings, without the need to worry about refrigeration.
Stored in the refrigerated section of the supermarket, chilled meals will only keep for a few days. They provide a wholesome alternative to takeaways for the busy household. Buy them during your lunch hour for dinner that night – just be sure to keep the ready meal refrigerated during the day.
Tips and traps
Meal preparation: Almost all ready meals are designed to be heated in the microwave. Each has its specific preparation instructions. Be sure to follow the manufacturer's recommendations for best results.
Vegetable content: We found the vast majority of ready meals are predominantly meat and starchy carbohydrates like potato, pasta or rice. A healthy meal contains half a plate of non-starchy vegetables, a quarter plate of lean meat, fish, eggs or other protein and a quarter plate of starchy vegetables, pasta or rice. Finding a ready meal with a healthy portion of non-starchy vegetables can be tricky. Wattie's new 'Steam Fresh' range has some good balanced meals.
Vegetarian options: Vegetarians have it tough! When meals with meat, poultry and fish are excluded, the options are somewhat limited – it's often macaroni cheese or nothing. We found a greater selection of vegetarian options – and non-vegetarian meals with healthy vegetable servings – in the chilled meal section.
Serving size: When it comes to ready meals, one size does not fit all. Serving sizes vary from 200g per serve to upwards of 450g and from an energy content of 850kJ to over 5000kJ per serve. A healthy meal for an adult woman would be around 2000-2500kJ, so be wary when the box claims 'one serving'. Consider the package size before you buy. We found many of the chilled ready meals were much larger than the frozen or shelf-stable varieties, though they were priced accordingly higher. You may find that one ready meal can be the basis of a meal for two simply by adding a green salad.
Fat: Many ready meals are a great option for health-conscious dinners as they are low in fat – less than 10g fat per serve. But it pays to watch out for high-fat ingredients such as coconut milk in curries and vegetarian-style dishes and cheeses in pasta dishes, as these ingredients add substantially to the fat content. Read the nutrition information panel carefully.
Sodium: Like many processed foods, ready meals tend to be a significant source of sodium. The recommended upper level of sodium intake is 2300mg per day, though ideally we should be consuming a lot less than that. Many of the meals we tried have well over 1000mg of sodium per serving. Read the labels and choose products that have as low a sodium content as you can find.