I read a blog post recently where the writer had just eaten their first – their very first – ready meal. I think the blogger was in his or her thirties.
I was utterly flabbergasted!
For some reason, I’ve never spent much time wondering whether other people do or don’t use ready meals. I naively assumed that most home cooks are like us.
Our Cooking Habits
Pete and I have some kind of ready meal about once a week. I include in this number the meals where one or more main component is ready-made, even if we serve it with home made vegetables or sides. We usually pick things like oven bake chicken Kiev, fresh ready-made lasagne or a chicken or steak pie. And oven chips! We quickly discovered that the higher end supermarket ranges are very good at these kind of dishes and they’re close enough to home made in quality and taste. We also buy ready-made fresh pasta such as tortelloni and ravioli, which we’ll either have with a home made sauce or a fresh ready-made one. And we love sausages – they’re ready-made, of course, since we don’t make our own.
The rest of the time we cook from scratch and we really appreciate how easy it is to make great food ourselves. And we’re enthusiastic about widening our repertoire via ideas and recipes from cookery books, food blogs and friends. The meals we cook are a mix of tried and tested favourites and things we’ve never made before. Cooking from scratch allows us to tweak recipes to our tastes, substitute ingredients according to availability and personal preference and have control over the provenance of our ingredients. And, even if we spend more on higher quality ingredients, it’s still much cheaper than eating out or getting a takeaway.
Some recipes lend themselves well to being made in larger quantities, meaning we can easily make two or three meals in one go, refrigerating or freezing portions. Other recipes provide leftovers that are perfect for turning into something else – roast dinners are the most obvious example of this in our house.
But we’re also susceptible to feeling tired, lazy or just not in the mood to cook. And that’s when we’ll turn to ready meals or the occasional takeaway.
How I Came To Do A Survey
My surprise at the statement I came across made me think a lot more about the eating and cooking habits of others, and I started to wonder what the norm is (if there is even such a thing), and most especially, what the norm is amongst my friends.
So I sent some questions to a few friends, talking to non-foodies and non-bloggers as well as foodies and bloggers, and making sure to include families as well as couples and singles friends.
My focus was on evening meals eaten at home rather than lunch, since lunch is more dependent on one’s work situation.
My initial plan was to summarise all the responses in just a paragraph or two but I found myself so fascinated by the similarities and differences in our cooking and eating habits and even more in the reasons and opinions my friends generously shared with me. I decided to share their responses in more detail.
I’ve categorised the responses into two main groups – those who cook virtually all their meals from scratch, and those who eat a combination of ready meals and home cooked, to varying ratios. None of my friends fit into the third potential group of 100% ready meals. Note that I don’t claim that my survey is in any way representative of Britain as a whole, or that my friends’s answers are typical of British cooking and eating habits.
100% Home Cooking
Diana, Jennie, Jow and Martine cook all their meals from scratch and do not make use of any ready meals.
Diana explains that she finds it “quite easy to cook meals that are just as or more delicious than ready-made meals” and finds that ready-made sauces are not as tasty as what she makes herself. She is also keen to avoid “chemical additives in processed foods”. She says that although cooking good food doesn’t require much time or effort, it “does require planning”.
For Jennie cooking everything herself is “mainly to do with habit”, as she’s simply never had much exposure to ready meals. She describes herself as “a wee bit fussy about food being seasonal and ethical” and likes to know what goes into her food. Another point she raises is the ability to control diabetes, carb counting, etc. In reference to the common opinion that ready meals are quicker, she says that when she has no time or little energy, she’ll just have some vegetables and an egg. Her husband, on the other hand, will often turn to instant noodles or frozen pizza if he’s eating dinner at home alone.
Jow used to buy more ready-made sauces and food in the past but health issues lead her to re-evaluate her diet, and ultimately that of the whole family. Today, 99% of meals are home cooked, with the remaining percent “accounting for when I cock up and burn something”! She mentions a number of advantages to cooking everything herself including knowing what the family are eating and that the ingredients are fresh. As Jow cooks more and “makes sure to use all leftovers”, “the food bill is less” and she has discovered that she really enjoys cooking. In addition, her “girls are taking an interest in what’s going on in the kitchen and like to come and help”; their increased awareness of what’s going into their dinner and how the meal is made means they are “so much more enthusiastic about eating it”. Jow also points out that she is more aware of the cost of food and has learned to “plan meals in advance to utilise all the produce bought and plan meals around leftovers if they haven’t already been frozen for future use”.
For Martine being able to control the content of her and her partner’s meals, in terms of the “level of sugar, fats etc.” is really important and home cooking also means they can ensure the flavours (and spiciness) are to their personal tastes.
Some of my friends make mention of using ingredients like tinned tomatoes, tomato puree, soy sauce, oyster sauce and ketchup, but these are simply part of many normal recipes, and are not what I mean when I talk about ready-made sauces and pastes.
Some Home Cooking With Ready-Made Sauces or Pastes, Ready-Made Elements or Ready Meals
The rest of my friends use ready meals, ready-made elements of meals or ready-made sauces and pastes on occasion, with the frequency varying from rarely to regularly.
Helen likes to cook in larger quantities so she can “make and freeze [her] own ready meals”, that can quickly be reheated when needed. She is happy to use ready-made pesto, mayonnaise, stock cubes and Thai curry pastes. She feels that “ready meals are expensive”, skimp on taste and are too salty. But she does appreciate a “supermarket curry from time to time”, suggesting the supermarket meal deals as good value.
Like Helen, Lisa cooks most of her own meals, relegating both ready meals and takeaways to “last minute can’t be botheredness”. Because much of her cooking is during the week after work and she also finds it difficult to stand up for long periods, time is a key factor for her. She appreciates “the speed of a ready made stock or spice mixture” but has found that “ready made sauces always taste odd”.
Danny says that although the family cooks from scratch most of the time, they “don’t shun ready meals”, and will buy them once every few weeks when caught on the hop, popping into M&S on the way home from visiting his Nan, for example. They do use ready-made curry sauces a lot, because when Danny makes curry from scratch, he “always bugger things up by making them too hot”! He says that premium end ready meals “can be quite nice to eat” but he doesn’t think he’s every found one “absolutely amazing”, though wonders if that’s partly psychological. He does “wrinkle [his] nose” at the really cheap ready meals “that come in a plastic tray that costs £1” because he “sincerely believe[s] that they are full of shite and shite to eat”.
Dave doesn’t buy ready meals either and cooks all his evening meals himself. However, he prefers to keep cooking time on weeknights to no more than 20-40 minutes, and is happy to use shortcuts such as curry pastes, spice mixes, stir fry sauces and stock cubes. On the weekend, he has more time available and is happy to try recipes that need advanced preparation.
Matt is much the same, and it’s rare for him to buy a ready meal. He cooks most meals himself, estimating that about 40% are from scratch and 60% use ready-made elements such as stir fry or pasta sauces. One of the key motivations for him in avoiding ready meals is his preference to avoid “food where there’s packaging that doesn’t seem to need to be there”. He likes to buy “veg at the local grocer where [he] can buy it unpackaged off the shelf and straight into the one carrier bag”; he’s not a fan of supermarkets individually wrapping fresh produce. “Unnecessary packaging makes [him] sad”, especially as Bristol doesn’t recycle black plastic or cellophane, meaning most of it is headed for landfill. Of course, he doesn’t always manage to stick to this – it depends on “energy levels, how much shopping time I’ve had recently, how well I’ve planned it, and how much washing up I can face doing”. Another factor for him in buying shop-bought sauces is that it “doesn’t feel worth making that kind of stuff up when I’m mostly just cooking for me”. He adds that he also has “no idea how you actually make sweet-and-sour sauce”. Lastly, he likes to “keep packs of microwave rice around for those moments when I realise the main meal is ready but I’ve forgotten to put rice on. Or, as happened last time, turned on the rice cooker without actually putting water in it…”
Linda and her husband eat ready meals two or three times a month, and likewise for their use of ready-made sauces. The main constraints for them are the time they get in from work, which can sometimes be quite late. Ready meals and ready-made sauces are “quick & easy to use so very convenient” but they try not to use too many “because of the high salt & fat content”.
Tamsin cooks most of the time, especially for her children, though says that she and her husband eat a ready meal “very occasionally for speed”. During the week she will occasionally use ready-made pesto (though says her husband’s home made is better) but has started to make pasta sauces herself “because [she] was a bit shocked how much salt and sugar is in a lot of them, and also they don’t taste as nice”. About once a week, meals will include a ready-made element such as “ready made fishcakes or chicken in crispy breadcrumbs”. On the weekend, it’s “much more about cooking a whole meal from scratch – the kids have school dinners so don’t need a big meal on weekdays”. In terms of motivation, she says “it’s mostly health factors affecting me making stuff from scratch- only something I have started recently” but adds that she is also getting increasingly “fussier about taste too, and just don’t like the taste of a lot of ready made stuff”. She observes that she’d really struggle to cook from scratch as much if she worked full time, as “horrible work days” are when she’s mostly likely to “reach for the ready made stuff in a jar”.
MiMi’s ratio of home cooking to ready meals and takeaways is probably closest to ours. She estimates that 70% of meals are home cooked, with the remainder divided between ready meals and takeaways. Home cooked meals are most commonly from scratch, with ready-made sauces used only occasionally. For MiMi, “time and energy and lack of both are the biggest factors” and she also cites curiosity “when trying a ready-made sauce or meal”. She also points out that one of the “benefits of a ready meal is it can be cheaper than buying all ingredients separately and is definitely easier”. It’s also a good way to try new stuff without investing too much time and energy and if she likes the idea, she often ends up making it from scratch in the future. One of the big impacts on cooking and eating patterns for MiMI has been the birth of her little girl a year ago. She and her husband usually take turns to eat so “the food usually has to be or ends up cold because the boglin needs so much attention”. The “food budget has gone up” because MiMi buys “a lot more ready to eat ingredients that can be assembled quickly, such as ham or mackerel for salads” and she now buys “organic fish, meat, fruits and veg” which she may not have bothered with before, along with “baby-safe biscuits and snacks” that are sugar and salt free.
Chaundra definitely finds time is her biggest enemy, as she doesn’t finish work till 7 and gets home at 8. She reckons half the meals she and her husband eat during the week are therefore ready-made, and she relies heavily on ready-made sauces and pastes, taking care to source ones that deliver on taste. However, on the weekend, she has more time and really relishes “making a good meal, in quantities” that allow for leftovers to be eaten as future meals. She prefers home made because she takes “pride in [her] cooking and associate[s] homemade food as being an expression of love and affection”.
Like Chaundra, Gary works long days. He estimates that in any given week about 4 out of seven evening meals “have a prepared element”, which could be oven chips, a frozen meat dish (such as a pie) or frozen vegetables. One meal in seven is entirely made up of ready-made elements. But he very rarely eats the kind of ready meals that come in a “little black plastic tray with clingfilm over the top” because he “find[s] the cost prohibitive”. On the weekends, Gary tends to cook more often from scratch, though on some weeknights too. He seldom uses ready-made sauces, though he might use a ready-made paste in an Indian dish. Despite the late nights, cost rather than time is the major factor and he’s noticed that “supermarkets are dramatically more expensive across various ranges” in the last 18 months.
Ruth tells me she and her family “probably have one or two ready meals per week, and one or two takeaways/meals out per week” and the rest is home cooked. Home cooked meals are virtually always made from scratch, though she likes to “buy a Waitrose ‘from scratch’ kit per week which makes [her] feel like [she’s] home cooking with the convenience of having it all prepared for [her]”. She is “most inclined to cook from scratch when making a meal for the whole family” and believes it’s “hugely important that the kids see me cook and that we sit down and eat home cooked food together”. When she and her husband eat after the kids are in bed, they’re “hungry and we just want something fast and easy”.
Can I Draw Any Conclusions?
The group of friends I’ve spoken to is neither large enough nor random enough to be representative of the general population of Britain, but the friends who’ve so kindly shared their thoughts with me have certainly given me plenty of food for thought and opened my eyes to how people cook and eat. More importantly, I have a better understanding of the many varied factors which influence their choices, which are as varied as the people themselves.
I don’t think there are any real conclusions to be drawn but certainly the use of complete ready meals is lower than I imagined. That said, a fair few of our friends use ready-made elements of a meal such as fish cakes, breaded chicken, pies or oven chips within a meal that also features home-cooked elements. A fair few use ready-made sauces and pastes in their cooking.
It’s also worth noting that there’s a clearly perceived difference between cheap ready meals and premium ones; this matches my own findings, having tried quite a variety. These days we stick to the premium ranges, though these are significantly more expensive than the budget ranges.
What about you?
Do you identify with one or more of my friends above?
What is the balance in your home and what are the key decision-making factors for you?
Please let me know by leaving a comment below. And I’d really love to get a wider range of responses, so please invite your friends to weigh in too.
Let me know what proportion of evening meals in your home are cooked from scratch, home cooked using ready-made sauces or pastes, feature a ready-made element alongside home cooking or are wholly ready-made items or a ready meal.
Share your opinions about these various choices and tell me why you cook and eat as you do, and how you feel about it.
Many thanks to those who join in and thanks again to all my friends for so generously sharing their habits and opinions.