Recently I started thinking more about ready meals, about other people’s cooking and eating habits and about our own thoughts on ready meals. Usually we have ready meals or ready-made components about once a week. I started musing on whether we could do 7 days in a row eating only ready meals each evening.
I decided to restrict our choices to a single range within one supermarket – Sainsbury’s were kind enough to step up and I chose their Taste The Difference Bistro range to put to the test.
Most of the meals within the Bistro range are priced at £7 (and serve two people); the lasagne costs £6. Some of the meals have felt better value at that price point than others.
For the last several weeks, the Bistro main meals have been part of a £10 meal deal which allows you to choose one main, one Bistro dessert and a bottle of wine. If you fancy dessert, and drink wine, I’d say it’s a fair offer, since the desserts are usually £3.50 and the wines around £5 a bottle. You’ll have to do the legwork though; in our local store the shelves where the meal deal is promoted never have any wine displayed and my husband has to head to the wine section and root out the wines included in the deal. We took advantage of the meal deal twice. Without the meal deal, these are a little pricy, in my opinion.
Also, be aware that not all branches will stock the full range of Bistro meals or desserts. We generally found only 3 of the meals readily available each time we visited, with another 2 very occasionally in stock. None of the others are sold by our branch and I turned to the team at Sainsbury’s to help me source the rest.
In the end, availability issues (both in terms of us having a fully clear week and the lack of stock in our local branch) meant we weren’t able to stick to my plan to eat the ready meals back to back in a single week. We also ended up trying eight rather than seven items from the range.
We ate these ready meals below spread over a few weeks.
Bistro Chicken with Cider Sauce (£7, 800 grams)
This was a great start. The chicken remained moist during cooking, the creamy cider sauce was tasty and the roasted baby potatoes had a good texture and taste. The onions on top veered towards burnt, but overall, flavours were excellent. I would possibly buy this again, though there are other ready meals I’d choose in preference.
Bistro Wiltshire Ham Gratin (£7, 800 grams)
Ham, green beans, cheddar cheese, potatoes and breadcrumbs – what’s not to like? We found this delicious and would be happy to buy this again.
Bistro Lasagne Al Forno With Slow Cooked Beef (£6, 710 grams)
The Bistro lasagne didn’t stack up at all well against premium lasagnes we’ve tried from other supermarkets. Although the ragu had a good flavour, it was lacking in moisture and it didn’t stand out well against the hard, chewy pasta. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I’d never have believed this was from a premium range and it’s definitely not worth £6.
Bistro Catalan Chicken (£7, 800 grams)
For us, this was definitely the weakest in the range. The chicken meat didn’t remain moist but that was a minor detail. The “Catalan” sauce was really unpleasant, with a horrible flavour reminiscent of a really cheap bottle sauce. There were also a couple of larger pieces of potato that remained a little hard, because they had not cooked sufficiently in the time.
Bistro Chicken with a Red Wine, Madeira & Mushroom Sauce (£7, 800 grams)
The cooking was split into two for this meal – part way through, a packet of sauce provided was poured over the chicken and the tray returned to the oven. Sadly, the sauce wasn’t great and didn’t live up to expectations on flavour. Onions and mushrooms didn’t benefit from being baked, with mushrooms turning out rubbery and dry and onions ending up a little burnt. The chicken breast wrapped in bacon was decent, but the so-so sauce was the dominant taste. By the time it was the turn of this dish, we were already bored of skin-on roasted new potatoes, though at least the small and size meant they did cook through properly. I would not buy this again.
Bistro Chicken with Brie, Bacon & Cream Sauce (£7, 800 grams)
Yep, you guessed it – more skin-on roasted new potatoes. Like the previous dish, the sauce was poured over the vegetables part way through the cooking time. The cheese and bacon kept the chicken reasonably moist. The sauce was tasty though I didn’t feel it went very well with the choice of vegetables, and the vegetables didn’t suit the cooking method very well. The potatoes were properly cooked through. This meal tasted reasonably good but didn’t strike us as a particularly coherent plate.
Beef Bourguignon (£7, 800 grams)
When we picked this meal up we did start to wonder if the product development team were unaware of other ways to cook potatoes – peeled steamed potatoes would work better here, as would a good creamy mash. Skin-on roasted new potatoes, not so much! The flavours in the Bourguignon itself were good; if the stew were sold on its own, I’d consider buying it (though I’ve made my own previously), but as a complete meal with new potatoes, I wouldn’t buy it again.
Bistro Creamy Ham Hock & Chicken Pie (£7, 600 grams)
I think this would more accurately be called a gratin rather than a pie, as there’s no pastry in sight. Again, presentation was pretty poor here – it’s clear Sainsbury’s aren’t going for the dinner party demographic! At first glance, there didn’t seem to be much ham or chicken, but as soon as we dug under the surface, there was plenty there. This was a very tasty meal and I’d happily eat this again.
So the hit rate for great meals in the Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Bistro range was quite a bit lower than I expected, especially as chance meant we started strongly with two good choices. We tried eight meals in the range.
There were only three that I’d be happy to have again – the chicken with cider sauce, the Wiltshire ham gratin and the creamy ham hock and chicken “pie”.
Two were good in parts – the choice of potatoes let down the beef bourguignon and the side vegetables did the same for the chicken with brie, bacon and cream Sauce.
The lasagne, Catalan chicken and chicken with red wine, madeira and mushroom sauce were disappointing.
Our main supermarket is Waitrose; as we live a couple of minute’s walk away we are able to shop every couple of days rather than do a large weekly shop. We have had a far better hit rate with the ready meals we’ve bought there over the last several years. I’d hoped that the Sainsbury’s meals would hold up well, given that the price point is the same, but it wasn’t the case.
I’m hoping to do similar reviews of other premium ready meal ranges from some of the other supermarkets in coming months. Please let me know if there are any you particularly recommend I try (or avoid)!
With thanks to Sainsbury’s for providing the above ready meals for review.