Ready-made meals or frozen meals may seem like the perfect option for when you’ve had a long day of work, school or just simply life. Supermarket frozen meals are quick, convenient and if you’re lucky, they might taste okay. Most of us may be aware of the nasties that these frozen meals can deliver when they are typically loaded with sugars, salt and preservatives. Now, supermarkets are introducing more ‘nutrition positive’ sections of the frozen aisle that scream ‘low calorie’, ‘low fat’, ‘more whole grains’ and ‘salt reduced!’. They may seem healthier but are these new so called healthy ready-made meals actually good for you?
We looked at four different brands of ready-made meals, three of which portrayed the notion of ‘healthy’. To avoid using brand names let’s call one of them A, B, C and the other D, with all except C obviously claiming to be healthy.
Meal A was a type of salmon and noodle soup portrayed the terms “super food”, “goodness”, “salmon” and “kale” on the packet – all words that would lure us health conscious people in right? Well, when we looked at the ingredient list and nutritional panel it wasn’t all that we expected. The ingredients list was loaded with things like thickener, flavour enhancers, food acids and added sugars. Plus, remember those luring feature ingredients “salmon” and “kale” that was on the packet? Well, rather misleadingly the “salmon fillet pieces” only made up 11% of the meal despite been the featured ingredient in the meals name and kale only took up 4% of the whole meal. Not nearly enough to get any benefits from it!
Meal B was a type of beef stir fry served with brown rice and quinoa and portrayed the terms “whole grains”, “brown rice”, “quinoa” and “healthy choice” on the packet. Quinoa ended up taking up just 6% of the whole meal. In addition, the meal contained added sugars, thickeners and added salt. The amount of sodium per serving was a whopping 1190mg! Keep in mind that the maximum amount of sodium recommended per day is about 2000mg, so this meal would contribute to more than half of this.
Now let’s look at a supermarket bought ready-made meal that does not promote itself to be healthy (Meal C). The one we chose was a Beef Lasagne. This meal was quite similar to the ‘healthy’ ones in that it contained thickeners, added sugars, salt and flavour enhancers. In addition, it contained cream, butter and preservatives.
Meal A, B and C all contained harmful and nasty additives and preservatives, no matter whether they called themselves healthy or not. Our findings also support a very recent UK study that surveyed 10 supermarket ready-meals. They found that ready-meals tended to be high in saturated fat, sugar and salt. Only 20% of ready-meals were low in saturated fat, salt and sugar1.
The goal of eating healthy should be to nourish our bodies with whole, natural foods. Additives and preservatives are not natural to our bodies and can act as carcinogens, feel toxic and also rob us of important nutrients. They really add no nutritional value to our food and are usually there to simply prolong shelf life or enhance flavour. Instead of counting calories, count ingredients. Calories are only one tiny part of the weight loss puzzle but they have very little to do with nutrients. And if your body doesn’t get the nutrients it needs it can’t function, and you feel hungry and get cravings. Don’t be fooled by clever branding that markets something as great for weight loss just because the calories are low. You still need the nutrition and if you are just eating less food, you can do that on your own without paying extra for sneaky fillers and badditives.
Instead of looking at pictures or trusting clever branding see if you can identify and recognise the ingredients as real food. Have a really good look at the ingredient list and evaluate whether that food is going to add any nutritional value. If they use real food, there will be nutrients in the meal. Ingredients have to be listed in order of quantity… so make sure the real food is listed first. If sugar is in the first three ingredients rethink the meal.
Let’s compare Meal D: Ginger & Soy Salmon, Asian Greens and Brown Rice, which you can get conveniently delivered to your home.
Ingredients: Bok Choy, Atlantic Salmon, Vegetable Stock (Water, Onion, Celery, Carrot, Bay leaves, Peppercorns), Brown Rice, Tamari, Coconut Oil, Garlic, Ginger
Less salt, sugar and higher in healthy fats than the other three meals and almost no harmful ingredients, with the only added salt being what is present in the Tamari.
ü Do use real food
ü Don’t add preservatives or other additives or thickeners or binders
ü Don’t add salt (other than what might be present in soya sauce for example)
ü Don’t add cane sugar or artificial sweeteners
ü Serve just delicious, nutritious food!
The bottom line is … Please be discerning when you choose ready made meals… they are not all created equal, and they are not all healthy, no matter what the fancy packaging says.
If you’re after convenient home delivered ready-made healthy meals that are designed by a nutritionist and chef team that are actually healthy and good for you, then check out Healthy Meals to Your Door. Currently running in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, it delivers prepared meals to your home or workplace.
You can order online and avoid the trip to the supermarket!
 Remnant, J., & Adams, J. (2015). The nutritional content and cost of supermarket ready-meals. Cross sectional analysis. Appetite, 92: 36-42.