Supermarket ready meals

From shelf to microwave, they're ready in minutes. But are these packaged meals any good?
 
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01 .Introduction

Ready-meals-lead

Shelf-stable ready meals can be found in supermarkets alongside instant noodles and soups, and cost between $3 and $5. Designed for office workers, single households and busy people, they don’t need refrigeration and are ready to eat after a quick zap in the microwave; you don’t even have to add water. While they don't have the healthiest image, CHOICE found most are okay. They're reasonably nutritious and the best ones taste surprisingly good.

CHOICE analysed four of the most popular flavour categories of shelf-stable meals:

  • Chicken curry with rice
  • Beef- and tomato-based pasta
  • Meaty casseroles, chillis, roasts and stews
  • Vegetarian pasta.

We also put the lowest fat products to the taste-test and found some clear winners (see What to Buy)

 
 

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Thumbs up – and down

Ready meals have a poor health image, but the bulk of the 22 products we analysed are reasonably nutritious – in fact, half the products are low in fat. Only Tasty Bite Chicken Korma & Basmati Rice and Stagg Chilli Beef Chilli with Beans teeter on the edge. They fall within the amber traffic light range for fat and saturated fat per 100g, but they’d get a red light for both according to the UK Food Standards Agency’s nutritional criteria for ready meals, which also take into account portion sizes.

With 510mg of sodium per 100g, SunRice Tuscan Tomato Fusilli is the saltiest meal tested, but its small serving size means it contributes less than half of an adult’s maximum recommended daily intake of sodium. While a number of the products get a thumbs up for nutrition (see table), taste is what matters – if it doesn’t taste good, you won’t eat it.
Good appearance, aroma, flavour and texture is primarily due to the ingredients and recipe used, but the shelf-stable processing can be a thumbs down. After filling and sealing, containers are sterilised at high temperatures to prevent the growth of microorganisms. Manufacturers say the products can be stored safely without refrigeration for up to 18 months, but the process can result in stringy meat, mushy noodles, mealy potatoes and limp vegetables.

Not recommended for taste

Despite getting a thumbs up for nutrition, Hormel Compleats Roast Beef & Gravy with Mashed Potato and SunRice Napolitana Penne were the only products to score zero votes when we asked our tasters, “Would you buy this product?” We suggest trying the meals first before stockpiling.

These products are low in fat and saturated fat with moderate salt, and get the CHOICE taste panel’s vote for taste.

Ready-meals-enjoyoCHICKEN CURRY WITH RICE

Enjoyo Indian Butter Chicken & Rice
Tasters’ comments

  • “Quite spicy. Seems to be generous with chicken bits.”
  • “Compares with a restaurant meal (a cheap one, obviously).”
  • “Good curry flavour with bit of a kick.”

 

 

Ready-meals-heinz-eatBEEF- AND TOMATO-BASED PASTA

Heinz Big Eat Spaghetti Bolognese
Tasters’ comments

  • “Rich, but not overpowering. In one word: hearty.”
  • “Flavour is good, but the spaghetti is too short and too limp.”
  • “Smells nice and tomatoey.”

 

 

Ready-meals-enjoyo-beefMEATY CASSEROLES, CHILLIS, ROASTS AND STEWS

Enjoyo Beef Stroganoff & Rice
Tasters’ comments

  • “The rice is too gluggy, but the stroganoff tastes better than it looks.”
  • “Looks bad but tastes quite good. The rice is very gluggy.”
  • “A bit sloppy-looking, big bits of mushroom; meat could be a bit bigger.”

 

 

VEGETARIAN PASTA

Ready-meals-heinzHeinz Three Cheese* Tortellini Creamy Pumpkin & Roasted Garlic

Tasters’ comments

  • “Quite yummy. Not heavy, despite three cheeses and garlic. Could taste pumpkin.”
  • “Tastes really nice – like there may be some blue cheese in it.”
  • “Beautiful colour and smells of pumpkin.”

 *produced using animal rennet

 

Ready-meals-pastaLeggo’s Pasta Meals Napoletana

Tasters’ comments

  • “Looks and smells good. Pasta not too soft or hard.”
  • “The pasta is good and the sauce tasted good – just the right amount.”
  • “Sauce is OK but a bit bland. Needs spices and more herbs.”

USING THE TABLE

Nutrients

Based on information on label, per 100g. Traffic light criteria are based on the latest nutrition recommendations and dietary guidelines established by government health experts in Australia and internationally.

  • Fat (g/100g) green_10≤3; orange_103.1-19.9
  • Saturated fat (g/100g) green_10≤1.5; orange_101.6-4.9
  • Sodium (mg/100g) green_10≤120; orange_10121-599

Price

Pack sizes vary, so to compare we use the price per 100g based on prices in Sydney supermarkets in December 2009.

TABLE NOTES

(A) Taste test. A panel of eight CHOICE staff members taste-test the shelf-stable ready meals with green traffic lights for both fat and saturated fat. Meals are prepared according to on-pack instructions, presented on plain plates, with on-pack meal descriptions but no brand identification. Panellists individually consider each meal’s appearance, aroma, taste and texture and give it an overall rating before a consensus vote is taken for the tastiest shelf-stable ready meal in each category.

(B) Packaging. This product packaging is marked by the recycling symbol 7, a catch-all category of plastics that includes polycarbonate. Polycarbonate can release chemicals that have been linked to health problems – see Plastics and food.

CH-Ready-meals
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