Ready meal revival


Which supermarket range of ready meals delivers on taste?

Ready, steady, eat


We taste test refrigerated lasagne, butter chicken, beef bourguignon, spinach and ricotta cannelloni, and lamb shanks from Woolworths, Coles and Aldi – and compare their price and health value, too.

No time to scratch yourself, let alone cook from scratch?

If just contemplating what you're going to make for dinner tonight makes you shudder, you're not alone. There are countless reasons why making a meal from scratch every night of the week is sometimes just not feasible – not least of which is that we're all busier than ever before.

Ready meals have long been a convenient option, but the offerings from supermarkets, particularly in the chilled section (refrigerated, not frozen), have recently expanded. And at face value they seem to offer all the benefits of a home-cooked meal, without the time and effort. 

Coles offers a "convenient and nutritious alternative to takeaway food" in the form of 40 new products. Woolworths added to its already extensive chilled ready meal offerings when it launched its "Woolworths Simply" range of 21 ready-to-heat dishes, promising "straightforward, flavoursome and more convenient home-cooked meals at fantastic value".

But do they deliver on taste? And just how convenient are they? We taste tested five different chilled ready meals – one for every night of the working week – to see how the supermarket brands stack up.

In this review

We compare the price, taste and nutritional value of ready meals from Woolworths, Coles and Aldi, including:

Plus:

Video: Ready meal packaging vs reality

Don't even have time (or energy) to get to the supermarket? See our review of gourmet meal delivery services.

Lasagne


   
 Coles Beef Lasagne 400g
 Woolworths Angus Beef Lasagne 700g
 Me'n'u (Aldi) Lasagne 1.2kg
 $7.00
(1 serving per pack)
 $9.99
(2 servings per pack)
 $9.99
(6 servings per pack)
  WINNER DINNER: Woolworths
"Actually had some flavour. Had the most flavour out of all of them." – Taste tester feedback
 

Taste

"Angus beef and shiraz simmered to a thick Bolognese", "Rich Australian beef ragu layered with egg pasta"… the descriptions on the packs may sound enticing, but they didn't all deliver on taste, with two of the three supermarket lasagnes receiving the lowest overall scores of all ready meals on test. 

More than half of our tasters liked the flavour of the Woolies lasagne (although slightly less gave it a 'good' overall rating). But relatively few liked the flavour of Aldi's lasagne and just one taster liked the flavour of the Coles version. With words such as "chemical" and "fake" used to describe the flavour of lasagnes from Aldi and Coles, it's no wonder they missed the mark.

Convenience

Despite the poor ratings overall, you can't deny the convenience of a supermarket ready-made lasagne. All they need is 30-35 mins in the oven (or just a few minutes in the microwave for the Coles and Aldi versions), whereas preparing a lasagne from scratch can be time consuming, messy and labour intensive. 

Our home economist, Fiona Mair, likes to simmer her meat ragu sauce for several hours to achieve a good depth of flavour – so while making the béchamel, assembling the layers and cooking the lasagne in the oven takes her just over an hour, she can take up to five hours to prepare the whole meal from start to finish. 

Price

Aldi's lasagne, with six servings per pack ($1.67 per serve), was even cheaper than our home made version which serves eight ($3.80 per serve).

Product
(pack size)
Price
$/100g
Price
$
Health Star
Rating
Energy
kJ/100g
Protein
g/100g
Fat
g/100g
Sat fat
g/100g
Sugars
g/100g
Fibre
g/100g
Sodium
mg/100g
Allergen statement
Coles Beef Lasagne (400g) 1.75 7 3.5 607 7.9 7.6 4 1.7 1.8 270 Contains gluten (from wheat), milk and egg. May be present: soy.
Me'n'u (Aldi) Lasagne (1.2kg) 0.83 9.99 3 618 7.3 3.6 1.4 1.8 ns 275 Contains wheat, egg, milk and soy. May contain crustacea, fish, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, sulphites and other gluten cereals
Woolworths Angus Beef Lasagne (700g) 1.43 9.99 3 581 6.2 6.5 3.1 2.6 1.8 360 Contains: gluten, egg and milk, May be present: soybeans, sulphites.

Butter chicken


   
 Coles Butter Chicken & Basmati Rice 350g
 Woolworths Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice 350g
 Me'n'u (Aldi) Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice 350g
 $5
(1 serving per pack)
 $6.99
(1 serving per pack)
 $4.69
(1 serving per pack)

Taste

As far as ratings go, the butter chickens on test weren't the worst, but neither were they fantastic. Just a third of the butter chicken samples were rated as 'good' overall – although the differences in ratings between the brands weren't significant.

So if it's a butter chicken you're after, you may as well buy on price.

Convenience

Butter chicken is a relatively quick and easy meal to produce, according to Fiona, whose home made version took just 15 minutes to prep, and 45 minutes to cook on the stovetop. But the butter chicken ready meals we tested are the epitome of convenience – ready to eat after just a few minutes in the microwave.

Price

Aldi's butter chicken was the best value at $4.69 per serve. At $4.25 per serve our homemade version worked out cheaper, but that can be put down to economies of scale (the recipe serves six, not just one).

Product
(pack size)
Price
$/100g
Price
$
Health Star
Rating
Energy
kJ/100g
Protein
g/100g
Fat
g/100g
Sat fat
g/100g
Sugars
g/100g
Fibre
g/100g
Sodium
mg/100g
Allergen statement
Coles Butter Chicken & Basmati Rice (350g) 1.43 5 3.5 737 9.8 6.4 2.6 0.3 1.7 200 Contains milk. May be present: gluten, tree nuts and sesame.
Me'n'u (Aldi) Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice (350g) 1.34 4.69 3.5 760 8.6 8.4 3.6 1.6 3 333 Contains milk. May contain gluten, soy, sesame and tree nuts.
Woolworths Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice (350g) 2.00 6.99 3 681 7.1 6.5 3.1 3 1.2 380 Contains: gluten, milk, soybeans and tree nuts. May be present: crustacea, egg, fish, peanuts, sesame seeds and other tree nuts.

Beef bourguignon


 
 Coles Slow Cooked Beef Bourguignon 550g
 Woolworths Slow Cooked Beef Bourguignon 500g
 $10
(2 servings per pack)
 $10
(2 servings per pack)
WINNER DINNER: Woolworths
"Lovely and rich, nice tender meat." – Taste tester feedback

Taste

The Coles beef bourguignon is described on the pack as "Australian beef slow cooked for 3 hours with onion, mushroom and bacon in a red wine sauce". But more than any other flavour, the one most frequently mentioned by our tasters in their comments was that of Vegemite or Marmite – and not in a good way, according to our tasters. Just four people (out of 25) rated it as 'good' – significantly less than the 13 people who rated the Woolworths version as 'good'. 

The Woolworths version claims to have been cooked for eight hours, which would result in better developed flavours, potentially influencing its more positive ratings.

Convenience

The supermarket versions need half an hour in the oven, but this is only a fraction of the time it takes to make this meal from scratch – about half an hour chopping ingredients and searing the meat, then about two hours simmering on the stovetop (or five hours on high in the slow cooker), according to Fiona's recipe. And if you're really in a hurry to eat, the supermarket meals are ready in about six minutes using the microwave.

Price

At $5 per serve, the Coles and Woolworths products were cheaper than our homemade Bourguignon, which cost $7.20 per serve (for a recipe that serves six).

Product
(pack size)
Price
$/100g
Price
$
Health Star
Rating
Energy
kJ/100g
Protein
g/100g
Fat
g/100g
Sat fat
g/100g
Sugars
g/100g
Fibre
g/100g
Sodium
mg/100g
Allergen statement
Coles Slow Cooked Beef Bourguignon (550g) 1.82 10 4 534 12.9 6 2.4 1.7 ns 267 Contains milk, soy, sulphites and wheat (gluten).
Woolworths Slow Cooked Beef Bourguignon (500g) 2.00 10 4 565 24.8 3.1 1.4 0.8 ns 273 May be present: egg.

Want to make this at home? See our slow cooker review to find out which product gives the best results.

Spinach & ricotta cannelloni


   
 Coles Spinach & Ricotta Cannelloni 400g
 Woolworths Spinach & Ricotta Cannelloni 700g
 Me'n'u (Aldi) Spinach & Ricotta 3 Cheese Cannelloni 1.3kg
 $7.00
(1 serving per pack)
 $9.99
(2 servings per pack)
 $9.99
(5 servings per pack)
  WINNER DINNER: Woolworths
"Very tasty, tomato sauce was very nice, pasta well cooked." – Taste tester feedback
 

Taste

Of all the ready meals we tested, spinach and ricotta cannelloni was the most liked. It was also the only meal where supermarket products were picked as most likely to be home cooked more often than the actual home cooked version on test. 

This popularity wasn't universal across the brands, however. The Coles and Woolworths products were rated 'good' overall by significantly more tasters (14 out of 24 for both) than the Aldi product (4 of 24). Significantly more tasters (half of all those participating) said they were likely to buy the Woolies version, which is why it gets the nod for best cannelloni.

Convenience

The products all required 35 minutes in the oven – or a handful of minutes in the microwave – to heat. Compare this with the hour prep and 45 minutes cooking time our home economist spends making cannelloni, and they certainly earn their convenience food label.

Price

Aldi's cannelloni, with five servings per pack ($2 per serve), was even cheaper than our home made version which serves eight ($3.55 per serve).

Product
(pack size)
Price
$/100g
Price
$
Health Star
Rating
Energy
kJ/100g
Protein
g/100g
Fat
g/100g
Sat fat
g/100g
Sugars
g/100g
Fibre
g/100g
Sodium
mg/100g
Allergen statement
Coles Spinach & Ricotta Cannelloni (400g) 1.75 7 3 678 7 9.2 6 2.1 2.2 260 Contains gluten (from wheat), milk, egg. May be present: soy.
Me'n'u (Aldi) Spinach & Ricotta 3 Cheese Cannelloni (1.3kg) 0.77 9.99 3 497 6.2 4.4 2.6 2.1 ns 336 Contains wheat, egg and milk. May contain crustacea, fish, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, sulphites, soy and other gluten cereals.
Woolworths Spinach & Ricotta Cannelloni (700g) 1.43 9.99 3.5 727 8.8 8.7 5.8 1.7 2.8 270 Contains: egg, gluten and milk. May be present: fish and soybeans.

Lamb shanks


 
Coles Australian Lamb Slow Cooked Shanks 900g
 Woolworths Slow Cooked Lamb Shanks with Rosemary Jus 800g
 $15
(2 servings per pack)
 $14.99
(2 servings per pack)
 WINNER DINNER: Coles
"Tender, well cooked; nice, prominent flavour." – Taste tester feedback

Taste

Just five people (out of 26) rated the Woolworths lamb shanks as 'good' overall, which was significantly less than the 13 who gave Coles a 'good' rating for its version, described on the pack as "tender Australian lamb shanks in a rich savoury red wine sauce". 

Significantly fewer people said they were likely to buy the Woolies shanks, which is hardly surprising for a product that tasters described as "bland", "lacklustre" and "flavourless".

Convenience

Lamb shanks at home may only take you minutes to prepare, browning the meat and adding the ingredients for a sauce, but when it comes to cooking time you're looking at a couple of hours in the oven at least – or six hours on high in the slow cooker, according to Fiona.

The Woolworths shanks, in comparison, can be heated in the microwave and on the table in less than 10 minutes. The Coles shanks require more effort to get them on the table than you might expect from a convenience product. They need two stints in the oven, with basting in between and after, so it's at least 35 minutes before you can sit down to eat – although you could use that time to prepare and cook some vegies.

Price

At $7.50 per serve, the Coles and Woolworths products were more expensive than our home cooked shanks, which cost $5.45 per serve (for a recipe that serves four).

Product
(pack size)
Price
$/100g
Price
$
Health Star
Rating
Energy
kJ/100g
Protein
g/100g
Fat
g/100g
Sat fat
g/100g
Sugars
g/100g
Fibre
g/100g
Sodium
mg/100g
Allergen statement
Coles Australian Lamb Slow Cooked Shanks (900g) 1.67 15 3.5 608 17.9 7.6 3.2 0.7 0.6 270 Contains egg and milk.
Woolworths Slow Cooked Lamb Shanks with Rosemary Jus (800g) 1.87 14.99 4 604 17 7.6 3.1 1 0.4 198 Contains: egg, milk and sulphites.

Are ready meals healthy?

We compared the health star ratings (HSRs) of the supermarket ready meals to see if any stood out nutritionally. Within each meal type there was little difference – just half a star – between the comparable products. Most of the meals we tested sit around the 3 to 3.5-star mark – although both Bourguignons and the Woolworths lamb shanks achieve an HSR of 4.

All of the meals could benefit from additional vegies – a side salad with the pasta dishes or some green beans or broccoli with the shanks and bourguignon, for example.

How we tested

Taste test

Taste testing was conducted in the kitchen laboratory at CHOICE over three days in August. Tastings were done blind, with samples identified only by a reference number. Samples were heated according to instructions on pack. For each meal type, our tasters were given a sample from every brand as well as a home made version prepared by CHOICE's home economist, Fiona Mair. The order in which samples were tasted was randomised for each taster. Each sample was tasted a minimum of 24 times. A total of 448 samples were tasted.

Ratings

Tasters completed a survey for each sample. They used a 7-point rating scale to give each sample an overall rating, as well as a rating for flavour and texture. To analyse the results we bundled together the 'good' ratings ('good', 'very good' or 'excellent') and the 'not good' ratings ('poor', 'very poor' or 'awful'), and reported on them in that way.
Tasters also used a 7-point rating scale to indicate how likely or unlikely they would be to buy that meal. After tasting all samples of a meal type, they nominated the sample they believed tasted most like it was home cooked.

Products

The ready meals we tested include pastas and a curry, which are perennial favourites of the product category, as well as 'slow cooked' recipes, which are more recent on-trend additions. We chose meals where both Coles and Woolworths (and in three instances Aldi) sell comparable products under their own brand. Products were purchased on the week of testing, and those with the latest use-by date available were selected.

Price

This is based on the price paid in August 2016. Number of servings per pack as stated on the label.


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