Ready meals are fresh, pre-prepared meals that can be found in the refrigerator section of the supermarket.
They usually take a few minutes to cook in the microwave and can be a convenient, quick and easy lunch or dinner option for busy people or households short on time.
Recently there's been an increase in the variety and types of these ready meals, with supermarkets launching their own-brand alternatives to established offerings from brands like Youfoodz. Many also cater to specific diets like high protein, low carbohydrate or vegetarian.
But are some ready meals tastier than others, and do some have more nutritional benefits – or downsides – than their shelf-mates?
We selected nine pasta bolognaise and 14 chicken-based ready meals available at the supermarket. We chose these types as they're popular and we could find similar meals across the brands to compare.
We called on CHOICE staff taste testers to give us their verdict, and applied a score for nutrition based on each meal's Health Star Rating.
Fast Fuel Meals Mediterranean Chicken
- CHOICE score: 82%
- Taste test score: 73%
- Price: $11.95
- Health Star Rating: 4.5
- Taste test comments: "A good balance of vegies, chicken and carbs"; "The sauce is sour, the chicken breast is very moist, dry herb smell"; "Vegetables were a little soggy".
Easy Eats Pesto Chicken
- CHOICE score: 79%
- Taste test score: 78%
- Price: $8.50
- Health Star Rating: 4
- Taste test comments: "A little salt would help"; "The pasta is about as good as can be expected from the microwave"; "More please"; "Herb taste is strong, pasta has a good texture, chicken tastes fake".
My Muscle Chef Spaghetti Bolognaise
- CHOICE score: 76%
- Taste test score: 72%
- Price: $11.95
- Health Star Rating: 4
- Taste test comments: "Meat quantity is OK, the meat isn't dry, the sauce is a bit sour and watery, there are little bits of carrot evident"; "The pasta is a little overcooked, the sauce tastes meaty but it's not a thick sauce with good coverage, has a wine smell from the sauce."
Youfoodz Fuel'd Beef Ragu Fettuccine
- CHOICE score: 75%
- Taste test score: 69%
- Price: $11.95
- Health Star Rating: 4
- Taste test comments: "This is more like a pasta stew and the MSG is strong in this one, the stewed meat tastes sugary, and it tastes like it has had all the flavour boiled out of it and reconstituted with artificial flavours"; "Large amount of slow cooker shredded meat, nice taste and some mushrooms, more like a beef stroganoff"; "There's so much meat, the meat is a little chewy and the pasta is too soft, evident mushrooms, garlic and oregano in the sauce".
When you're short on time to prepare lunch or dinner, a ready meal can be on the table in under five minutes.
Preparation is minimal – just remove the packaging and heat. Most meals require only around three minutes in the microwave and perhaps some resting time before they're ready to eat.
If you'd like to save time on doing the dishes too, you can eat straight out of the container. Then just give it a rinse before you pop it in the recycling.
Ready meals are pre-portioned, which can help manage your kilojoule intake and prevent overeating.
Some brands offer various nutrient-dense options, such as lean chicken or beef, wholegrain pasta, and plenty of vegetables. This may widen the variety of foods you'd normally eat every week, providing more nutrient variety in your diet.
Usually more expensive than cooking from scratch
The average cost of the spaghetti bolognaise ready meals we tested was about $9.60. But if you were to buy the ingredients for spaghetti bolognaise and make it at home, it would cost you less than $3 per serve.
Often high in salt
One common issue with ready meals is high sodium (or salt) content. Excessive sodium intake has been linked to high blood pressure, heart failure, kidney problems and other issues.
Always check the nutrition label for sodium levels; a good guide is no more than 120mg of sodium per 100g (or 400mg per serving).
The following meals contained more than 1000mg of sodium per serve – this is more than a McDonald's Big Mac:
- Youfoodz Fuel'd Peri Peri Chicken with Spicy Mayo
- Youfoodz Chicken Penne
- Strength Meals Co Lemon Herb Chicken
- Strength Meals Co Braised Beef Ragu
- Youfoodz Fuel'd Beef Ragu Fettuccine.
- Coles Kitchen Italian Inspired Spaghetti Bolognaise
- Easy Eats Pesto Chicken
- Fast Fuel Meals Mediterranean Chicken.
Can be highly processed
The internationally recognised Nova food classification system applies a category to foods based on how processed they are. The highest classification, ultra-processed foods, includes snacks, drinks and ready meals formulated "mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituents".
Ultra-processed foods contain many types of additives, including those that imitate or enhance the sensory qualities of foods or culinary preparations made from foods. The end product is a food that should taste better and last longer, but many processed ingredients, including additives and preservatives, can have negative health implications.
Many processed ingredients, including additives and preservatives, can have negative health implications
All the meals we taste-tested were ultra-processed, using the Nova definition, but two of them were less processed than the others: Dineamic Roast Chicken and Strength Meals Co Lemon Herb Chicken.
So be sure to review the ingredient lists for whole, recognisable ingredients, and try to avoid excessive additives and preservatives.
Some may be more nutritious than others
The nutritional content can vary widely between different brands, and even within the same brand. Always review the labels to choose the most nutritious options.
The Health Star Ratings on these meals varied from 3.5 to 4.5; we suggest you choose those with a Health Star Rating of 3.5 or more.
You may ingest plastic
Microplastics are defined as particles of plastic under 5mm in diameter. They can make their way into food from the environment where they exist as a pollutant, and can also be transferred from plastic packaging to the food, especially when the packaging is heated.
You could avoid this potential risk by transferring the ready meal to a glass or microwave-safe dish before cooking in the microwave
More research is needed, but ingesting these microplastics may lead to adverse health effects, such as inflammation, changes to the reproductive system, and disruption to hormone levels.
The meals we tested all came in some form of plastic packaging and need to be heated to be consumed. You could avoid this potential risk by transferring the ready meal to a glass or microwave-safe dish before cooking in the microwave.
These meals come in single-serve containers, such as plastic trays, with additional layers of plastic wrap and cardboard sleeves. They may also include various condiment packets, all contributing to even more waste.
The packaging is designed for single use only, and not all are easily recyclable or biodegradable, contributing to waste sent to landfill. If a family is eating a ready meal each for dinner, this waste can add up. Look for ready meals with recyclable trays, films and sleeves to minimise your impact on the environment.
One meal we tested – Dineamic Roast Chicken – had a compostable tray, lined with recyclable soft plastic and a recyclable film. This is a great initiative, but when heated, the plastic shrunk and was difficult to open.
The pictures used on the product packaging for ready-made meals often look very appealing, but the reality can be quite different.
Look for more vegies
Only 6.5% of Australian adults meet their recommended daily vegetable intake. If you're replacing a home-cooked lunch or dinner with a ready meal, the amount of vegetables is important. An adult should eat, on average, five to six serves of vegies a day. So ideally you'd get about one-and-a-half to two serves of vegetables in one ready meal. Seven of the 23 meals we looked at met this recommendation.
Look for more protein
Seek out options with a good amount of protein to keep you feeling full. All the meals we looked at in this test qualified as being a good source of protein, containing more than 10g per serve.
Look for more fibre
Adults require about 25–30g of fibre each day for good gut health and for its other protective benefits. Meals with more than 7g of fibre per serve are considered an excellent source of fibre. Nine of the meals we tested were an excellent source.
Supermarket ready meals can be a convenient option for busy people. While they offer benefits like portion control and variety, it's important to know the downsides, such as high sodium content and highly processed ingredients. To make healthier choices, carefully read the nutrition labels and choose options with lower sodium levels and whole, unprocessed ingredients.
How we tested ready meals
We tested ready meals from two categories: chicken-based and pasta bolognaise-style meals available at major supermarket chains.
Price is based on the price in stores in October 2023 for one serving or one meal. We taste-tested 14 chicken-based ready meals and nine pasta bolognaise-style ready meals.
A panel of CHOICE staff blind taste tested the ready meals (without knowing the brands) in a randomised order.
The CHOICE score (our overall score) is made up of sensory and preparation attributes (50%) and nutrition (50%). Sensory and preparation attributes include flavour (30%), quality (20%), texture (15%), appearance (10%), overall perception (10%), ease of preparation (10%) and smell (5%). The nutrition score is entirely derived from the meal's Health Star Rating, which is calculated from details in the nutrition information panel and converted to a percentage. Weightings are in brackets.
We recommend products with a CHOICE score of 75% or more.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.