23 November 2018, 05:04 AM
  • With top-range ingredients and a greater selection than ever before, John Bensalhia samples the latest developments and choices in the ready meal sector
Ready, steady, cook: charting the rise of premium ready meals

Too much to do. Too little time. Today’s time-crunched society throws everything it can at you. Rent, mortgage and bills to pay. A hectic work schedule. A commute that leaves you either stuck for a long time in traffic or on a jam-packed train which is so slow, it may as well be pulled along by Mr Bean in ski boots.

It’s a lifestyle that leaves many with maybe just about enough time for a lunchtime sandwich. With that in mind, it’s little wonder that ready meals are big news at the moment. A number of recent reports have looked at ready and convenience meal trends in the UK, and have found that there is plenty of demand for this sector.

Euromonitor says that the UK spends £4.7 billion on ready-to-eat convenience meals each year. Global Data, meanwhile, commented on the general value of prepared meals. While the figure reached $83.4 billion in 2017, that value is expected to grow to $99.1 billion by 2021. Out of this, the biggest and fastest growing sector is the ready meal. The UK is the biggest European market, with a recorded market value of 775,000 tonnes worth of prepared meals in 2017.

The time factor is a notable reason for these statistics. With the cooking already done, after a hard day’s work, all the customer has to do is to place the package in the oven or microwave, wait, and then eat.

The statistics also show that the ready meal holds particular appeal for millennials. Global Data reported that a growth of 4.1% is expected for the UK food and grocery convenience market, on account of changes in today’s customer shopping habits. Just over a quarter of 25-to-34 year olds were found to do their weekly shopping in a convenience store, as compared to just 5.7% of 55 to 64 year olds.

Frozen foods were also found to be a popular choice for millennials. An RBC Capital Markets report claimed that this age group spend 9% more per shopping trip on frozen foods than others in 2017. It’s a trend that spreads around the world. For instance, in America, an ERS study discovered that millennials assigned more of their home food budgets to readily prepared foods such as canned soups and deli rotisserie chicken. The millennial generation is the one to feel the main impact of time pressures, and with a greater hurry to eat on the go, the ready meal is the perfect solution.

A classy deal
But modern ready made meals are higher in quality. Food producers are cottoning on to the fact that there’s a high demand for this kind of meal. If time-pressured people can’t cook the meals themselves, that doesn’t mean that they should have to compromise on the quality. More ready made meals use high quality ingredients that are cooked to perfection, and it’s an approach that’s paying off in spades with high acclaim and sales.

Gourmade’s wide range of ready meals is a very classy deal indeed. Using the best in quality ingredients, customers can choose from a wide range of dishes. The likes of Gourmade’s Beef Bourguignon (prepared with beef, red wine, mushrooms, shallots, thyme and smoked back bacon) and Chicken Tikka Masala (containing slowly marinated chicken in a tomato and coconut cream sauce) showcase the high standards of ready made meals available on the market today. Customers can also choose from a selection of tasty desserts such as Belgian Chocolate Roulade (made with real, fresh dairy cream).

Samworth Brothers’ range is another example of the high standards of ready meal in 2018. As well as British recipes, Samworth Brothers also offers inspiration from Italy and Asia, and to ensure that the quality is as high as possible, new recipe ideas are tested by an independent taste panel of consumers.

New spin
The Everdine ready meals put a new spin on traditional consumables. Instead of the traditional fish and chips in a greasy newspaper wrapper, Everdine’s Quinoa-crusted fish and chips is a more elegant take on this old favourite. Using healthy options such as flaky white fish topped off with crispy quinoa, sweet potato chips and chunky pea purée, it’s a good example of how much thought goes into ready meals, 21st century-style.

Everdine’s Lamb Hotpot also provides a unique take on the conventional classic, using ingredients such as crisp slices of turnip and beetroot that help keep the lamb juicy and tender. Many more of Everdine’s ready meals bely the old-fashioned opinion that this kind of dinner is a quick, easy option to be slurped down in front of the TV. It’s a thoughtfully prepared and conceived treat that can be enjoyed as a restaurant-style meal.

Wiltshire Farm Foods proves that when it comes to choice, there’s something for everyone with modern ready made meals. The company offers meat dishes made with chicken and turkey, pork, beef, lamb and fish. Indian, Chinese and Italian dishes are open to customers who want a bit of culture in their supper. Feeling like a smaller portion of food? Mini Meals will do the job. Or a great big meal? Then Hearty Meals will fill you up. The ready meal isn’t just confined to dinner, with breakfast options also available. Delicious soup flavours line up tomato, vegetable, chicken and vegetable, pea and ham, and potato and leek.

Food manufacturers are also savvy to producing specially packaged ready meals. Wiltshire Farm Foods offers a range of menu packs. These function as introductions to the kinds of meals available, and include 7 Day Purée Classic and Extra Tender options, as well as an Easy Order Menu, and for those who find that the 25th December main meal is a bit beyond their reach, there’s a Christmas Selection. Gourmade, meanwhile, boasts a range of ready meal hampers: The Classics, Just Desserts, Veggie and Free From Gluten.

Healthy options
The latter options raise a growing trend with today’s ready meal options. More food producers are providing healthier options than ever before. Specific requirements such as vegetarianism and gluten-free are being taken into account.

But are conventional supermarkets meeting these needs? Research from Eating Better (a member of Sustain) suggested that this isn’t the case. The report claims that supermarket ready meals are not catering for vegetarian and “meat-conscious” customers. Three quarters of 1,350 ready meals from 10 of the chief supermarket retailers found that meat was the main ingredient, while only 3% contained plant-based choices that don’t include meats, fish, or dairy products. However, Tesco’s Wicked Kitchen range helps to redress the balance: a 20-strong collection of vegan ready meals and food to go items, such as BBQ Butternut Mac and Cauli, Bhaji and Coconut Rice.

Vegan options are open to those wanting a ready meal. The Plantifull Food Company offers a selection of new dishes that are 100% vegan. Completely free of additives and preservatives, the dishes are accessible to everyone, packaged in a microwaveable pot.

The range also takes gluten-free requirements into consideration. Selections like Gluten-Free Creamy Mac with Green Peas and Coronation Chickpea 5-A-Day- Pot are both gluten and soya-free. There’s a fantastic spread of vegetables and ingredients in meals such as the Asian Teriyaki 5-A-Day-Pot: edamame beans, broccoli, red peppers, spring onions, lentils and black beans combine to make a wonderful mix of sweet and sour flavours. The Plantifull Food Company’s vegan ready meals are both available to order online and in 30 London-wide stores.

While ready meals may not have been the first food option to link with healthy eating, today’s producers are doing something about that. Companies like Everdine cook their healthy meals from scratch, using quality ingredients that are high in protein and low in salt, fat, saturated fats and calories. The trick is in the post-cooking process. Blast-frozen immediately after cooking, this locks in the nutrients, which means that there’s no need for artificial preservatives to be included in the food. It’s an effective way of keeping the food as fresh and nutritious as possible.

Wiltshire Farm Foods, meanwhile, marks meals with special dietary codes, allowing customers to select the right dish that meets their specific needs. To make life just as easy, Wiltshire Farm Foods also offers a dedicated Free From… range that’s tailored to people who have particular allergies and intolerances. These meals are free from ingredients and elements such as gluten, nuts, eggs, fish and sulphites.

Packaging innovations
Ready meal packaging is more environmentally aware than ever before. Earlier this year, Huhtamaki introduced a new fibre-based kind of ready meal packaging, Durapulp, which was trialled as an environmentally-friendly alternative to black plastic packaging.

KCC Packaging has also looked to natural sources with its development of Riji, a material made from natural plant fibres such as sugar cane. Perfect for the ready meal market, Riji is coated in biodegradable food-friendly material which can hold moisturerich foods. It’s a material that will stay solid when cooking in a microwave or traditional oven.

Eschewing the need for wasteful packaging, Colpac’s Cookpac is an oven-safe paperboard solution that makes the cooking process as easy as possible for users. Two options are available – Same Day and Heat-Seal, the latter of which provides an extended shelf life for the food inside.

Unlike conventional plastic trays, the shape of Cookpac doesn’t change during cooking. Once the meal has been cooked, it’s easy to remove from the oven or microwave, thanks to Cookpac’s integrated, heatresistant handles. Once cooked, customers can open the pack without any fuss.

Ready meals have come on leaps and bounds in the past few years. Healthy, high quality ingredients, wide variety, and innovative packaging solutions all come together to make an ideal eating solution for those who don’t have the time to prepare a meal at home.