I'm a strong believer in cooking fresh, healthy meals as often as possible. I'm also aware that for many of us, that just isn't feasible every single day. Prepackaged food can offer convenience when we have busy schedules but are they healthy? Do they offer good nutrition, balanced meals, and are they worthwhile? Let's take a look at the pros and cons of ready-made meals so we can decide.
You've probably seen the countless options on supermarket shelves of the range of ready meals available. Look in the freezer aisle and you'll be inundated with choice in abundance. Some meal prep companies offer to deliver them straight to your door too. For example, My Muscle Chef, Youfoodz, Dineamic, and Core Powerfoods to name a few.
Quick and easy. All you need to do is pop them in the microwave or oven when you are ready for them.
However, the sheer choice available can make it difficult to select the best option. As always, it's important to look at your individual needs and goals.
The Pros of Ready-Made Meals
Firstly, they're convenient.
This is perhaps their biggest selling point. Most of us are busy and could do with saving time here and there.
Ready-made meals all out to cut out the cooking and prep time involved with making a fresh meal from scratch.
Likewise, you don't need to shop for as many different groceries.
You have several ways you can use readymade meals as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Ready-made meals offer versatility and can fit into a healthy diet in several ways:
You can buy them in the shop and pretty much eat them right away. Either when you get back to the office or if you head straight home. Mostly you just need access to a microwave and you're done.
You can keep them in the fridge for a few days, so you have a pre-made dinner option if you need to work late. Likewise, some days just become busy and diaries fill up. You might also have your own sporting or social commitments and don't have the time to cook.
Alternatively, you can keep them stashed in the freezer. Having a selection of food choices available for those days you can't be bothered cooking is a massive advantage. You're less likely to opt for takeaway, which in most cases are less nutritious.
As mentioned above, some companies will deliver ready-made meals straight to your door. Several offer weekly meal plans that you can pick and choose from. You can match them to your health, fitness, and nutrition goals as well as any dietary preferences.
What about the cons of Ready-Made Meals?
Before you head out and fill your shopping trolley, let's consider a few other things.
Lack of variety can lead to boredom and 'food fatigue'
Although there are many options available, we tend to just stick to a few that we like. This can mean that if we eat the same meals too regularly, we start to enjoy them less. Consequently, we may skip meals or resort to less healthy options instead.
Portion sizes can vary between brands and manufacturers of ready-made meals
This makes it difficult to gauge your intake. That being said, if you know what calorie and macronutrient intakes work for you, it becomes a little easier. Energy intake and calorie content vary wildly among the vast array of ready-made meals out there. Understanding what you need and an overall sense of your daily intake will help.
Likewise, some options might not provide enough specific macronutrients for your goals. If you're training hard but not getting enough carbohydrates, your performance will suffer. Not just in the gym. You'll likely experience dips in concentration at work too.
Additionally, ready-made meals commonly contain smaller amounts of vegetables than we might make ourselves. Your fibre and vitamin intake may suffer from reduced portions of fruits and vegetables.
Watch out for the salt content
Most ready-made meals are loaded with salt (sodium).
This is deliberate since salt ensures the meals are tasty and have longer shelf lives. The downside is though that too much salt causes problems. Most Western diets contain far too much.
Anyone experiencing high blood pressure or those at risk of cardiovascular disease should do what they can to limit their salt intake.
Where possible, look for brands of ready-made meals with less than 150mg sodium per 100g.
How much are you paying for the convenience of ready-made meals?
Sure, there are cheap options out there. Big chain supermarkets try and entice us with special offers and discounts.
As a general rule though, when we compare food volume, nutrition and cost - fresh is best.
Budget constraints can make stocking up on healthy ready-made meals difficult. The cheapest options on the market are generally those with less than favourable nutrition profiles.
Learning how to manage your money, as well as your calorie intake, can allow you the freedom to pick and choose what's best for you and your family.
Hampering your creativity and meal planning skills
Lastly, being able to cook fresh healthy meals is an invaluable skill. Sure, learning how to meal plan properly can seem daunting. However, once you get the hang of it, things become quite simple.
Everyone needs to eat every day. Being able to cook and provide for yourself as well as others is a skill that you should cherish.
Ready-made convenience meals get in the way of that. Don't let convenience get in the way of basic cooking skills and learning the techniques.
So, overall, do the pros of ready-made meals outweigh the cons?
If you take the time to look at the labels and seek out the more nutritious brands, you're on to a winner.
Along with cooking some healthy meals each week, ready-made meals can slot in where you need them.
Sports nutritionists like myself can help guide you to the most appropriate choices for your goals and circumstances.
Now you know the pros and cons, here's some actionable tips to incorporate ready-made meals into a healthy diet
Where possible, look for meals whose energy content is around 400-500 calories, or 1680 to 2100 kilojoules.
Look for balanced options where you get quality carbohydrates (preferable whole grains), lean sources of protein, and lots of fibre from fruit and vegetables.
Don't get sucked in by special offers and multi-buy deals. Try one to make sure you actually like it first. If you do, then stock up. If you don't, move to another brand or variety.
As always, food hygiene is important. Make sure you follow storage instructions and check the dates for your meals.