Convenience without compromise – a new age of ready meals

Since the invention of the ready meal by US company Swanson’s in the 1950’s, where Gerry Thomas introduced the famous Swanson’s TV dinner in 1953 when there was an excess of turkey after Thanksgiving, ready meals have come a long way.

Ready meals have played a pivotal role in the development of the convenience category and it is no secret that over the last decade or so, convenience has become more and more important to consumers as people are leading ever-increasingly busy lives and are therefore constantly seeking out shortcuts for those unavoidable, mundane tasks encountered on a daily basis.

Mealtimes have become a staple example of one of these such occasions, and we’ve witnessed supermarkets capitalise on this through offerings such as readily chopped vegetables, quick-cook pasta, and microwavable rice to name a few examples. Hacks such as these have been welcomed by many consumers who appreciate that bit of help in claiming back their valuable time where possible.

Ready meals have previously had a rocky relationship with health

Whilst ready meals seemed to provide the ultimate solution to this demand, there has been somewhat of a black cloud hanging over the category when looking back over the last few years, and this is down to another long-term emerging trend – health.

Whilst consumers want convenience, they are often unwilling to compromise on health, and in becoming ever-more informed about what they should and shouldn’t be putting into their bodies, preservative and additive filled ready meals somewhat fell by the wayside.

As people began to take a more active stance on their health, it became prevalent that many of the ready meals loved and consumed by much of the population contained extremely high fat and salt levels, alongside harmful additives, even in the case of some low-calorie offerings. This sparked the negative perception of ready meals that has been floating around for years and which appeared difficult to come back from.

Times are changing for the humble ready meal

Walking down supermarket aisles today we see a very different picture painted of ready meals. It seems the category has found its footing and got on board with this health kick. Whilst of course the staple ‘midweek treat’ or ‘in a rush’ offerings remain, the last few years have seen the emergence of lots of brands promoting fresh and healthy ingredients such as The Gym Kitchen, BOL, and Feed Me Vegan.

Perhaps most prevalent are the store own-label offerings that have surfaced, with ranges such as Tesco’s ‘Healthy Living’ and Sainsbury’s ‘My Goodness’ to name a few. The branding of these new styles of ready meal has moved away from a traditional focus on indulgence and speed, and instead celebrates health, with the use of green colours to echo freshness, alongside transparent packaging mirroring the transparency of ingredients.

Frozen ready meals have taken on a whole new persona

It is also important to mention the role that frozen has played in this wave of health and freshness in the ready meals department. Once again, there has been a long-standing stigma that ‘fresh is best’ and that frozen food, particularly ready meals, did not constitute a healthy and balanced diet.

Only recently has the potential of frozen ready meals been realised, providing the real solution to both convenience and health by locking in the freshness to conceive long-lasting meals without the need for preservatives.

Similar to the fresh offerings, less healthy examples continue to exist, as the Grocer notes ‘not all frozen ready meals are created equal’, but once again the landscape of frozen ready meals has drastically changed with some offerings now being considered ‘as healthy as home-made’.

The impact on the environment is the next big hurdle for ready meals

Now that the ready meal category has made this leap into health-conscious modern-day society, they face a new and even more pressing challenge – the environment. As climate change is forcing the population to reconsider its approach to single-use plastic, currently responsible for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, ready meals have once again drawn a raw deal, with the vast majority of their packaging utilising plastic in some way.

However, once again we are seeing progressive activity coming out of the category as it steps up to overcome this new barrier. Just recently we saw the announcement from the brand The Wild Hare Group around their plans to be the first net-zero carbon ready meal, utilising carbon-tracking with detailed analysis of carbon consumption within the supply chain.

Similarly, Wilshire Farm Foods recently released their 100% recyclable tray in a bid to deliver on the zero-packaging ready meal target

Examples such as these illustrate that the ready meal category is ready to commit to evolving with the times, with health and the environment shaping many of the changes being implemented at present. If the category continues to make these commitments, meeting the increasing consumer demand for healthier and greener offerings, whilst simultaneously providing the convenience welcomed in today’s society, the possibilities within the category are boundless.

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Written by Holly Adams, Research Manager at Spark Emotions.
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to Holly via email or connect with her on LinkedIn