With today’s culture being dominated by speed, it is no surprise that with our concentration and patience at an all-time low, this has fed into our food.
You wake up, and on the way to work or university pick up a baked good or sandwich, when noon rolls around, you pick a meal deal at the nearest food shop, and by the time you are ready to go home, you want to pick up something for dinner to put in the oven.
While this pattern of behaviour does not resemble every person, in a bustling city such as London, it is reminiscent of many people who simply cannot find enough hours in the day to prepare food from scratch.
Around 79 million ready meals and 22 million takeaways are consumed by adults in the UK every week, and it has changed our culture of eating together and slow dining.
Eating a meal with others is ingrained in our psyche. As humans, we enjoy being with other people, and sharing a meal with them is the most natural way to do so.
The Mental Health Foundation found that not only can regular mealtimes create a routine, but the social aspects of eating together allows children to develop their social skills, as well as everyone having the opportunity to develop a deeper sense of community and identity through talking on a personal level while sharing a meal.
We go on dates to restaurants, eat a Sunday roast with our friends and families, and this has not stopped even with our ever-growing tighter schedules between commuting and working.
On the other hand, home-cooked meals and slow dining are no longer a central part of the day, but rather whatever is quick and easy to grab. The question that arises, is how healthy is this behaviour?
Parents and siblings set the examples for children, and when there is simply no time to prepare a meal and a child grows up surrounded by ready meals, they are likely to, as adults, continue this pattern of behaviour. Dietician Dr Brian Power says that ready meals are not bad for your health, if you are aware of what to look for on the nutrition labels.Traffic light signposting aids in that process, where you are able to see what value is in the red “danger” zone and to avoid that. He suggests that the most important parts of a nutrition label to look at is the saturates, sugar and salt. It is too easy to get carried away when the choices are all tempting and wide-ranging.
“You would look over the course of the day how many foods have red in the saturated fat, five different foods, four of them have the red in saturated fat and that means they’re high in that particular aspect. So you would cut down to one or two.”
The European Food Safety Authority governs the healthiness of ready-made meals, with rigorous checks and the threat of fines, companies have no choice but to abide by them, however, this does not mean that food companies are producing completely nutritious and healthy meals.
With its beginnings originating from the 19th century, according to Wiltshire farm foods, ready meals have been on the rise ever since. What became the classic American ‘TV dinner’ in the 1950s, and then onto the ‘microwave dinner’ in the 1970s, the 21st century has seen a total explosion in the quality and variety of ready-made meals.
Money talks and ready meals have presented themselves as a cost-effective opportunity for people to try something new without buying a long list of ingredients, that may never be touched again, or going out to a restaurant and spending twice the amount.
This is a budget-friendly way of experimenting with taste palettes, however, Dr Power suggests that: “if somebody has the time, and the resources, then the ideal scenario is that you’re better off cooking from scratch.”
Eating a ready meal could potentially inspire home cooking, where if you enjoyed a certain ready meal then you would be prepared to buy the ingredients that are needed to cook it and adjust according to what you enjoyed about the ready meal and what you would change.
It opens up ways to entice people to cook at home, perhaps inspiring them to create meals for their friends and families, or even meal prepping on the weekend so as to eat more nutrient-dense meals while saving money as well.
Cooking from scratch benefits you in ways that ready meals simply cannot, it is proven that those who create their own meals from the chopping stage to the plating stage, get a boost of confidence and self esteem knowing that they created their own meal, culinary art therapist Julie Ohana told the Huffington Post.
You are in charge of your diet and can control what goes into a meal, particularly how much sugar and salt is used. Cooking a meal for others and then eating together is psychologically beneficial as well, as you feel a sense of worth and belonging within a community, which are strong factors in improving mental health.
Home-cooked meals and slow dining are no longer a central part of the day, but rather whatever is quick and easy to grab.
However, if ready meals are your best option, at the end of the day you are going to pick what tastes the best. Choosing something bland because it’s healthy simply is not a logical option, so if any change is going to occur to have a future of dominantly nutrient-dense and healthy ready meals, putting pressure on food companies is where change will happen on a large scale.
Dr Power suggests that enforcing reforms, such as taxing companies, is the most impactful way to allow the health of the consumers to stay a priority.
“If food companies don’t decide to reformulate, people generally will seek out another alternative product because the price is a strong influence on what people purchase.”
In this way, if there are taxes on the unhealthiest ingredients in the meals, companies will be forced to find a healthier alternative that produces the same taste, thus benefiting the consumer and the company as well.
Ready-meals have revolutionised the way that we eat and have made it possible to continue the culture of social eating, just in a different way than before. Whether our grandparents’ generation would be happy about it is a different matter.
Featured Image by Laura Scheepers.
Edited by Franziska Eberlein.