From the heady heights of 1960s exoticism to the frozen food phenomenon between the mid-70s to the early 80s; E-numbers and horsemeat scandals to the healthy, organic dishes being produced in 2015– it’s been quite a ride for the iconic ready meal. What are the biggest contributing factors for where the ready meal is today? And what companies are leading the way?
It all started with leftovers.
In the UK, it’s the beloved Christmas dinner that leads us to over-indulge on turkey and delicious delicacies, but across the pond in the USA, that meal takes place on Thanksgiving. On the fourth Thursday of November every year, Americans celebrate the first harvest of the Pilgrims back in 1621 by gorging on roasted turkey, winter squash, sweet and mashed potatoes, vegetables, stuffing, and perhaps a slice of pumpkin pie for pudding.
Copious leftovers are a common occurrence after Thanksgiving, but it wasn’t until 1953 that food company Swansons came up with the idea of packaging the turkey dinner into aluminium aeroplane food trays and freezing them for wholesale. The food and trays would revolutionise the food industry; not only did they act as a baking tray for cooking, but they were also makeshift plates, too.
After ten million sales in its first year alone, the ‘TV dinner’ was a bona-fide phenomenon in the States. As the freezer became commonplace in the UK in the late 70s and early 80s, so too did ready meals. They weren’t just seen as useful and helpful either; popular dishes like the Vesta curry were entirely glamorous. Brits were starting to travel more, and therefore the food we ate was becoming more varied. Indian food; Chinese food; Italian food; our taste buds were looking for adventure.
“When they first came out, ready meals were impossibly exotic and exciting, they were magical things,” food writer and critic Matthew Fort told bbc.co.uk. “We all aspired to a Vesta curry.”
Changes through the decades
After a while, the enthusiasm for ready meals dwindled somewhat. It wasn’t that the food itself was bad (although, as Fort notes, sometimes what you were served bared little resemblance to the enticing display on the packaging); it was rather a case of negative connotations being associated with them. For example, divorce rates were increasing, leading more men and women to cook solely for themselves, often whilst holding down busy careers. Because of this, ready meals were mostly associated with loneliness rather than convenience.
On the flipside, moving into the 80s, there were couples and families earning more money than they ever had before. The palettes of Britons were also becoming more refined, and a demand for quality was evident. Cathy Chapman, the long-serving head of product direction and development at Marks & Spencer, and arguably just as influential as the Delias and Gordon Ramsays when it comes to influencing our meals, saw this demand.
“We were aware of a strong drive for convenience and quality,” Chapman told independent.co.uk. “It was an era of double-income families who had more money than time and we knew people were prepared to pay that bit extra for something they could entertain with if they wanted to.”
So came the iconic chicken Kiev; followed by fancy Chinese ready meals in 1982, and Indian dishes in 1985. Celebrity chefs were becoming increasingly frequent on our televisions, and the overall interest in quality food was higher than ever. Indian Ready Meal
Throughout the nineties and noughties, supermarket gourmet ready meal ranges were all the rage and readily available. Tesco Finest; Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference; ASDA Chosen by You; Morrisons Fresh Ideas; Marks & Spencer Fuller Longer AND Balanced for You – all of these ranges provide ready meals of a higher quality and standard than we’d previously seen.
Presentation is everything, and the way ready meals are packaged has a lot to do with their success. One look at the deep, plush, luxurious-looking Taste the Difference ready meal packaging from Sainsbury’s, for example, and you’re immediately aware that what you’re buying isn’t run of the mill.
The same goes for Tesco Finest. There has clearly been more effort placed on the designing of packaging; arguably customers care just as much about how the product looks when it’s sitting in the fridge or freezer as they do the eventual taste – does it still look appetizing two weeks after it was purchased? If so, it’s all down to the quality of the packaging.
Healthy and organic
Like every department of the food and drink industry, the move towards healthy and organic products is clearly evident in the ready meal sector. As we highlighted in our guide to food labelling and packaging laws, all nutritional information MUST be shown on food packaging, as well as a list of ingredients. It’s therefore beneficial to be able to indicate the healthiness of a ready meal product by having green labels (indicating a small percentage of your recommended daily intake) across the board for calories, fat, sugar et al.
It was in the 90s that the customers displayed a growing concern regarding nutritional information, e-numbers, and additives. Ready meals followed the trend, with many companies striving for the freshest, most creative recipes and ideas. Waitrose even went as far as to have an entire ready meal range created by gastronomic aficionado, multi-Michelin-starred chef, and pioneer of multisensory cooking, Heston Blumenthal.
Away from the big supermarkets, who are the smaller, artisan ready meal producers beginning to take the industry by storm?
Smaller companies leading the way
Abel & Cole is one company driving the use of organic produce. It works directly with the best farmers and butchers in the country to produce quality ready meals, which customers can have delivered straight to their homes. As it says on its website: “We know exactly how your food is made, how it’s grown and what does, or more importantly doesn’t, go into it.”
Ocado’s ready meal stock is essentially a who’s who of fantastically fresh, organic manufacturers. There’s Rod and Ben’s range of organic soups and pot meals, Pegoty Hedge’s handmade organic meals using the freshest ingredients, Yorkshire Provender’s fresh and seasonal soup and meal pots, and that’s just to name a few.
One company making waves in the ready meal market is Amy’s Kitchen. A family business dedicated to making food the same way we would at home, Amy’s Kitchen prides itself on using the freshest, organic vegetables it can find, and combining them with high quality pastas, grains, beans, and Red Tractor assured dairy. Everything is made by hand – a long away from the mass-producing factory atmosphere that one could consider with lower quality meals. Waitrose is a supporter, currently stocking the vegetable lasagne, rice mac & cheese, and cheddar, rice and bean burrito.
Ready meals are still going strong in 2015, and the rise in quality and use of healthy, organic recipes is only likely to continue. With such competition on the supermarket shelves, they may not seem as exotic as they once did, but the convenience factor is ripe. The creativity coming out of the industry is inspiring – and to think, it all started with leftovers.
KernPack supplies a high quality and cost effective range of tray sealing, thermoforming and ultra sonic banding solutions to the ready meal market. Read about KernPack’s tray sealing solution for the NHS.