Nothing divides opinion quite like ready-made mash. Mention you eat it and you’ll likely get a range of reactions from amused nostalgia (Smash!), to outright disgust (as is the case for most unfashionable convenience foods). At the latter end of this scale, declaring ready-made foods as ‘vile’ and ‘lazy’, sit the food snobs. And let’s be honest, it’s probably something we’ve all been guilty of in one form or another… who doesn’t have strong opinions about foods they love, or love to hate (Marmite is delicious, by the way, and we won’t hear otherwise!). But, if you find yourself peering into someone’s shopping basket and making assumptions about their lives, or judging someone’s character because they eat a particular food, then your snobbery is likely unjustified.
So why do people have such an issue with pre-prepared foods? Among those privileged enough to have the time and money to cook from scratch, the term ‘processed’ has become loaded with judgement, meaning that convenience foods are now culturally synonymous with being unhealthy, lazy or poor. Eating ‘junk’ food makes you a ‘junk person’, or so the subconscious line of thought goes and if you have health problems, then it must be your own fault. This week the Guardian reinforced these cultural beliefs by questioning whether the UK had reached “peak lazy” due to the availability of pre-mashed potatoes and other similar foods.
On the surface, it all seems harmless enough, but although this food-snob mentality may make people feel better about their own choices, it’s really a judgemental attack on people’s lives with no regard for their needs or circumstance. It’s very easy for those sitting comfortably in the middle classes, knee deep in wellness and yoga pants, to turn up their noses at ‘processed food’ and declare it “disgusting” and “lazy”. And while they may demand food be of the highest quality (think, grass-fed meat or organic fruit and veg), these high-priced privileges aren’t requirements for a healthy diet. In fact, cooking from scratch does not automatically mean your food is healthier. For example, a 2012 study by Newcastle University nutritionally analysed 100 ready meals versus 100 cookbook recipes from celebrity chefs. Neither of the groups contained meals which matched government healthy eating guidelines, but interestingly, the meals cooked from fresh were deemed to be less healthy compared to the ready meals, as they contained significantly more calories and saturated fat and less fibre.
So what does this mean? Ultimately, when it comes to deciding whether a meal is healthy or not, things are not black and white. No food is inherently good nor bad, even if it comes in microwaveable packaging. While people are generally encouraged to cook for themselves - giving them more autonomy over the food they eat - ‘quantity and context’ is key when it comes to determining what dietary patterns are healthy. Sometimes a ready meal is a healthy nutritious choice for that person given their personal circumstances.
So moving on from this, while pre-prepared can mean healthy, does using convenience foods mean you’re lazy? Well, no. There are a multitude of reasons why people may turn to instant-mash: fatigue, food inaccessibility, disability, chronic illness, loneliness, busy schedules and limited cooking skills are just a few examples. Cooking can be expensive and demanding, from the ingredients - including herbs and spices - to the equipment, recipe method and even gas or electricity.
Regardless of good intentions, or whatever our personal views about food, passing moral judgement on people’s choices is never helpful. We all deserve to eat tasty, nourishing, affordable food everyday but food is deeply personal and people don’t always have the luxury to eat with long-term health as the primary aim. We might eat for pleasure, to stifle hunger, to form memories, interact socially or to simply survive. If some ready-diced carrots, easy garlic or ready meals make someone’s life easier, so be it. Short-cuts can be a lifeline.