07/08/2013 07:47 BST | Updated 06/10/2013 06:12 BST

The Almost Ready-made Meal - You're Only Fooling Yourself


The Almost Ready-made Meal (ARM). What is this thing you speak of?

It is a cheat. Neither ready-made, nor home cooked, it is a product dreamt up by rich corporations to get overworked, time-poor parents buying expensive, highly salted food thinking they are cooking a meal.

I read a recent Wall Street Journal article which explains ARMs in all their glory:

1) People feel guilty if they do not cook homemade food;

2) People sometimes even want to cook homemade food;

3) People do not have much time;

4) People are stressed out by the question 'what's for dinner';

5) People find Wednesdays the worst for the meal planning conundrum;

6) Big corporations are aware of these issues;

7) Big corporations have come up with a solution.

But let's see what this solution really is.

Their solution is to provide meal packages that comprise some small level of input. Apparently, these meals are quick and simple to prepare, but still feel like cooking a homemade meal. Mmm.. would mother be proud of me?

General Mills are at it with their Old El Paso brands. They rely on the fact that by frying minced meat in a packet of taco spice seasoning, the home cook feels like they are cooking (despite the fact they are using pre-grated cheese and factory made taco shells, guacamole and salsa).

It took Kraft Foods 18 months of research to prove that people using two different sauces, feel more involved in the cooking process. The result of this research: the new Recipe Makers meals. A sample Recipe Makers meal involves the 'home cook' mixing pre-cooked chicken with 'Filling Sauce' and then layering on 'Finishing Sauce' and hey presto, chicken enchiladas. If that's cooking, well it might be time to hang up my apron.

So what is wrong with ARMs and how can we beat the big corporations at their game?

1) It is not cooking

The art of cooking requires four stages: Preparation, Assembly, Presentation and Serving. By taking one step out of the process (i.e. the crucial preparation stage) you are no longer cooking. So my budding home cooks, you are only fooling yourself by buying these ARMs.

The article mentions that these people want to spend at least 15 to 30 minutes peeling, chopping or doing other meal preparation 'to have it count.' I am intrigued as to what 'have it count' means. I can testify 15 to 30 minutes of real cooking can provide tasty results (and not an ARM in sight).

2) It is not healthy

Nowhere in this article was health or the quality of the products in ARMs mentioned. In fact, over in the UK and Ireland, the appetite for such ready-made meals has been seriously impacted by the horsemeat scandals, with 18 million packets of processed food thrown away. It shows that people are worried about what is actually in these meals. In one of my recent blog posts, I found that shop-bought lasagne white sauce had 22 more ingredients than my home cooked version. In order for these ARMs to have a long shelf life, they are packed full of preservatives, salt and sugar. Way more than our bodies need.

3) It is expensive

While some convenience foods are cheap as chips (literally), ARMs are marketed as a treat or luxury meal - a helping tool for the working parent. These are not cheaper and when compared with some simple fresh vegetables and a piece of butcher meat, not worth it.

4) What about the waste

Every time I have seen an ARM, I have seen a multitude of glass jars, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles and tin foil dishes. All this packaging is necessary to ensure the dish is as handy to 'cook' as possible. Likewise portions sizes are inconsistent - you either order to much or too little encouraging waste. Hardly ideal for the environment.

Meal Planning

Various surveys say planning the dinner is the most stressful part of the day, with Wednesdays leading the way for ARMs. You can beat the corporations promoting such meals with a small bit of meal planning.

There are meal planning solutions where you can get access to dishes that take 30 minutes to make (and you are actually cooking from scratch), get tips on making and flavouring tasty sauces, make your meal plan (to cover Wednesday) and order your food online. Allow these solutions give you a HAND and there will no longer be a need for an ARM. No guilt and mum would be proud.