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April 1, 2012 / thatsarahdean

Icon of the month: The ready meal

First published in Third Way magazine, April 2012.

Preheat oven to 190˚C. Pierce film lid. Place on baking tray in the middle of oven for 20 minutes. During this cooking time take the opportunity to do modern stuff like tweeting about how hungry you are, playing Fruit Ninja on your phone or watching a quarter of an episode of Masterchef. (Oh the irony.) Peel back film and stir. Cook for a further eight and a half minutes. Leave to stand for 2 minutes before serving. During this time compare the picture on the packet with the gloop in the container. Feel mild disappointment. Consume.

The popularity of ready meals began in the 1970s. For the first time since the war over 50 % of the female population were in full time employment. Helpfully, innovations in freezing, hydration, and boil-in-the-bag technology made it possible for working women to go out to work all day, and still get a meal on the table in the evening. (Men didn’t cook in the 1970s, they were too busy growing moustaches and going on strike.) Cooking from scratch represented drudgery and old fashioned inconvenience. Ready meals were the liberated way to cook for your loved ones, and by the middle of the decade two thirds of British households had a freezer. Working women were able to have their cake – specifically a Findus crispy pancake – and eat it.

Thirty years later the ready meal remains an essential part of a vibrant, upwardly mobile lifestyle for both men and women. It is still the culinary solution for the “time poor, but cash rich”. At the turn of the twentieth century, a young professional would pay a house keeper or valet to have an evening meal ready for him upon his return from the office; today, a similar percentage of the income of the professional classes are spent on convenience food.

Ready meals are big business and producers are keen to keep their brands aspirational and prices high. The range of meals in even the smallest Sainsbury’s Local is vast. There is something to tempt every appetite, palate or waistline. Sure, beans on toast are quick and easy but in the same amount of time, with slightly less hassle, you could be sitting down to a slow-cooked Moroccan tagine with apricot and cumin couscous – doesn’t that sound glamorous and worth paying for? The names of the ranges hammer home the aspirational marketing. Who wants to eat a Basics fish pie when it is on the shelf right next to a Taste The Difference fish pie? Who wants to eat a boring old Essentials Spaghetti Bolognese when it’s next to what purports to be the “Finest” Spaghetti Bolognese. (One suspects there are few thousand Italian housewives spitting feathers at this claim.)

The modern ready meal is vibrant, colourful convenient, organic, healthy, exotic, lovingly created by Delia and infused with Heston’s sweat, but it still has the same image problem as a 1970s plate of grey boil in the bag Cod Mornay. A ready meal is still a meal for one, a meal for the inept non-cook, the workaholic and the singleton.

Tesco could throw in an ambient jazz CD, the Sunday papers, and a knackered Scrabble set to go with your Gastropub style Aberdeen Angus Chilli con carne but the fact is you would still be eating it on your own, sat on the sofa.

In this day and age it is possible to eat an exciting and tasty meal every day of the week. The supermarkets can provide everything except hospitality and friendship. That’s the bit we need to do ourselves. The Bible tells us to offer hospitality to strangers – nowadays thanks to the ready meal you don’t even need to be able to cook to do this.  Next time you invite the neighbours round, remember it’s not the food, it’s the hospitality and you might just be entertaining angels with a Jamie’s Pukka Italian Lasagne and a ready-to-bake garlic baguette

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