Blog: Convenience cuisine

Catherine Sleep | 11 October 2006

Excuse the recent silence; I’ve had a week off. The break gave me a chance to catch up with some telly, notably the BBC Money Programme’s investigation of the convenience food market. It was a classic bit of Beeb educational programming, you know the sort of thing.

We lazy Brits spent £1.6bn on ready meals last year and ate nearly half of those consumed in Europe. Clearly something must be done, the programme’s harried-looking presenter implied. Step forward the Harvey family from Newcastle, who eat ready meals every night of the week and must have been the programme-makers’ dream. A bottle blond, northern accents, teenagers in leisurewear: it was all there.

A camera crew tailed Mum and Dad on their weekly shopping trip around Asda (not Waitrose or M&S, funnily enough) so we could see just how many ready meals they chucked in the trolley, before the earnest presenter tried to tempt them to swap their pre-mashed mash for a bag of spuds, which are, after all, “better value, better for you”. Cue comedy refusal: “But you’ve got to peeeel them, and coooook them, and then maaaaash them!”

Then we got to see the family microwave in action so we’d get a real feel for how these people live. The trouble was, by this stage it had emerged that, far from being unthinking fatties, the Harveys are actually an intelligent, fit bunch who have considered their options. They like food but work hard and think standing around in the kitchen every evening would be poor use of their time. They may have got rid of their dining table, but they have a small house and their son wanted a drum kit, so they allowed the space available to them to evolve accordingly. They make sure they eat their five portions of fruit and veg a day.

By this stage I was coming over all Boris “let them eat pies” Johnson but all was not lost. Mrs Harvey was shown how to cook a simple lasagne from scratch, which took her an hour, well above the small number of minutes she generally devotes to feeding the family. She was sceptical about the exercise, but it would take a hard heart to resist the delighted squeals of her sons who proclaimed it “better than any ready meal I’ve ever had” (and they should know, they’re connoisseurs) and she seemed convinced it had been worth the effort.

What you think of this kind of programme depends on your view of personal choice. Me, I think people who don’t cook are missing out on tastier, and probably healthier, food they can tailor exactly to their preferences, and of which they can feel proud. I also worry that cooking skills are being lost and am determined to teach my son basic recipes. As it happens, I cook dinner from scratch pretty much every night, but I’m a food journalist and so it’s hardly surprising that I’m happy in the kitchen. But if your interests lie elsewhere, and you’re time-strapped, why shouldn’t you buy pre-prepared food, at least some of the time?

Money Programme on Convenience Cuisine


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