What to buy when ready-made meals are your only option

When pressed for time, there are healthier convenient meal-options to buy.
When pressed for time, there are healthier convenient meal-options to buy.

We all have days when we arrive at home late and feel too tired to prepare a meal. While ready-made food seems like the answer, we don't always know how healthy these pre-prepared dishes are. 

We went shopping and evaluated the options on the shelves. For the purpose of this research and analysis we focused on meals found at Spar, Pick n Pay, Woolworths and Checkers. We focused on food options that can be considered a meal by offering a combination of protein, healthy fats, vegetables and wholegrains.   

Why our choices may not be as healthy as they seem

The key to deciding on a ready-made meal basically comes down to reading labels. Options that look healthy often prove to be quite the opposite. Some Indian style meals for example have double the energy value you would normally aim for.

Quiche portions turned out to be high in energy, carbohydrates and sugars. Some grain salads that seem suitable as ready-made meals were, however, high in energy and fat. And the sachets of dressing included with ready-made salads often alter the nutritional value of a seemingly healthy salad because of high sugar content. 

How do I read a label?

Look at the section on a food label where it gives nutritional information per serving size. This is useful because some ready-made food packages contain only one serving, while others contain two to six servings.

Energy: preferably ±1000–1300kJ (aim for a maximum of 1600kJ)

  • Protein: ±14–35g
  • Carbohydrates: ±15g (max 30g)
  • Of which is sugar: ±<5–10g
  • Total fat: <10–15g per 100g
  • Saturated fat: <10g fat per 100g
  • Fibre: >6g per 100g
  • Total cholesterol per meal: <80mg
  • Sodium: <900mg

Other helpful tips for label reading:

Ingredients are listed in order of weight, with the largest quantity first. Keep an eye out for red flag items such as fats, salt and sugar in all their different forms. They are normally listed by their scientific names:

  • Sugar: cane sugar, honey, maltose, maltodextrin, glucose, corn syrup, fructose, dextrose, sucrose or high fructose corn syrup 
  • Fats: vegetable fats, hydrogenated fats, lard, shortening, coconut oil or palm kernel oil
  • Salt: sodium, a word which may appear in combination with other terms (e.g. monosodium glutamate or MSG)

You can also seek out key terms or icons on the packaging suggesting that it may be a healthier option:

  • Low GI (glycaemic index), Low GI icon or Diabetes SA icon (This gives an idea on the balance of carbohydrates, sugar, protein and fibre in the food, allowing slow and steady release of glucose)
  • Heart and Stroke Foundation icon (the red and white heart)
  • Managed fat, fibre and salt contents to promote good cardiovascular health
  • Reduced calories/energy (Be careful of a potentially high sugar content in these products.)
  • High fibre content
  • Low sugar
  • Low salt

So, what's on our shopping list?* 

 The top runners we found were the following:

Soups:

  • Pick n Pay soups: Spicy Red Thai; Beetroot; Broccoli and Kale; Moroccan Lamb (R16.50–R27.50/serving)
  • Spar Tomato Soup (R18.99/serving)
  • Checkers soups: Veg; Veg and Split Pea; Sweetcorn Chowder; Beef and Barley (R12.5–R15.5/serving)

Meals:

  • Checkers Asian Bowl (R35.99)
  • Checkers Mediterranean Salad (R32.99)
  • Woolworths Low Fat & KJ Controlled™ Beef & Pumpkin Mash 320g (R73.99)
  • Woolworths Low Fat & KJ Controlled™ Teriyaki Chicken 300g (R73.99)
  • Woolworths Carb Clever™ Sun-Dried Tomato Chicken with Pesto 320g (R75.99)
  • Woolworths Carb Clever™ Beef Chilli 330g (R75.99)
  • Woolworths Carb Clever™ Beef Bolognese 340g (R75.99)
  • Woolworths Cottage Pie 235g (R46.99)
  • Woolworths Roast Veg Couscous Salad (R46.99)
  • Woolworths Chicken Biryani (R38.50)

Not wanting to be caught unawares, while staying within your budget? Our tips and go-to shopping list for eating health on a budget may help you. 

*Prices correct at the time of publishing, but could change at any time. 

Image credit: iStock

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