By Lucy Bradley
As legend has it, the ready meal was born in the USA c. mid twentieth century, although its inventor is contested as several people have laid claim to its origins. Since its arrival its market success has mushroomed steadily, evidenced by rising product sales and industry profits, and has found its way into the stomachs of millions of consumers in the US and increasingly around the world too. In contrast to almost instantaneous success in the US, the ready meal took a while to catch on further afield; why this is so is an interesting question which yields complex answers. In the UK for example- where we are and where our dinners are taking place, in London a bustling global metropolis- ready meals failed to appeal to public appetites until the 1970s, when Marks and Spencers launched the Chicken Kiev. Although trends on the continent are shifting, figures for the increasing sales and industry profits (£3.3bn in 2013) show that the UK remains Europe’s unchallenged motherland of ready meals. In our busy lives, where time for the personal has become an increasingly scarce and precious commodity, the ready meal offers a convenient solution to cooking- a time and energy consuming activity- both for ourselves and our families. The title of a 2013 market intelligence report ‘Convenience of Ready Meals Irresistible for UK Consumers’ encapsulates the attraction , with another market research company citing shifts in lifestyle as ‘the largest motivator of ready meal occasions in the UK’ . Nevertheless, concommitant public misgivings run counter to the victories which are redefining mealtimes and the social purpose of food. The suggestion that 65 per cent of people express the desire to eat fewer ready meals and do more of their own cooking at home, as cited in a 2013 market intelligence report , precipitates an interesting question about choice: is it sufficient to say simply because we do something we have chosen to do it? Do we need a philosophical approach to establish what is a substantive meaning of choice, as opposed to one that is cosmetic? If 65 per cent of those who buy ready meals would prefer to cook at home- which is what we can infer – surely these people, due to circumstance, have opted for something they would not have otherwise chosen; i.e although perhaps not practicable, they would prefer to have the choice not to have to resort to ready meals.
The Ready Meal’s outward simplicity as a product; the needs it caters to and ease of preparation, belies an intriguing myriad of complex – sometimes conflicting or paradoxical- interactions and impacts that span the political, social, cultural, economic and psychological. Some of these are more readily apparent, while others require searching a little (and sometimes a lot) deeper. With this in mind, and set within the prism of the Omnivore’s Dilemma, this essay takes A (ready meal) Portion as its subject and examines it through the lens of choice.
Ostensibly we have an increasing amount of choice, marked by the continually expanding number and offer, as supermarket fridges and freezers attest. Nevertheless we exercise these within confined parameters, only at the end of the production line after many choices have been made on our behalf. We are taught from a young age that the ability to exercise choice- as long as it inflicts no harm on others- is fundamental to the freedom to choose what we believe, think, say, eat. So in terms of the latter, what constitutes a substantive choice, and do we have the means to make them?
Choice is rife with trade-offs. It’s true, there will be trade-offs in home cooking too, but undeniably one can exercise greater control over important factors such as portion size, ingredients and avoid artificial additives altogether. The allure of convenience means that we delegate responsibility and decision-making to the industry that feeds us, based on a currency of trust. In concentrating choice at one end of the production cycle, in the supermarket aisle our choices are far more limited; simple questions like how much we eat or consume, what ingredients we use – or don’t – as well as considerations of impacts beyond our own bodies of provenance, environmental impact etcetera. We perform a perpetual dance of compromise.
Imagine a ready meal – a good place to start is with the quantity in front of us. Portion sizes have got bigger, particularly for individual servings. According to a 2008 study commissioned by the UK Foods Standards Agency, the independent public heath nutritionist, Susan Church, reported a marked and consistent increase in portion size between different brands and across their own ranges (Weight Watchers was cited as an exception) . Examples of figures drawn from her sample, which examined chicken curry meals to spaghetti Bolognese, showed that beef lasagna increased from an average of 250g in 1990, to 290g in 1993 and 320-500g in 2008; tagliatelle carbonara & macaroni cheese servings grew from 235g in 1993 to between 400-430g in 2008. Looking across at fast-food for a point of comparison, UK serving sizes have moved in the same direction over the same time frame, although notably the increase over time was less pronounced for each product sampled, and there is greater variance across different brands’ like-for-like products. Hamburgers and French fries – two of many examples Church cited: in 1993 McDonalds Big Mac weighed 204g vs. Burger King’s Whopper at 258g. By 2008, Big Macs had increased 12g to 216g; Whoppers grew 16g to 274g. Big Macs and Whoppers despite their unequal weightage are considered alike products. Interestingly, French fries have ‘changed little’: McDonalds medium size 110g in 1993 was 4g larger in 2008; Burger King’s 1993 regular fries were 6g more generous than fifteen years later. At the time of Church’s study Burger King’s super size portion was 174g (McDonalds had been 183g before being withdrawn). As the title suggests, Liz Mont’s blog Portion Size: Then vs. Now, for online women’s magazine Divine Carol, sets out in simple format the parallel trajectory in the US over the last twenty years . Positing the pertinent yet eternal question – to which we will return later – ‘What is normal?’ she ends, although not in so many words, advocating self-regulation: ‘Unless you’re trying to gain weight, it might help to reacquaint yourself with serving sizes…It’s unlikely that we’ll see a scaling down of food to these sizes anytime soon, so perhaps we should all become familiar with another image: the doggy bag.’ (emphasis added). While the aforementioned articles identify changes over time within a single country, another blogger, Peter Vanosdall, makes a cross-country comparison between McDonald’s portion sizes in America and Japan which are notably and consistently smaller . Based on personal observation he notes:
“Along the same lines of tailoring menu items comes adjusting product size. I was shocked when I first came back to America for college and went to a fast food restaurant to eat where I noticed the enormous size of the drink containers. The large size fountain drink container at a McDonalds in Japan is much smaller than a large one here in America. Along with that, free refills in Japan are not usually allowed. One example of the size difference is shown in the number of calories in a large coca-cola. In Japan, that would be 181 calories. In America, a large Coke would be 310 calories. Clearly the American size has nearly double the Soda and calories in it.”
Collectively, these authors demonstrate that notions of ‘normal’ or ‘normality’ with regards to food consumption (or anything else for that matter) are fluid and shift across time and space (geography). The implicit question of responsibility to the question why are our portions ballooning, has sparked interest of journalists and academics across continents. Reminiscent of Pollan’s detailed investigation into the US food industry in The Omnivore’s Dilemma , in his 2012 TV series, The Men That Made Us Fat, investigative reporter Jaques Peretti, traces our continually expanding UK appetites and waistlines to big business and the profit motive . As the evidence available attests, the financial logic behind Wallerstein’s super-sizing principle, conceived in late 1960s Chicago, arguably spilled over from the entertainment industry, into fast food, and, in turn to the ready meals that we take home and cook in our own microwaves and ovens. With the systematic increases of portion size, which shift the benchmark of what consumers see as ‘normal’, scientific studies evidence the concomitant elasticity of our appetites; when more is put in front of us we tend to eat more. Therefore as individuals resort to ready (and fast food) meals on an increasingly regular basis, the frequency of overconsumption rises and is understood to be a significant contributary factor to the ‘obesity epidemic’. Today one in four British adults is obese and the rate of associated diseases such as diabetes is also on the rise. Even though we are ultimately the ones lifting fork to mouth, to what extent are we, on the demand side of the equation, culpable? Are we, as individuals just out of conrol or, under the current conditions, does the argument propagating self-regulation overestimate individual agency, as the location of power is in many ways elsewhere?
Research that explores the intersection between the physiology and psychology of portion sizes highlights our propensity to eat “just that little bit more” if it is put in front of us – which is essentially what happens with ready prepared food, anything that we do not cook and portion ourselves. We can of course say theoretically that we could just have a smaller serving: we could a) buy a smaller portion (although I am not aware this option is actually available) or b) do it ourselves at home dividing a portion- but half is likely to be too small, or the left overs too small for another meal. However, ‘logical’ option (b) loses sight of the draw of the ready meal in the first place: simplicity and convenience. All things considered, isn’t it just more likely therefore that we will avoid the effort and inconvenience this involves by just eating the whole lot? We could even throw other considerations into the mix, such as the fact that we live in a waste-conscious era. The argument for self-regulation seems logical and compelling before we factor in these complex realities, some of which are less apparent than others.
By and large I would argue that as individuals we are not culpable as we have little control over either the systemic circumstances that govern our lifestyles or access to information. Unwittingly susceptible to both our own nature and interests of stakeholders in the industrial food chain, there are too many “unknown unknowns” which stymie our ability to make the substantive choices that we might otherwise like to. To address the portion size-overconsumption-obesity problem the nutritionists Ledikwe, Ello-Martin and Rolls identified the to the need educate consumers around what and how much they eat. Their paper called for a tripartite approach from food industry, policy makers, and scientists and advocated the need for educational messages to ‘not only emphasize limiting the consumption of foods high in energy density, but also encourage the consumption of those with a low energy density, such as fruits and vegetables’. While this is reasonable and logical, from Pollan’s and Peretti’s works we can infer that the likelihood of engaging the food industry in such an endeavour is optimistic simply because it is not in the interest of this key stakeholder group to do so.
In relation to the production cycle as consumers the stage where we exercise choice is the end of the process. But within that space, our ability to make the choices that we might like to make is constrained by a lack of knowledge of the issues which in turn guide the questions, priorities and trade-offs that factor into our end choices. It goes far beyond the simple question of what dish I want to eat, to more complex concerns for example, what does it have in it? What are the nutritional values, how much salt, calories or saturated fat does it contain? The provenance and ethics of the ingredients? What recipe would I use? Is this how I would choose to make it? And of course, as we have discussed here, how much am I eating? Discussions like this can hopefully act as a springboard for a deeper philosophical reflection about choice, helping us to actively make decisions that are ultimately more meaningful and responsible.
 Maitland, O. (2013). Convenience of Ready Meals Irresistible for UK Consumers. [online] Available at: https://www.keynote.co.uk/media-centre/in-the-news/display/convenience-of-ready-meals-irresistible-for-uk-consumers/?articleId=1106
 RNR Market Research (2013). Consumer Trends Analysis: Understanding Consumer Trends and Drivers of Behavior in the UK Ready Meals Market – RnR Market Research. [online] Available at: http://www.rnrmarketresearch.com/consumer-trends-analysis-understanding-consumer-trends-and-drivers-of-behavior-in-the-uk-ready-meals-market-market-report.html [Accessed: 24 Mar 2014].
 Gibbons, L. (2013). Ready meal UK sales hit £2.3bn over last year. [online] Available at: http://www.foodmanufacture.co.uk/Manufacturing/Ready-meal-UK-sales-hit-2.3bn-over-last-year
 Food Standards Agency; Church S. (2008) ‘Trends in portion sizes in t he UK – A preliminary review of published information.’ Available at: http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/reviewportions.pdf
 Monte L. (n.d.) Portion Size, Then vs. Now. DivineCarol, [blog] n.d., Available at: http://www.divinecaroline.com/self/wellness/portion-size-then-vs-now
 Vanosdall, P. (n.d.) Eating McDonalds in Japan – A Comparison to American McDonalds. Internpete, [blog] n.d., Available at: http://www.hubpages.com/hub/JapanMcDonalds
 Pollan, M. (2009). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast-Food World. Bloomsbury: London.
 The Men That Made Us Fat. 2012. [film] UK: Jaques Peretti.
 Ledikwe, J., Ello-Martin, J, and Rolls, B. J. (2005) ‘Portion Sizes and the Obesity Epidemic’. The Journal of Nutrition.135(4): 905-909.