How do supermarket ready meal roast dinners compare to one another, and, more importantly, to a home-cooked roast? Are they really less hassle? And do they save you money? We tested three different styles of supermarket roast dinner to find out...
The ready meal’s main draw is convenience. And while some needed their plastic film piercing and a quick heat in the oven, this wasn’t true for all of them. For example, the ‘filled Yorkshire pud’ style of beef dinner from Asda and Tesco required unravelling various packets - and cooking potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and the sachet of meat and gravy separately. This was the same for some of the traditional-style roast dinners, too. So while you might save time (the average meal baked in 35 minutes - much quicker than a home-cooked roast), you do need to watch the clock constantly, and not venture too far from the kitchen - to know when to add your extra ingredients.
Microwave vs Oven Cook
You need a roast dinner quick. You microwave it, right? Probably not. We microwaved and oven-baked our meals and found a huge difference. Microwaving made the potatoes soft and soggy while spuds from the oven-baked meals were crunchier (although nowhere near as satisfying as a home-roasted one). Microwaved Yorkshire puds were soft and chewy while oven-baked ones were crisp. You might save yourself up to 40 minutes, but microwave your meal and you’ll lose some texture. And do read labels - about half of the ready meals we tried weren’t suitable for microwave cooking anyway.
Nutrition and Quality
Supermarkets know that we care about where our food comes from, even if it’s on a microwaveable tray. So labels often boasted of British or Irish beef and British chicken, although with others it was less clear where the meat had come from. Some of the meals were salty too, with quite a few containing around 2g salt per pack - that’s about 30% of your guideline daily allowance. In saying that though, many labels stated that the meal did provide one of your ‘five a day’ and we found that they all contained roughly the same amount of meat.
So which ready meals were the best?
Yorkshire Pudding Beef Meals
Waitrose was our favourite for the filled Yorkshire pud meal. You just remove the film and bake the whole thing in its tray - convenient and fuss free. The Yorkshire pudding was crisp and the beef generously sliced, in contrast to Tesco, who used minced beef in their gravy. Asda also provided sliced beef, although the slices were thinner and the vegetables much softer, while the Waitrose carrots managed to keep some ‘bite’.
Traditional Beef Meals
Here, we gave Sainsbury’s the thumbs-up, and it was all in the detail - a sprinkling of parsley on the veggies (we were hopeful for butter too, but it was rapeseed oil), and the Yorkshire pudding which contained beef dripping, providing a slightly richer flavour and crunch. The Tesco beef meal wasn’t bad, but the Yorkshire pudding had been made with just oil and the beef slices were thinner. In the Morrison’s meal, the beef came shredded, rather than neatly sliced, and the gravy had a strong tomato flavour, which we felt wasn’t quite like our usual home-cooked roast.
Traditional Chicken Meals
Asda won on this one. It looked the most convincingly home-made, with a chunky piece of chicken breast. It also came with a stuffing ball, and the potatoes were the crispest of the four. Tesco was next, but the potatoes were less crisp and the carrots had a soft, overcooked texture. We found the gravy in the Morrison’s meal strongly tasted of tomato (as with the beef meal) and the traditional stuffing was replaced with a Yorkshire pud. Sainsbury’s had the parsley-dressed veg again, but we weren’t impressed with the shreddy chicken slices and pale, soft potatoes.
Price - which is cheaper, home-cooked or ready meal?
The ready meals we tried cost between £1.50 and £3.50, which seems good value. However, if you’re feeding a few people, it would be cheaper to cook a roast dinner yourself. Based on feeding four, the ready meals could cost up to £14. You can pick up a free-range, whole chicken for around £6 - add on the veg, potatoes, gravy and home-made Yorkshire puds and you’ll spend just under £10 - you’ll have leftovers too, and bones for stock.
There’s no denying that these ready meals didn’t taste exactly like a roast dinner cooked from scratch, but then convenience is their main asset. Often, we ended up with soggy spuds, chewy Yorkshire puds and gravy that just wasn’t as rich as we’d have liked, but there were some good meals among them. They do provide good amounts of protein and one of your five a day, so they’re an alternative to cooking from scratch if there are one or two of you. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking they’re a cheap way to feed a family - in that case you’d be better off, financially, cooking a roast from scratch.
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