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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Feeding frenzy: convenient cuisine
By Emil Petrie
BBC Money Programme

Britain has a secret addiction.

Judith Batchelar
Sainsbury's says ready meals are a necessity of modern life

Forget the campaigning celebrity chefs and the growth in farmers markets: as a nation we are hooked on convenience foods.

We spent 1.6bn on ready meals last year and ate nearly half of those consumed in Europe.

The Harvey family from Newcastle is typical of many.

Its members rely on ready meals to feed their family every day, and feel they could not live any other way.

Mum Gail enjoys food.

"But I think spending all your time in the kitchen is just a waste of time," she says.

"Time I'd rather spend doing other things."

Fast and furious

Food writer Joanna Blythman believes our allegiance to the prepacked meal and the microwave is having a serious impact on our cooking skills and our way of life.

"The idea of actually living day in day out on a diet of industrial processed food I find quite frightening," she says.

Most of us aren't clued up enough to appreciate the amount of salt often used in ready meals

"It is not going to be good for health, it is not going to taste good, it is denying yourself so much pleasure in life."

Yet the market for this food continues to grow.

Leading food retailer Sainsbury's claims that 71% of people do not decide what they are going to eat before 4pm that day - a function of our increasingly busy lifestyles.

"If that's the lifestyle that you lead then you do need something quick and convenient," says Sainsbury's head of food, Judith Batchelar.

Real problem?

But with each meal providing a big profit for the retailers, critics believe it is just a licence to print money.

Ms Blythman suspects the idea that people nowadays have no time to cook is simply not true.

"The food industry really goes in for presenting these ready meals, convenience foods as meal solutions, suggesting that you've got a problem which they have a solution to," she says.

The food industry really goes in for presenting these ready meals, convenience foods as meal solutions, suggesting that you've got a problem which they have a solution to
Joanna Blythman

And there are plenty of "solutions" on the market.

You can buy almost anything pre-prepared, from jacket potatoes and the 60-second burger to upmarket gastropub meals and continental cuisine.

Top spot

The nation's favourite ready meal is an M&S lasagne.

This year, M&S capitalised on our love of convenience foods by opening up a further 30 of its Simply Food stores in the UK.

The Harveys eat a lot of lasagne ready meals, and feel they enjoy a perfectly balanced diet.

But do they?

We asked a leading dietician, Rachel Cooke, to look at their food diary for a week.

She raised concerns and told us that a diet of ready meals can have an adverse effect on your health.

"Their salt intake is too high," says Ms Cooke.

She also feels some of the choices that they make routinely are a concern.

Joanna Blythman
Food critics are concerned that cooking is a dying skill

"Their favourite ready meals tend to be higher fat choices and also tend to have a higher percentage of saturated fats."

Tough challenge

As more of us reach for the microwave and fewer of us cook, the other worry is the impact this is having on the nation's cooking skills.

It is getting so bad that The Food Standards Agency has sponsored a cooking bus, which tours around the country teaching cooking skills to kids and their parents.

The Money Programme joined the bus for a day and spoke to parents and teachers on board.

Anita Cormac, director of Focus on Foods, told us big changes are needed to reverse the decline in overall cooking skills.

"I think what we need to do is to step back and really review what we're eating and take control through cooking," she says.

But with the ready meals market growing every year and more of us relying on them for speed and simplicity, it may be a tough challenge.

The Money Programme: Feeding Frenzy: Convenient Cuisine, BBC Two at 7pm on Friday 6 October. In Northern Ireland, BBC Two at 10pm.

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