So here we are in the midst of another food crisis in the UK. This time it seems that we have become victims to an international food scam, where horse meat has been systematically passed off as beef. Both the Food Standards Agency and the government have been caught on the back foot and the bald truth is that we poor consumers cannot be sure of what we have been eating, for how long and from whence it came. I sense that we are seeing merely the tip of the iceberg and have been fascinated and entertained by politicians and officials squirming to justify their existence and giving reasons why someone else is to blame.
But it is one particular part of this story that I would like to discuss here. On Thursday 14 February 2013 Maria Miller, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, speaking on the BBCs Questiontime, talked about the poorest in our society being disproportionately affected by this scandal, presumably because she believes that they are the ones more likely to be buying processed foods like ready meals from the local supermarket. Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but this was the general thrust of her comment. What she said went almost unnoticed as it was tagged onto the very end of her answer on the horsemeat question. And this is not the first time I have heard this argument. I have also heard it in relation to healthy eating and the fact that some processed foods and ready meals contain high levels of salt and fat.
I can only assume that the reason for this argument is that buying a ready meal is deemed cheaper than buying other foods and making meals from scratch at home. The argument may also assume that poorer people cannot cook or are unwilling to do so. This does not ring true to me and is, at least, patronising to the poorer members of our society. No-one is being forced to buy these products; they do so out of choice and there will surely be more than one reason for doing so.
So are ready meals the cheaper option? I decided to try an experiment to find out. I make my own version of Lasagne for my family regularly and I began to wonder whether buying a readymade version would indeed be cheaper. I chose an Asda low calorie Lasagne ready meal (400g) with which to make my comparison, which costs £2.05 at the time of writing this article. On the face of it this does appear to be reasonably cheap, and convenient – just pop in the microwave or oven straight from the fridge. If you are on your own and want a quick and easy meal for one this seems ideal.
I have listed all the fresh ingredients I use to make my homemade Lasagne and noted their cost below. Of course, I need to estimate the cost of most items – cheese for example, as I only use a proportion of the whole pack to make the meal. You will have to trust that I have made my estimations as honestly and accurately as possible. I do not pretend that this is a scientific experiment.
Ingredients (All from ASDA) – Serves 4: Cost:
6 x Lasagne Sheets (Asda) £0.16 (18 sheet pack for 50p)
1 x 500g Pack Extra Lean Minced Beef (Asda) £4.001 x Large Onion £0.30
1 x Red Pepper (Optional) £0.801 x 400g Tin Chopped Tomatoes (Smart Price)(Asda) £0.31
1 x Heaped Tablespoon Tomato Puree (Asda) £0.10 (Approx 20% of 48p Tube)1 x Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar (Asda) £0.05 (Approx 5% of £1.00 Bottle)
Sprinkle of Oregano (Asda) Negligible1 x Tablespoon of Olive Oil (Optional)(Asda) Negligible
125g Cheddar Cheese (Grated)(Asda) £0.68 (Approx 25% of £2.75 Block)¼ Block of Butter (Asda) £0.25 (Approx 25% of 98p Block)
1 x Heaped Tablespoon Plain Flour (Asda) Negligible¼ Pint Semi-Skimmed Milk (Asda) £0.12 (Approx 25% of 49p Pint)
Pinch of Salt and Black Pepper Negligible
These ingredients make four good portions of Lasagne. Therefore a single portion costs £1.69, which is 36p less than the Lasagne ready meal at £2.05. Each portion can be separated and frozen as an individual meal for future use and easily reheated once completely thawed. I have not chosen the cheapest ingredients here. There are cheaper options out there so this meal can be made for less, but also for much more depending upon the brand of the ingredients used.
It is clear to me that making this meal at home with good ingredients is more cost effective and healthier than buying a boxed meal. However, I will acknowledge that there is a significant cost involved in the initial purchase of the required ingredients - £14.49 in fact (based upon the above scenario). You cannot buy a tablespoon of olive oil, for example. A 250ml bottle of Asda’s own olive oil costs £1.38 but will last a long time and can be used to cook many, many meals. Therefore, once all the necessary ingredients are in your kitchen cupboard you can forget about them. Buy a family of four a boxed Lasagne each on only two occasions and you have already spent more than the total cost of stocking your kitchen cupboard with all the above ingredients. Add to this the health benefits and the sense of achievement in being able to cook for yourself and, in my opinion, there is no contest.
I do not believe that cost can be used as an excuse for not making this Lasagne at home. Maybe some people are just too busy; and that’s fine. Some may prefer the ready meal: that’s fine too. But there are a significant number of people in our country who buy these products simply because they do not know how to cook or cannot be bothered to cook. In either case it is an indictment of our society. We should get back to buying good local produce, support our butchers, markets and grocers and cook food for ourselves. Then we will not have to worry so much about what we are being fed by an international manufacturing machine that is more interested in profit margin than the good of our health.