ready-meal-picReady meals …. are they OK?

Despite many negative messages in the media about ready meals, contrary to popular belief, they can still be part of a healthy, balanced diet. In fact, many people rely on ready meals as a main part of their diet due to various reasons such as ease, time, lack of cooking ability, lack of motivation to cook a meal from scratch for one person or lack of cooking resources. However, there are a few key things to look out for when choosing your ready meals to ensure they are as healthy as possible because some of them can be full of salt, sugar and saturated fat.


  • Look for balance. Aim to choose meals that contain some protein, starchy foods and vegetables. If there is no veg included, consider adding a bag of frozen microwave veg to the dish.
  • Look at the labels. See the guide below on how to read and interpret food labels.
  • Serving size – read the recommended serving size as many ready meals are for 2!

Food Labelling

This can be very confusing and the print is often too small to read! The following glossary might help to de-code some of the jargon:

  • Low-fat – For a product to be labelled low-fat, it must contain 3g of fat or less per 100g.
  • Reduced Fat – This is not the same as low-fat! Reduced fat simply means that the product contains at least 30% less fat than the standard product.
  • Fat-free or zero fat – Less than 0.5g fat per serving
  • Low-sugar – For a product to be labelled low-sugar, it must contain 5g of sugar or less per 100g.
  • Reduced Sugar – at least 25% less sugar than the regular brand.
  • Sugar-free – the product contains less than 0.5g sugars per serving. These products can sometimes contain sweeteners.
  • No added sugar – This does not mean that the product does not contain any sugar; it simply means that no sugar has been added. It may still be high in natural sugars.
  • Low-salt – For a product to be labelled low-salt, it must contain 0.3g of salt or less per 100g.
  • Reduced salt – At least 25% less salt than the regular version.
  • ‘Lite’ or Light Products – The product contains 30% less of a specific value such as calories or fat, than the regular product.
  • Energy – this is described in terms of kilojoules and kilocalories (kcal). The overall daily intake for a man is on average 2,500kcal.
  • Reference intake – the amount of calories and nutrients you should be aiming for each day.
    o %RI – how much of your daily maximum intake is in a portion of the product.

What does your ready meal contain?

The ingredients on the back of the ready meal packet are listed in descending order of quantity. Therefore if the first ingredient on the list is butter – you know the product is going to contain a large amount of saturated fat.

The traffic light system

Many products will show green, yellow and red boxes on the foods. These are meant to give you a rough idea of how healthy (or not!) the meal is for you. Each nutrient (eg sugar, salt, fat) is given a colour (green, yellow or red) indicating whether the amount of that nutrient in the meal is a healthy choice. Broadly speaking, green means the meal is low in this particular nutrient and you are safe to go ahead and eat it! Yellow means the meal has a moderate level of the nutrient and you should be ok to eat it most of the time. If a nutrient is given a red label, it is present at a high level and should probably only be eaten occasionally.

Remember that the traffic light system is a general rule – it is meant as a guide.

Know your numbers

just to confuse things, food labels show nutrition labelling in terms of “per 100g” or “per 100ml”. Most also
show how much nutrition is contained within a serving. Don’t confuse the two as a serving is unlikely to be exactly 100g!



(per 100g)


(per 100g)


(per 100g)


(per 100g)

Low 3g or less 1.5g or less 5g or less 0.3g or less
Medium 3.1-17.5g 1.6-5g 5.1-22.5g 0.3-1.5g
High More than 17.5g More than 5g More than 22.5g More than 1.5g