Ready meals – when and for whom are they the right choice?

March 2008 - What is the image of ready meals and the consumers who buy them? What are the situations in which consumers typically choose this quick alternative, and what are the reasons behind their choices? What are their expectations when using the products, and what makes the purchasing choice easier? Researcher Mia Prim of the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK) – the Swedish member of the European Sensory Network (ESN) – considered these questions when analysing information gathered from an extensive mailing of questionnaires and intensive focus group discussions.

With Sweden’s high proportion of single households and working women, and the Swede’s traditional fondness for a warm noontime meal, this Northern country is a land with a high marketing potential for ready meals.

No good image

Mia Prim’s questionnaire was sent to 400 persons of which 249 replied. The results show that ready meals do not have a particularly good image. Most consumers view the typical ready meal user as someone who is alone and under stress. This image often conforms to the actual situation in which people consume ready meals, but in no way is this always the case.

In Sweden, ready meals are most often eaten during the mid-day break at work, or evenings at the dinner table. At the workplace, ready meals are often eaten in the company of colleagues, and both informal and work-related discussions take place. A very different situation often occurs when the meal is eaten at home in the evening. Here it is usually the case that when the consumer eats a ready meal, he eats it alone while watching television as a substitute for social contact.

Consumers use ready meals for different reasons: as an alternative midday meal, they save time at the workplace. Users chose them for their evening meal because they are so easy to prepare.

Women expect more

Women clearly have higher expectations concerning quality, especially when it comes to health aspects (see illustration). They attach more importance to information about nutritional value, fat content, and the level of dietary fibre. Women in Sweden have more confidence in a product that has a certified seal from the food administration on which sugar, low-fat, and vitamin-rich products are identified and compared. Men, however are more concerned with taste and ease of preparation.

For the most part, ready meals are viewed by consumers as not being suited for the evening meal. With the help of focus groups, Prim sought to discover under which circumstances ready meals would be the consumer’s evening choice, and in what way could these products be oriented towards the users’ requirements.

Not good for kids?

The most important factor in choosing a particular dish is the social context in which it is eaten. As soon as children come into the picture, the probability that ready meals would make it to the table rapidly decreased. 60% of those questioned are of the opinion that ready meals should not be served to small children. When children are involved, the Swedish still strongly hold on to the traditional concept of the evening meal as a family gathering devoid of such extraneous distractions as the television. In families with children, much more time is spent in preparing the meal than in childless households. Above all, the mother feels guilty when she fails to offer her children a “real” meal, even when she finds cooking to be a burdensome duty.

Wish for exotic taste experiences

Swedish consumers would take to eating ready meals in the evening without feeling guilty when they would be unusual, exotic dishes that they rather would not or could not prepare themselves and which promise new taste experiences, such as ostrich, lamb, elk, or reindeer. Mia Prim comments that “After a long, hard day at work, consumers want to look forward to eating something they will enjoy.”

Prim’s study demonstrates that the context in which the meal is eaten influences the entire decision process in regards to choosing a ready meal. Prim proposes that, “The research must widen its perspective over the actual meal, and take into account the total process. We should be asking such questions as: when does the consumer decide to buy a ready meal? Who makes the decision? Who buys the product? What happens in the supermarket, as well as on the way home, or going to work? Who prepares the meal? How does he or she do it? What else is there to eat? Who is eating, and where and why? What are the feelings of the user during the meal? How is the meal served (in the original container, on a normal plate, etc.)? How much refuse is there left to clean up after the meal?”

ESN contact:

Annika Aström 

Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology


Mia Prim: Ready meals from the consumers perspective – attitudes, beliefs, contexts and appropriateness. Örebro Studies and Culinary Arts and Meal Science 6, 2007

Figure 1: Importance of attributes to men and women when purchasing ready meals for themselves. Ordered in decreasing importance to women. (*Significant difference between male and female, p < 0.05)