When you think of pre-prepared meals, do you think of really nutritious, filling, and convenient meals? Or do you think of meals that are lacking in quality, taste, and nutrition?
Typically, pre-prepared meals have a pretty poor reputation. They are considered to be high in salt and thought to be quite unhealthy food choices. (1)
But is this negative reputation fair?
Over the past few years, there has been a large increase in the number of pre-prepared meal companies in Australia, (1) with many claiming to provide healthy meals, or be ideal for weight loss, muscle gain, performance, vegans, keto diets, low carb diets, the list goes on. With these additional options available, compared to just 10 years ago, should we rethink our perception of how healthy pre-prepared meals are? That’s what we’re going to find out.
We’ve analysed the overall nutritional quality of over 200 meals across 15 different pre-prepared meal companies in 2022. Split into four groups, we have analysed meals from:
We’ll examine if, on average, the meals from these companies meet our nutritional requirements and if they are a healthy everyday meal option.
Overall Meal Analysis
We applied some basic health guideline criteria to every meal sampled from 15 different companies. These were:
- Sodium content is less than 500mg
- Saturated Fat content is less than 6g
- Dietary Fibre content is greater than 6g
Out of our sample of 225 meals, just 46 met all 3 basic criteria for a healthy meal. That means a massive 80% of all pre-prepared meals fail to provide healthy amounts of either sodium, saturated fat, or fibre.
Does this mean pre-prepared meals are unhealthy? Nutritionist Clare Keating investigated further to see how each meal service fares against standard Australian dietary needs.
Energy / Calories
A typical Australian adult needs 8700kJ aka 2070 kcal per day. If you are tall, have an active or physical job, exercise, or are wanting to build muscle, then your energy requirements will be higher than this. If you are wanting to lose weight, your requirements could be different too.
For the purpose of this analysis we’re going to use the average Australian adult requirements.
If an average person eats 3 main meals and 2 snacks that would be 3 x 500 kcal meals and 2 x 200 kcal snacks, with a little bit of energy/calories leftover for any drinks like coffee, juice, soft drinks, or alcohol.
So if an average main meal should be 500 kcal, how do these pre-prepared meals stack up? Are they enough, just right, or too much?
Of the 15 meal companies that we reviewed, two were higher than 500kcal (PWRMeals and YouFoodz FUEL’d) and other than Woolworths who were bang on 500kcal, the rest contained less energy than we typically need in a main meal. Interestingly, Be Fit Food had an average of 223 kcal, which is more like a snack than a main meal!
The energy range definitely varies between companies and meals, but it is mostly between 350-450 kcal. This would be great for someone that is wanting to lose weight, but for anyone who’s physically active, or looking to gain muscle, this would be too small and you might get hungry very quickly.
Sodium aka salt
In Australia, 76% of males and 45% of females consume more than the upper limit (max amount) of recommended salt intake(2). This is particularly worrying as a high salt diet is linked to poorer health outcomes (like high blood pressure)(3). Most of our salt intake comes from processed foods, rather than the salt we add to food during cooking. That’s one reason why we’re told to limit how many processed foods we eat. What about pre-prepared meals though, are they considered processed foods? Are they high in salt too?
The first question is simple, pre-prepared meals are considered processed foods because they’ve undergone some type of processing e.g. it’s not just raw chicken or rice. But how do they stack up salt-wise?
For context, the suggested dietary target for salt is 2000mg. In your main meal of the day, that means roughly 500mg of salt is ideal (if one main meal is 25% of your daily intake).
Out of the 15 meal companies only three (Core Powerfoods, PWRmeals and Be Fit Food) were below this target. Alarmingly, we discovered that My Muscle Chef, Lite n Easy, YouFoodz, and YouFoodz FUEL’d had just under or more than half of our daily recommended salt intake in the ONE meal!
If the rest of your meals and snacks were all low in salt, this would be fine. However, the average Australian already eats too much salt so you’d have to control your diet carefully… but it is possible! Naturally, this also means they didn’t make it into our list of the best low-sodium meal delivery services.
Fat & saturated fat
Consuming fat in our diet is essential and extremely beneficial (it gives you energy, helps absorb vitamins, boosts brain function and many other things). However, eating too much, and in particular too much saturated fat, is not good for our health(4). High intakes of saturated fat are linked with many chronic health conditions, which most of us would rather avoid!
For our health, we ideally want a maximum of 10% of our daily energy intake coming from saturated fats. That’s about 207kcal (or 23g) of saturated fat.
Typically convenience meals such as fast food or takeaway meals are quite high in saturated fat. What about pre-prepared meals, are they different? Is it okay to consume these pre-prepared meals every day considering their fat content?
If one main meal is 25% of your daily intake, an average main meal should ideally have less than 6g of saturated fat. Of the 15 pre-prepared meal companies that we reviewed, 9 were below this target. As a nutritionist, I’m pretty happy with this!
The other services were a couple of grams over, which is not going to cause any long term harm. The exception was YouFoodz Fuel’d which had 12g; double the ideal amount!
It’s important to note that we’re looking at what the average person needs. If you need more food, that means your 10% saturated fat allowance is higher. Perhaps these meals higher in saturated fat are within range for you, just not for the average Aussie.
The fibre we need most often comes from fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains like rice and quinoa, or the wheat that makes bread and pasta. It helps us to feel full, regulates our bowel movements, helps with digestion and is protective against some cancers. It’s super beneficial for our health, so as a Nutritionist I’m always trying to make sure my clients are eating enough of it!
Which brings me to looking at; do pre-prepared meals contain an adequate amount of fibre? And if so, which ones?
Across the 15 meal services that we analysed, three did not list the fibre content of their meals (Core Powerfoods, Coles Kitchen and Chefgood) so they are not included in this analysis.
Of the remaining 12, we found that only 4 (Macros, Soulara, Garden of Vegan, Lite n Easy) hit the target of 7-8g of fibre per serve. This was quite disappointing but not very surprising.
I don’t know about you, but I can never seem to find many veggies in pre-prepared meals – it hurts a Nutritionist’s heart! Why should you care about this? 1. They’re good for our health. 2. They fill us up! As mentioned earlier, these meals are quite low in energy/calories, so if they were bulked up with fibre and veggies we would feel more satisfied when eating the small portions.
We need to get one thing straight first, carbs are not the devil. Carbs are not bad for us, they’re actually really healthy foods! They contain vitamins, minerals and fibre; if you’ve read above you’ll know that’s very beneficial for our overall health. Carbs are also our body’s favourite source of energy meaning our bodies love them and will feel energised and great after eating them.
When looking at pre-prepared meals I want to make sure that the meal has carbs because:
- They’re delicious
- They will help you feel energised
- They‘re full of fibre and good for your gut health
If an average meal is 500kcal and roughly ⅓ – ½ of the meal’s energy should come from carbohydrates, that means we need 37.5 – 62.5 g of carbs per meal. How do the 15 meal services that we analysed stack up to this?
We can definitely bust the myth pre-prepared meals are all high carb! There were two companies with very low-carb meals (Be Fit Food and Dietlicious). Three that were on the lower side of this range (My Muscle Chef, Macros, Workout Meals), and the rest were all within a reasonable range!
This is an average from 15 meals within each company, so there may be some meals that are higher or lower, but overall I am quite happy with the results
To maintain daily needs, 19-70 year old females need 46g of protein per day while males need 64g. However, if you exercise, are wanting to build muscle/’tone’, are injured, or trying to lose weight then you will need more than this.
In the world of health and fitness there is a magical number – 20-25g of protein.
It came about because that’s how much protein is needed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, aka muscle growth. It’s also a reasonable amount of protein to help you feel satiated (feeling full for a long time). As a result, most health or fitness based meal companies strive to hit that magic number, or go above.
Because of this, I was not surprised to see that on average every company, apart from one, had more than 20g of protein per serve. The only one that didn’t was Soulara with 18.1 grams of protein. Soulara is a plant-based service, which explains why their protein content is slightly lower. Without meat, you are limited by the number of high-protein foods available.
There may be some specific meals that are a lot higher or lower, but on average all of the meals tick the boxes for protein.
The majority of the pre-prepared meals did not provide enough energy/calories compared to the amount an average Australian adult requires. This has the potential to leave us reaching for unhealthy snacks to fill that void.
For people who find themselves quite hungry after one of these meals, I would recommend adding some frozen vegetables or a handful of salad to bulk up the meal. This will also help increase the fibre content of the meals as the majority of them did not meet our fibre requirements.
If you’re wanting to lose weight, this is all a major positive of using pre-prepared meals. They’re excellent at forcing portion control and limiting calories to a low, easily tracked number.
Almost all of the services we investigated provided enough protein, which is great for people wanting to build muscle as well as for keeping us feeling full and satisfied! The carbohydrate content of the meals, on average, was also well within a reasonable range. In fact, a few were slightly lower than I’d recommended for most people, especially if you are quite active.
After reviewing all the evidence, I do recommend giving pre-prepared meals a try. They’re great for busy people and handy as a backup meal in the freezer. I would absolutely encourage you to add some extra vegetables or salad to them, to keep that fibre intake high.
Lastly, if you are having these meals as everyday meals then try to make sure the rest of your meals and snacks are low in sodium/salt (<120mg per 100g on packaged foods).
These are some additional statistics identified during our investigation:
- 72% of pre-prepared meals contained 500 calories or less.
- 71% of pre-prepared meals contained more than a quarter of the daily recommended salt intake for adults in just one meal.
- 63% of meals contained less than 6g of saturated fat, which is the target for the average main meal.
- 29% of meals contained over 7g of fibre, with several brands failing to list the fibre content of their meals at all.
- 44% of meals were low carb or very low carb, with the remainder still within healthy daily limits for carb intakes.
- 77% of meals contained a healthy amount of daily protein.
Clare is an Accredited Nutritionist (BNutrSc) and future Dietitian who also used to be a chef, so has a big love for food! She is passionate about teaching people that a balanced healthy lifestyle can be both delicious AND nutritious, helping clients from all over Australia ditch restrictive diets and achieve long term results with simple nutrition strategies and delicious food (yes, even dessert!). She also writes over at her personal blog, Dietitian Clare.