How healthy are super market pre-packaged dinner kit meals?

Convenience is much sought after when you are busy and time poor.

Pre-packaged dinner kit supermarket meals have been with us since around the 1950’s.  We are often told they are our best option if we are poor time.

Read on to understand whether this is true.  And importantly to understand how healthy these dinner kit meals are.

1. Why are we told to buy dinner kit?

  •  They are generally promoted as being faster and easier to prepare.
  • We are often told they taste good.
  • They are often promoted as healthy meal options.

 2.  What are key things to consider?

  •  The ingredients included in the dinner kit.
  • The extent to which additives and preservatives are used.
  • The level of fat, in particular saturated fat.
  • Amount of sugar in the dinner kit meal.
  • Level of salt (sodium) in the meal.
  • What other ingredients you need to buy to prepare the meal.
  • What is the total cost of the meal – dinner kit + additional ingredients.

 3. What are benefits of using dinner kits?

  •  Convenience, we can place key ingredients in the freezer or fridge which means they are on hand when we want them.
  • An increase in the number of healthy pre-packaged meal options gives people flexibility.
  • For those with specific conditions such as FODMAP sensitivity, coeliac and blood sugar challenges there are more options becoming available.

 4. What are the downsides of using dinner kits?

  •  Not all pre-packed meal options are equal; some options are healthier than others.
  • It is not always easy to work out which options are healthy, what is written on the packaging can be misleading or confusing.
  • To be able to compare products you need to know how to read food labels.
  • Some of the ingredients added to food have several names.  Knowing how to recognize these names requires increased understanding.
  • You often have to purchase additional ingredients to prepare the meal.
  • I believe freshly cooked meals will always have the upper hand on level of nutritional value.
  • Part of mindful eating and living includes understanding what you are eating, this includes investing time to choose and prepare your food.  It means you know what is in your meals and you have a stronger connection with the food you eat.

 5. Which dinner kit meals were reviewed?

  • Jamie Beef Meatballs & Wagyu Chorizo 600g
  • Sue Shepherds Low Fodmap Meal Kit
  • Five Tastes Pad Thai
  • Marions Kitchen Butter Chicken, 225g
  • Ainsley Harriots Lentil Dahl, 150g
  • Old El Paso, Healthy Fiesta Burrito Kit

 6. What was the summary verdict for each dinner kit?

Jamie Beef Meatballs & Wagyu Chorizo

What are the key points to note?

  • This meal uses HGP free meatballs.
  • HGP stands for hormone growth promotant.  HGP are a form of supplement given to cattle to stimulate growth.  Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) indicate about 40% of Australian cattle are given HGP which means 60% are not.
  • MLA has a process for ranking the quality of meat.  They give a higher ranking to HGP Free meat.  This is because HGP can impact how juicy and tender the meat is.
  • However HGP affect different cuts of meat differently.  Striploin, cube roll are worst affected by the use of HGP and rump and topside intermediate.
  • There are other factors that influence meat quality including the age of the animal, what it is feed, the breed of the cattle and farm practices (e.g. whether the animal is stressed prior to slaughter).
  • In summary where HGP free meat is affordable, accessible it is a good choice.  However be aware as there are other factors that influence meat quality so it should not be your only selection criteria.
  • On the criteria of fat, sodium (salt) and sugar this meal looks okay.

How to increase the healthiness of this meal?

  • Eat it with a large green leafy salad that includes ¼ cup beans and 3 fresh veg.
  • Use the meat balls to make a healthy home-made hamburger.  Select a medium-sized grain or seed roll, fresh beetroot, baby spinach leaves, sliced tomatoes, cucumber and grated carrot.  For a topping use a tablespoon of fresh yoghurt or tahini for your dressing.

 Sue Shepherds Low Fodmap Meal Kit

What are the key points to note?

  • Sue Shepherd has introduced a low FODMAP meal kit range.
  • FODMAP stands for fermentable oligo-di- and mono-saccharides and pyols.
  • It is estimated 1 in 7 Australians may have increased sensitivity to FODMAPs resulting in uncomfortable and painful GIT/bowel symptoms.
  • Eating a low FODMAP diet helps limit symptoms.
  • It is important to not self-diagnose sensitivity to FODMAP.  If you are experiencing digestive issues, it is important to consult a health practitioner to determine the cause before removing foods from your diet.
  • On the criteria of fat, sodium (salt) and sugar this meal looks okay.

How to increase the healthiness of this meal?

  • Adding cold water oily fish or mussels (as recommended) is great; these are nutrient dense seafood options that increase the nutritional profile of this meal.  Cold water oily fish are a great source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids and protein.  Mussels are rich in protein, low in saturated fats and contain a variety of vitamins and minerals.

 Five Tastes Pad Thai

What are the key points to note?

  • Australian love Thai food.  However some Thai food dishes contain high amounts of sugar and sodium (salt).
  • The sodium content is on the higher side, if you have high blood pressure there are better choices you can make.
  • The sugar content is in the medium sugar range.

How to increase the healthiness of this meal?

  • Swap out some ingredients.  Substitute the peanuts for healthier nuts such as chopped almonds, cashews or pecans, use basmati rice and use extra virgin coconut oil for cooking.
  • Reduce the recommended serving size.
  • Serve the meal with a big plateful of steamed or lightly stir-fried veg.

 Marions Kitchen Butter Chicken, 225g

What are the key points to note?

  • Indian is another favourite of many.  Often kids in particular love this dish.
  • However the sodium content of this meal is very high.  I would not recommend this meal for those with high blood pressure.  Most of the salt (sodium) in our diet comes from pre-packed foods.  Many of us are consuming too much salt (sodium) increasing our risk over time of elevated blood pressure.
  • The sugar content is also quite high so there are better options.  This meal is not recommended for those seeking to better manage blood sugar levels (in particular those with insulin resistance and or type-2-diabetes).

How to increase the healthiness of this meal?

  • There are healthier options to this.  I recommend you limit this meal to the very occasional meal choice.
  • Reduce the recommended portion size when eating this meal.
  • Replace the cream with natural yoghurt, fill half your plate with some steam veg (steamed carrots, broccoli and zucchini go well with this) and serve it with Basmati rice which has a medium GI index

 Ainsley Harriots Lentil Dahl, 150g

What are the key points to note?

  • Including 1 possibly 2 meat free meal days each week is fantastic.  It adds variety to your diet and helps keep you meat intake moderated.  Unfortunately Aussie’s on average eat a lot more meat than is recommended.
  • Lentils and chick peas are fantastic foods; they provide a good source of protein, taste great, and provide good sources of fibre and vitamins and minerals.
  • On the criteria of fat, sodium (salt) and sugar this meal looks okay.

How to increase the healthiness of this meal?

  • Steamed broccoli, dark Asian greens such as Bok choy and carrots would really set this meal off.

 Old El Paso, Healthy Fiesta Burrito Kit

What are the key points to note?

  • I like the fact steps have been taken to create a healthier burrito kit option.  To get the benefits you need to use the recommended lean chicken and fresh tomatoes, avocado and capsicum.
  • On the criteria of fat, sodium (salt) and sugar this meal looks okay.

How to increase the healthiness of this meal?

  • With burritos the focus is on often on how many you eat.
  • To improve the healthy rating for this meal replace the tortillas with large fresh lettuce cups and add some red kidney beans.
  • I also recommend you use extra virgin coconut oil for cooking and use dark leafy green lettuce rather than cos.

 In summary:

As you would expect of a nutritionist and health coach, I will always recommend a whole food freshly cooked meal as the best option.

But yes, there are packaged dinner kit meal options that if included as part of a balanced, moderate and healthy diet are reasonable options to include.

The trick is to select wisely as some dinner kits are healthier than others.

To achieve a blend of practical time-saving options as well as have options that taste good and are healthier there are a few strategies to keep up your sleeve:

  1. Reduce (moderate) the recommended portion size.
  2. Add easy to prepare fresh steamed or lightly pan-fried veg.
  3. Swap out ingredients that you are suspect can reduce the nutritional profile.
  4. Keep pre-packed meals to occasional rather than your daily regular meal choices.

I encourage you to think about how you eat and invest in preparation and planning of your meals, it can be the make or break of healthy eating.  Making time available in your week to shop means you will have fresh quality produce on hand.  And investing time to experiment and learn the basics of preparing and cooking fresh food can open a door to a journey of taste you will never look back from.

Talk soon.

Ciao Jan