In the 1990s, individually packaged, ready-made meals and snacks appeared in increasing numbers in the supermarket. Microwave pasteurisation techniques extended the shelf-life of pre-packaged refrigerated foods, offering ‘minimal processing’ plus assured microbiological safety for pre-packaged meals.
Ready-made, heat and serve meals were originally developed for airlines – the inspiration for similar meals designed for home use. The term “TV dinner” emerged in the USA in 1955 and by the early 1960s TV dinners were being produced in Australia.
The growth of pre-packaged meals over the following decades has been attributed to a range of factors: the increased prevalence of home freezers, more working women, and rising divorce rates resulting in single men having to cook for themselves. In Australia, frozen food manufacturers began offering more meal choices. In 1971, Birds Eye was advertising oven-ready meals for two: Fisherman’s Pie, Cod Lorraine and Cod Mornay.
Lean Cuisine, launched in America in 1981, pioneered the concept of complete, calorie-controlled ready meals. Launched in Australia in the mid-1980s under the Findus brand name, they offered “great-tasting meals at less than 300 calories”. Initially, there were 11 different meals, with each pack including vegetables, sauces and accompaniments such as rice or pasta.
Not all meals were frozen: pre-cooked meals were also, increasingly, chilled. In the UK, Marks and Spencer launched its first chilled ready meal, Chicken Kiev, in 1979. With the arrival of new technology, meals could be cooked and pasteurised in a pre-sealed package, giving them a prolonged shelf-life without freezing. By the 1990s, microwaves were ubiquitous in Australian homes, making the re-heating of a pre-packaged meal a matter of minutes.
The trend towards ready-made meals has continued, with the Australian market growing by an average of 3.6 per cent in the five years to 2017. Coles supermarkets have developed their own range, including salads, soups, quiches, pizza, pasta and curries, all carrying health-star ratings.