The 2020s are stressful. We are time poor, and prevalent wellness cultures are adding to pressures we already put on ourselves to stay healthy by dictating that we put only home-cooked food into our bodies – preferably with zero additives or preservatives, and not ultra-processed. When we get home from work, it can be too much to have to think about what gut microbiome-pleasing meal to cook, while ticking all of the current zeitgeist’s boxes.

Thankfully, the ready meals of yore (think tin foil replete with flavoured sludge) are gone, and 2024’s ready meal offerings, have something for everyone – and every currently lauded diet. They are sleek, beautifully packaged (with pack designs streamlined for fridge-shelf stackability) and have shorter ingredients lists than their forebears. And ready meal brands are responding to the negative coverage surrounding ultra-processed food in savvy ways. Let’s take a look at a few brands operating in the emergent (cutting-edge) space.

Certain brands are dialling up their value as high in protein and time-saving to appeal to the gym-savvy, health conscious consumer. For The Gym Kitchen (available at Morrisons, Tesco and ASDA), the clues are in the name; the logo (replete with dumbbell motif); the slogan: ‘Food to Fuel’; and the icons on each pack reassuring 32g of protein per pack, 5-a-day credentials, calorie content and source of fibre. Protein is also a focus on pack for brand Scratch (found in Tesco and Sainsbury’s); with simple packaging that reflect the sense of a minimally processed product. At the same time, warm colours (yellows, oranges and reds) help relay the sense of comfort and emotional boost supplied by the ready meals to the time-poor consumer. see other brands leaning into ideas of clean comfort food by dialling up emotive motifs and language, e.g. Whole Foods, who offer ‘Mum’s Chicken Soup’ in an easy-to-heat clear plastic tub. Whose mum, you ask? Why, yours! (Conceptually that is). Through the product name, Whole Foods are simultaneously tapping into people’s emotional connections to food via the widely culturally established maternal connection to cooking, and consumer desire for the nostalgic and familiar in times of stress, whilst at the same time communicating the idea of a ‘clean’ product – ‘Mum’ would never use nasty, ultra-processed ingredients when home-cooking.

Other brands utilising cultural definitions of ‘comfort’ food and reinvigorating the category are Pieminister. With hand-drawn style lettering and photos of the product on front of pack, they are communicating ‘honesty’ and ‘transparency’: that what you see is what you’ll get – and what you’ll get won’t disappoint. If you’re seeking a comfort ready meal for a cosy night in, you don’t have to compromise on your dietary preferences. Pieminister offer a plethora of gluten free, vegetarian and vegan variations on their familiar classics, communicating to consumers that catering to different diets is not just an afterthought – and positioning different dietary offerings as options for the pie-loving, meat eating consumer as well, who wants to indulge in a healthier option on a school night.

Other brands offering uncompromising, dietary-friendly takes on classics include White Rabbit Pizza Co., who offer “delicious gourmet pizza that happens to be ‘free from’”; positioning their gluten free pizza bases as offering a fully satisfying pizza experience – their gluten free-ness just an added bonus with no impact on flavour.

In the emergent space, Ready Meals are undergoing a metamorphosis. Brands are moving away from the signifiers associated with Ultra-Processed foods (e.g., bright, oversaturated, and unnatural colours) and focusing on the home cooked, emotive qualities of food and dialling them up in copy, colour and iconography (e.g. warm, natural and tertiary colours, hand-drawn qualities). ‘Free From’ ingredients are increasingly treated as desirable, mainstream content rather than shunted to the side lines to be sought after and found in the lonely ‘Free From’ section. Beyond branded packaging, the language around Ready Meals at point of sale is also changing – Waitrose are encouraging consumers to ‘Dine In’, Tesco are suggesting a ‘Great Night In’, and M&S have aisles titled ‘Easy Cooking’: again, language that refers to the ease and emotional benefit of utilising ready meals.

3 key takeouts for brands:

  1. Wholesome Eating: Dial down highly saturated and unnatural colours (e.g. not occurring in nature) in order to avoid associations with undesirable Ultra-Processed foods, and dial up simple and emotive language that taps into ‘home-cooked’ qualities (e.g. Whole Foods’ ‘Mum’s Chicken Soup’).

  2. Easy Fuel: In line with the increasing health-consciousness of even the most time-poor consumers, many brands are utilising pack real estate with iconography that quickly identify the health benefits of the product. Call out protein, fibre, and 5-a-day content, as well as superfood ingredients on pack clearly using icons that allow for speedy identification – this benefits all consumers, not just those itching to get to the gym.

  3. No Meat? No Problem: Meat eaters are no longer so offput by claims of ‘Vegan’ and ‘Gluten Free’ on pack. Vegetarian, Vegan, plant-based and Gluten Free options have increasingly universal appeal as people try to make more conscious decisions for themselves and the planet, and no longer have to compromise on texture or flavour. Inclusive ready meals are the future.

Freya Ward-Lowery, Senior Semiotician

Ready, steady, good for you!: How ready meals are changing with wellness culture