One thing I’ve noticed while grocery shopping here is the abundance of fresh, ready-meals. In the U.S., I used to buy a whole lot of ready meals, mostly of the Lean Cuisine variety, especially while I was in the throes of writing my thesis. These would always be pretty simple: frozen pizza, frozen macaroni, frozen veg lo mein. Generally, they gave very simple instructions: keep frozen. Microwave on HIGH for 3 minutes; stir; microwave for an additional 1 minute.
Occasionally these would be more complicated. Trader Joe’s has a variety of frozen meals where you have the option of steaming the vegetables in the microwave and then stir-frying them with the included sauce packet. Frozen pizza, of course, requires heating in the oven to avoid the sogginess that pervades many microwave foods. Then there are boxed meals like Kraft macaroni (a joyous creation), ramen, and other noodle products which require boiling and mixing. In any case, a microwave meal is almost always an individual meal. Do Not Reheat, Serving Size: 1. You eat a microwave meal when you’re in a hurry, late at night, on your own.
Here, I was pleased to find, there is much more variety. I have not yet visited the tundra that is Iceland, a supermarket that sells almost entirely frozen foods. And there’s every kind of frozen food ever. These aren’t your regular frozen foods. They’re really cheap, most likely bad quality, and generally family-size: 1 kilogram of baby carrots, a sausage hotpot, almost 2 kilograms of chili. Apparently it has a “reputation,” according to one of my British friends. What else would expect from a store called Iceland? Their ads feature can-can dancers singing “that’s why moms – go to Iceland.”
I am more acquainted with the ready-meals of Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, and Marks&Spencer, which are, on the whole, delicious. I was disappointed at the lack of frozen foods in my local Waitrose – barely two containers! Hardly any ice cream! It was the same size as the frozen section of my Tesco Express, which is little more than a convenience store (and it has something called “Chicago Town Deep Dish” that, while not tasting anything like a real deep dish, was still deeply satisfying).
However, I then discovered that the glory of prepared foods in this country isn’t in the freezer, but in the fridge: seemingly fresh-made complete ready meals. They have an expiry date of about 5-7 days hence, but allow for freezing on the date of purchase. Many are microwaveable, but an equal amount are made for the oven. A few of my favorites have been from the Waitrose Menu selection (pumpkin-filled cannelloni with goat cheese) and from the Easy meals, which supply all the raw ingredients and allow one to cook it fresh (pepper steak, chicken pad thai). There is also an immense variety of microwave meals, including a whole Asian section, a curry section, and a traditional British section. They range in price from £2.50 to £8 depending on the extravagance (red wine-infused bolognese is more expensive than tuna penne), and the number of people they feed. M&S and Sainsbury’s have similar selections (M&S has a particularly delicious macaroni), and all of them offer promotions like 3 dishes for £5, which basically means three different meals for cheap – just add your own little salad or veg.
In addition to these normal microwave/oven meals, which serve up to two people, there are special boxes with entire meals that serve families. All three of the stores mentioned above sell family-size (or dinner-party size) dim sum selections. Waitrose and Sainsbury’s both sell an entire peking duck that you can just pop in the oven and serve with the included Chinese pancakes and hoisin. You can throw an entire dinner party with only prepared meals … and it would taste excellent.
In Chicago, I used to be embarrassed to shop for prepared meals, as it meant I didn’t have time to cook or be healthy. But sometimes here I’ll go to the grocery store looking for dinner . Who can turn down pumpkin pasta in goat cheese? I’d recommend it.