The Spaghetti Bolognese Ready Meal Challenge
I don’t know about you guys, but I love a good spag bol. It’s been a staple of my diet since way back in my heady undergraduate days – although the “mince” we’d buy then was probably a tad suspect, and I’m not sure it was all that tasty in hindsight, being composed primarily of chopped tomatoes and whatever random things we could find in the cupboard. Not ideal, but back then food was necessary only for either putting off a deadline, or lining the stomach before a big night out, so it didn’t really matter.
I’ve previously mentioned that I did the whole processed, low-fat, instant food thing when I first started out trying to get fit – and while it worked for a bit, it wasn’t satisfying and it certainly wasn’t healthy, so eventually I lapsed back into old habits and saw the weight creeping back. Bad times.
When I’ve written about emotional eating, I’ve talked fairly negatively about it – and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only emotions it’s possible to attach to food are the ones that might be best described as like a solitary teardrop falling into three pints of cookie dough. But you’d be very wrong. Food, well cooked, lovingly prepared and presented, should be a joyous thing. You should love and appreciate it – and that’s where my problem lies with ready meals.
I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to buy a ready meal (and trust me, I’ve had more than my share) without feeling a bit depressed. It’s just such a cliche, like it’s something I need to accompany with a Bridget Jones-a-thon (including re-enacting the “All By Myself” scene). Regardless of nutritional concerns, it’s like food with the soul sucked out of it – and it never, ever manages to quite hit the spot.
Which takes me right back to the cookie dough.
But the thing is, I get it – for convenience and low-cost, ready meals are a sure winner, right?
I beg to differ.
Matt and I decided to team up and put this to the test with a tasty spaghetti bolognese, with three intended outcomes of Ready-Meal-Ass-Kicking-ness. It needed to be cheap, easy to do, and really god damned tasty. And guess what? It delivered on all counts.
Don’t look so surprised.
This recipe makes five portions – we were aiming for four, but it’s a very generous helping even divided by five, so we’re going with that.
So, here’s what you’ll need:
- 600g Extra Lean Mince
- 250g Onions
- 2tbsp Olive Oil
- 375g Peppers (three decent sized ones)
- 250g Celery
- 25g Garlic (5 cloves) – 2 in sauce, 3 fried
- 50g Chillies
- 2x Knorr Beef Stock Cubes
- 150g Mushrooms – chopped in half (decreasing energy density)
- 1x Bag of Spinach
- 400g Chopped Tomatoes
- 142g Tomato Purée (that’s a small tin – I’m not just being difficult!)
- 1tbsp Worcester Sauce (make sure it’s the gluten-free variety, if you’ve got an intolerance)
- 1tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
- Mixed Herbs
- 75g Spaghetti per person
- 15g Reduced Fat Cheddar
- Black Pepper to taste
And here’s what to do:
- 1. Chop the onions and three cloves of garlic, and fry in the olive oil in a large pan (the biggest you can find!)
- 2. Add in the mince, and fry until brown. Once it’s done, drain off the fat, and add in the stock (mixed in boiling water).
- 3. Chop the peppers, celery and chillies and add to the pan, keeping the ends to one side.
- 4. Meanwhile, make the sauce by blending the chopped tomatoes, tomato purée, two cloves of garlic, the balsamic vinegar and the ends of your chillies and peppers. I know you’d normally throw them away, but they’re a great way to get some extra fibre – which we love. Mmm-mmm.
- 5. Chop the mushrooms in half – this is an excellent way to decrease the energy density of the meal, which I’ll explain later – and add them to the frying pan.
- 6. Add the sauce and spinach (slowly – it’s easy to make a mess with spinach!) and let the whole thing simmer – if you can cover it, do, but this isn’t essential.
- 7. Measure out 75g of spaghetti for each person you’re serving – we used the gluten-free variety, but obviously you don’t have to. If you’re hopelessly messy and uncoordinated like me, feel free to use fusilli or something similar – no judgment here. Boil for about 8-9 minutes.
- 8. Dish it up! Grate a little bit of cheddar on top, and if you’re feeling in the mood, have a small glass of red wine with it. You’ve earned it.
It’ll look a little something like this:
Now where this gets really interesting is when you start making direct comparisons with actual ready meals – because we just love evidence in these here parts. No casting of aspersions here. Here’s how they compare – note the difference in portion sizes between the ready meals, and the homemade version…
|Taste the Difference (400g)||751||60||56||7.6||30.4||8||5.2|
And let’s look at the serving sizes. For the Value meal, you’ve got 300g; the two other ready meals are 400g; but the homemade version weighs in at a tasty 470g when cooked – so regardless of what’s in it, that’ll fill you right up. And it looks damn fine on a plate, too. Whereas these… Not so much. I’ve actually purchased one of each, for the purposes of comparing them for this blog, but I’m going to have to come back to that because I just can’t bring myself to do it. They don’t look so good.Those of you who are used to the idea that fewer calories are better and carbs are bad might be looking at the data above and thinking that the two cheaper ready meals have one up on us there – but I refer you back to here for why you need the right amount of calories, in a healthy, balanced diet that includes carbs, protein, and fats. And, you know, to the 120lbs I lost. Ahem. You’ll also be burning calories in the process of cooking – because of that lovely thing called non-activity exercise thermogenesis, which you can read about here.
The serving size business brings me back to the energy density thing I briefly mentioned earlier on. Energy density is the amount of calories in a given portion – so, for instance, a bowl of water would have a minimal energy density, whereas the same bowl filled with ice cream would be super-high. What this means for us is that when we cook with lots of veggies, for instance, we end up with lots of water in there because that’s what they’re made from – meaning you get a lower energy density, but still the pleasant feeling that comes from a nice full plate, and a nice full tum – known as satiety to those in the know (check me out with my new words!)
We’ve also got the right amount of protein. In a meal like this, you should be shooting for around the 30g mark – more than that and your body can’t absorb it, so it metabolises as fat; less, and it’s not giving you what you need, especially if, like me, you’re trying to gain muscle too. And fats can be good, if they’re the right kind – so 14g is pretty good going for a tasty meal like this. Plus, you’re getting all the fibretastic goodness that comes from lots of fresh veggies in your meal – so again, it’s all good.
It’s also helpful to see how they compare, nutritionally, on a like-for-like basis – so here’s how they stack up, per 100g. The colours should give you an idea of where they sit, relative to each other:
So, we’re happy with the taste and it’s nutritionally about bob on – here’s the clincher. Cost. The Value, Regular and Taste the Difference ready meals were 76p, £1.30 and £3 respectively. Per serving, our spaghetti bolognese works out at £1.54 (assuming you’re buying from Sainsburys, as with the ready meals – so it’s all equal on that front. We managed to get it down to £1.10 in Aldi – so if you’re a really savvy shopper you can probably do even better!)
And as for being easy – well, the leftovers are now safely stowed in portions in the freezer. Meaning that when I need a quick and easy, convenient dinner – a ready meal, if you will – it’s good to go.
And that, my friends, is research in action. Enjoy – and if you make this meal at home, let me know how it works out!