It’s deadline season and you don’t want to cook. Aside from a pack of custard creams, a low cost ready meal is the obvious alternative. But which one to choose? We’ve found the worst so you don’t have to.
1. Chicken Chow Mein, Tesco, a little over 5 minutes.
This was a bad one to start on, although my expectations were already low. I thought I had a slurry of salty goodness in store, instead it was a tasteless slop.
Two and a half minutes into its rotation in the microwave, I could smell that something was wrong. The odour was reminiscent of burning plastic mixed in with the kind of mold that grows on coffee after a few weeks.
My excitement peaked when it oozed into my bowl. It was a Chinese takeaway, all but in taste.
I managed a few mouthfuls before I pushed it to one side. It wasn’t even salty. 2/10.
2. Cottage Pie, Tesco, about 9 minutes.
Thought I’d opt for beef tonight and play it safe with a Cottage Pie.
This was an odd length of time to zap something for, normally it only takes a few minutes. This pie gives you time to reflect on life, maybe watch a couple of Channel 4 News bulletins, even make a trip to the loo.
Slapping it onto my plate like a sandcastle to the sand, I noticed the brown beads of meat left in the container. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and scraped them into the mix.
Let’s hope it wasn’t horse. 8/10.
3. Ham and Mushroom Tagliatelle, Tesco, 5 minutes
Microwaveable cheese sauces are a little hit and miss. I had – quite literally – a scarring experience with a Dolmio Carbonara a few months ago. My eyes still twitch at the memory.
Stabbing my way into the polythene, I felt confident that this would be an easy going experience, much like a Disney Pixar film or a good pat-down at a European airport. Broadly speaking, I was right.
However common, the ham and mushroom combination always seems to jar a little – those colours just don’t go together.
Nonetheless, it only tasted a little bit like plastic and I didn’t have to spend too long picking out the good bits from the watery depths of my bowl. Another minute in the microwave would have sorted that problem.
It hit my tongue, I fell in love. 7/10.
4. Chicken Casserole with Dumplings, Sainsbury’s, 6 minutes
Who were the chickens that died for this meal? They were saints: in life, in death.
But perhaps in life they could have run about a little more. The number of times I saw a little flap of flab flipping about in my bowl was unfortunate. We shouldn’t stigmatise obesity but it doesn’t make for great eating.
This is probably the most sophisticated ready meal on offer. You’ve got your chicken, your carrots, a little bit of potato: it’s all here.
The real star – or stars – of the show were the two dumplings generously included by Mr. and Mrs. Sainsbury’s. Although one was too hard to eat on this occasion, the other was soft, spongy and absorbed the brown gravy substance well.
Throw in a slice of bread and you’ve hit a winner. Meanwhile, let’s get those chickens on treadmills. 9/10.
5. Ken Hom’s Sweet & Sour Chicken with Egg Fried Rice, Tesco, 8 minutes.
I thought I’d give Tesco’s Chinese variety one final chance.
If you’ve ever watched Jurassic Park, you’ll be familiar with the scene where the fat man with glasses gets sprayed with dinosaur slime in the rain. This should give a rough indication of what I expected from the fluorescent sweet and sour sauce.
This time, I had to put effort into preparation. The instructions requested a one minute interval during which I needed to take the lid off and stir things about. So much for Feng Shui.
Ken Hom’s “special” sweet and sour sauce mixed a degree of panache into my dinner. The attention to detail of adding peas to the egg fried rice would make even Spielberg blush.
Above all, it was the chicken that blew me away.
Someone must’ve taken my advice. I’ll bet it was Ken. 8/10.
Images (from top): foodmanufacture.co.uk; Henry Burrows; the author