Ready meal lasagne: Can homemade beat it on price?

Nigel Slater's lasagne Nigel Slater's lasagne "had the edge", says farmer Adam Henson

Chilled ready meals are one of the UK's most popular "fresh" grocery items, a report shows. But when it comes to cost, is it possible to make a great-tasting version for less money?

Love them or loathe them, there's no denying the convenience of sitting down to a hot ready meal dinner a mere few minutes after popping it in the microwave.

The horsemeat scandal saw ready meal sales plunge, but there's still one dish in supermarket ranges that people hanker after more than any other: lasagne.

The enduringly popular pasta dinner corners almost 6% of all ready meal spend, according to market researcher Kantar Worldpanel, even though sales suffered after horsemeat was found in processed meat products in UK supermarkets.

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Prices can range from 70p to £5 for a meal-for-one, and the UK spent £2.5bn on chilled ready meals between March 2012 and 2013, says a report into the UK's eating habits by Kantar Worldpanel.

This puts the food at the number five best-selling item on its "Top 50 fresh foods" list.

But can a better-tasting lasagne be made at home for a better price than what's available in shops?

In BBC One's Nigel and Adam's Farm Kitchen, chef Nigel Slater stepped in to the kitchen to show how homemade lasagne measures up against a ready meal version.

The supermarket ready meal lasagnes the chef used for comparison were a mid-range version that cost £2.20, and a high-end one that cost £3.50.

And how did Nigel Slater do? A bulk batch of 20 portions of lasagne that he made came in at £1.20 per serving (assuming the pasta is shop-bought), more than the 75p budget version but less than the other two.

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Nigel Slater and Adam Henson

Watch Nigel and Adam's Farm Kitchen on BBC One at 20:00 GMT Wednesday 20 November

Farmer and programme presenter Adam Henson taste-tested the homemade lasagne and ready meals.

"Nigel's certainly had the edge in my opinion," he says. "But actually some of the ready meals were also good. So the more expensive ones or even medium cost ones were still tasty.

"Although we like the premium, we think you get more value from the mid-range."

So £2.20 is the price to beat. How did he make it?

Beef mince, pork ribs, carrot, onions and fresh herbs were all used in Nigel Slater's homemade lasagne. To keep costs down, he used cheaper cheddar cheese instead of mozzarella or parmesan.

But the key to making good homemade lasagne for little over a pound per portion is to cook it in bulk.

"Cooking in batches is easy. It's all about the preparation," says Nigel Slater.

How exactly does this save you cash?

The UK's top selling fresh foods:

Vegetable stall
Food Spend (£bn)

1. Vegetable

5.47

2. Fruit

4.65

3. Total milk

3.29

4. Total cheese

2.75

5. Chilled ready meals

2.55

6. Cooked meats

2.21

7. Fresh Poultry

2.17

8. Total bread

2.05

9. Fresh beef

2.04

10. Yoghurt

1.43

Source: Top 50 fresh foods report by Kantar Worldpanel GB & NI (March 2012 - March 2013)

Chef Simon Smith, who teaches at Becketts Farm cookery school in Birmingham, has regularly cooked meals in bulk. Buying ingredients in large quantities is likely to save you money, he says, as in some shops "if you're going to buy a large quantity of stuff you can generally negotiate a discount".

Gas and electric costs are saved by cooking once instead of multiple times. "If you're going to turn the oven on 10 times to cook a lasagne, it's going to cost you 10 times as much as turning it on once and doing a batch."

And food waste is cut down too. "So often people will buy a packet of eight onions and throw six away, so it's going to cut down on wastage a lot," says Simon Smith.

In Nigel Slater's "make and freeze" recipe, the lasagne should be portioned out into 20 small foil takeaway-style tray containers and stored in the freezer, so they even look like ready meals.

Since the programme is about making food from scratch, the presenters make their own pasta with a pasta machine.

Opt for this method and the finished lasagne will take two and a half to three hours to finish. Could fans of quick and easy ready meal lasagnes really be persuaded to have a go at making their own?

Adam Henson concedes many people watching "may not change their ways", but he says by batch-cooking and freezing for later "you still have the convenience of the ready meal".

Not quite as convenient as buying dinner pre-made from a shop though.

"The key driver for ready meal purchase is convenience," says Katy Askew, deputy editor of industry publication just-food.com.

"A growing number of single-person households plays a part, but ready meals also appeal to working families and couples as mid-week meal solution."

Now "meal deals" - pre-made dinners including a bottle of wine and a starter or dessert - are very popular.

She adds: "After a long day, a lot of people don't want - or have the time - to come home and cook from scratch."

High-end chilled ready meals may be gaining popularity, but budget versions still sell far more.

"Budget ready meals are far more popular than high-end," says Charlie McGregor, analyst at Kantar Worldpanel.

"This is probably down to the fact that ready meal shoppers tend to be of a lower income bracket, and therefore are on tighter budgets and buy less raw food."

The market is also divided between chilled and frozen dishes.

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Frozen ready meals "[benefit] from lower price points, which appeal to today's cash strapped consumers, and the fact that products can be easily stored, helping tackle the issue of food waste," says Katy Askew.

But chilled ready meals are now outperforming frozen dinners, with the former's growth rate around double of frozen last year.

"'Horsemeat-gate' has had a big effect on this trend as more consumers see 'frozen' as being of a lower quality," explains Charlie McGregor.

A love of ready meals has also been linked to a loss of cooking skills.

"People are so time-poor but not only that, the art of cooking is very much a dying thing," argues Simon Smith.

Nigel and Adam's Farm Kitchen encourages people to cook more at home and to consider their food origins.

Cost aside, Adam Henson argues that when it comes to home-cooking: "You know where it's come from and you can choose whatever you want to put in it."

And Nigel Slater is adamant people at least try making their own portions of lasagne.

"It's all very well to have supper on the table in ten minutes you know, but the joy of cooking is the pleasure of getting your hands in. The whole tactile thing. It's why I cook."

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