Instant meals have now become a staple of people with fast-paced lifestyle or those who are looking for a cheap and easy fix. These are also known as TV dinners because of the idea that these meals are simply heated and brought to the living room to eat while watching TV. Usually, these TV dinners consist of meat and vegetables or potatoes. They are very filling and would last forever inside our fridges.
One of the first ready-to-eat meals came from Gerry Thomas, an employee of Swanson. Swanson is a big poultry company who suddenly found itself in a huge surplus of frozen turkeys due to poor Thanksgiving sales. They figured out a way to redistribute the turkeys outside of thanksgiving and made TV dinners out of them. On the other hand, meals served on plane flights are also some of the first accounts of frozen meals. Up until today, airlines continue to serve pre-packed meals but gone are the days where in-flight meals are unappetising.
The process manufacturers use to create these "ready" meals today is highly automated, the same goes for similar processes such as food retorting. The three basic procedures for this is (1) food preparation, (2) loading, and (3) freezing. Under food preparation, the ingredients such as vegetables are cleaned and loaded on a conveyor belt to be processed such as boiling, steaming, or blanching. This is highly necessary for the process as it kills the bacteria and stimulates a chemical change that destroys the enzymes. This is where the impression of instant meals being bland comes from because this process affects the colour and flavour of food. In addition, this process also prepares the meats such as washing it thoroughly, cutting into fillets, seasoning, and finally, cooked accordingly.
Once the ingredients for the instant meal are prepared, they are now ready to be loaded into containers. The foods are placed in filling machines and are loaded into trays to make sure that every single unit gets the same amount and quality of food. After trays are loaded, these then go to the process of cryogenic freezing with liquid nitrogen. This flash freezes the food and allows it to retain its quality prior to freezing and sort of put it in a sleeping state. Cryogenic freezing does not make use of oxygen thus removes the chances of food spoiling to due oxygen. However, this kind of freezing is costly so mostly big scale companies can afford to do so and develop instant meals. In addition, it also causes the flavour to deteriorate further and thus, to bring back the flavour, usually these meals would be heavily seasoned with salt and fat. So while most instant meals are made of vegetables and protein, its salt and fat content made it somewhat unhealthy for daily consumption. However, private label food manufacturers such as this one can accomodate for a healthier version through new food manufacturing processes which create fat and artificial additive free alternatives.
After all these processes, the trays are then covered and vacuum packed to make sure that nothing comes in to contaminate the meal or for evaporation to occur which would ruin the quality of the ingredients. This gives the product a long shelf life as long as it is stored in a favourable environment.
Convenience is key for instant meals. There is still much to research to make it healthier but since the purpose of the majority of the people buying this is to avoid the hassle of preparing meals, the compromise is with its nutritional content.