Long life

Cooking I find easy and satisfying. Preparing microwave dinners, on the other hand...

Ready meals may be the worst thing about being back in an office

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

When some years ago I stopped having to go to an office, mainly because nobody wanted me to go to one, I started to do quite a lot of cooking. I am no natural cook, but I had ambitions. I bought more and more cookery books — Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, that kind of thing — far more than I was ever going to consult. And as it turned out, I found myself relying mainly on just two books — Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking for Italian dishes, which are generally satisfying and quite simple to make, and, for similar reasons, on Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course for traditional English roasts and puddings (though for bread-and-butter pudding I liked to refer to the late Duchess of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Cookery Book, where it is puzzlingly found in the index not under ‘B’ but under ‘D’, for ‘Duke’s Bread and Butter Pudding’). Even for the simple dishes that I cooked repeatedly I never dared make one without looking up the recipe again, so feeble of memory and lacking in confidence was I. But I quite enjoyed cooking all the same. It was intellectually undemanding and less exhausting than gardening, and yet it required sufficient concentration to make me forget my worries for a while.

But now things have changed. I have, to my surprise, a job (at the Oldie magazine), and so have to spend a lot of time in London, commuting up and down from my home in Northamptonshire; and at my age (74) I don’t feel like spending hours at the stove any more. So unless I have guests at the weekend, I rely to a shameful extent on microwave meals, purchased, as often as not, at the Marks & Spencer food store at Milton Keynes station. This goes against the grain, for I have always been wary of microwave ovens, having no idea how they work. There is something spooky about the way they make food so hot, and so quickly, without damaging its container. I fear they must be radioactive or something. I assume they are not dangerous, as the British eat 1.6 billion ready meals a year without any apparent damage to their health, but my doubts remain.


Another aspect of microwave meals that worries me is the frighteningly long list of mysterious ingredients they contain. The other day I bought what must be the fastest and simplest ready meal in the world, a hamburger in its bun that took 100 seconds to cook in a microwave oven. It consisted of just the burger, the bun, a plastic sachet of sauce, and a wafer-thin slice of processed cheese. Yet between them they contained nearly 70 different ingredients. Even the tiny slice of cheese could boast 16 ingredients, which included such items as sodium polyphosphate, calcium phosphate and beta carotene. What have they got to do with cheese?

I should point out that I needed a magnifying glass to read these words, as I did to read the instructions about how to cook the wretched thing (which, to be fair to it, tasted surprisingly similar to a normal, rather nasty, cheap hamburger). All ready meals have this in common: that the print on the packaging is almost illegibly small. This may be because of the enormous number of ingredients that have to be listed on them, but it is hard on the old with failing eyesight, who must be among the biggest consumers of ready meals. They are much easier to cook than even meals-on-wheels, which usually arrive frozen, and it’s verging on cruelty on the part of their manufacturers that the instructions on them are so difficult to read. And as if this were not aggravation enough, they routinely include the warning that not all microwave ovens are the same and that therefore reference should be made to the oven’s original brochure before cooking anything in one. Who, one wonders, especially among old people, keeps his microwave oven brochure handy?

That said, microwave meals can be perfectly edible, even tasty, particularly when they are Indian, Chinese, or otherwise oriental. In fact, they are almost indispensable if Asian food is what you like, for it is almost unthinkably boring and complicated to cook such dishes from scratch at home. But there’s something a bit sad about them all the same, a fall-back solution for the old, lazy or apathetic. I think I may just have talked myself back into doing a bit more cooking again.

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  • C.U. Jimmy

    You must return to cooking properly! Microwave ovens are not nice at all. After trial and error and advice from people telling me you can cook fish in them and steam veg. and so forth, I only use mine for warming milk because it saves burning a pan (say no more about my culinary skills). I’ve tried scrambling eggs in it but they turn out watery and rubbery. It’s useless for defrosting because it cooks things round the edges while leaving them frozen in the middle. I dislike the taste and texture of ready meals, by and large – and even if they’re any good to eat, they’re always too small. If I want fast food I have an omelette or a cheese & pickle sandwich.

  • davidshort10

    I recently learned, purely by trying it out, that you can cook bacon in a microwave. Takes two minutes. Put some bread in the toaster at the same time and you have an almost instant tasty breakfast or snack. I have passed this tip onto friends who were amazed and pleased.

  • willshome

    It’s the shopping that’s the problem when commuting. Shop online with Ocado, they’ll deliver anytime. Cook for two (or four) at weekends and whack it in the freezer. It’s still about defrosting and reheating but at least no long list of strange ingredients.

  • rtj1211

    There is a very simple solution to this: make your own.

    A pasta/rice salad can be made for a family of four’s lunch in 30 minutes flat, start to finish, with time to do something else whilst the pasta is cooking. It is a power lunch, brlliant for those active in high-exercise sport and a great way to use up the last apples, spring onions, bits of pepper, cucumber, carrot, nuts and raisins.

    Every time you make a casserole, a goulash, or the like, you have the potential for anothr lunch the next day. Of course, if you are so fussy that you can’t eat the leftovers, that won’t work. But it works well for many.

    Another solution is to get a group in the office to agree to make one lunch a week for everyone in the group, using the office facilities. It will be tailored to what is available, but fresh vegetable soup and a casserole prepared between 8.30am and 9am and left to cook for 3hrs means that you are all working hard whilst your lunch is bubbling. If the food is worthy of the boss’ enjoyment, maybe they will be more amenable to ensuring that good facilities are available??

  • FF42

    Agreed, microwaved Indian and Chinese food is the best of a bland bunch. But I disagree that cooking it from scratch is boring or complicated. Stir fry is simplicity itself: you just need to make sure you cut whatever ingredients you use into the same sized chunks. Throw a chopped chilli pepper, star anise, bay leaf or whatever spice you use into the hot oil, then the ingredients in reverse order of speed of cooking. Hot flame and stir continuously to stop the dish burning. Two to five minutes and it’s done.

    • thomasaikenhead

      Great tip, thank you!

  • Fraser Bailey

    I thought this was going to be an article about the hell of other people eating porridge and such like in the office, which was only of the main reasons I decided to stop working in offices. Instead, it’s even more boring than the article I had anticipated.

  • RodCl

    Live in Canada so have to make do with Birds Custard Powder (which is not that much of a problem)
    It is so easy to make in a microwave, no lumps, no pan to clean up as you can make it in the serving tureen…..
    Stir thoroughly and pace in microwave for about 1 minute and 40 seconds. Remove and stir again thoroughly. Place back in the microwave for another 1 minute and 40 seconds. Check every 15 seconds for the start of boiling……or listen carefully to the microwave, when it starts to boil the sound changes

  • RodCl

    We live in Canada so have to make do with Birds Custard Powder (which is not that much of a problem)

    It is so easy to make in a microwave, no lumps, no pan to clean up as you can make it in the serving tureen…..

    For two people I stir thoroughly and pace in microwave for about 1 minute and 40 seconds. Remove and stir again thoroughly. Place back in the microwave for another 1 minute and 40 seconds. Check every 15 seconds for the start of boiling……or listen carefully to the microwave, when it starts to boil the sound changes. Probably due to resonance. This is subtle but you get used to it.
    The timing in the oven may depend on the quantity made.

  • you_kid

    No, dinners are not the worst – those god-awful assisted cooling air-con systems in fully climatically sealed office environments are far worse – spreading SARS, Ebola (sarc alert) or just the common infleunza, only because somewhere someone’s sprog had the flue at school a week earlier.

    Terrible design – stupid sheeple working in such environments without knowing or complaining about it.

  • thomasaikenhead

    “I think I may just have talked myself back into doing a bit more cooking again.”

    Yes, you did, and there is a wonderful world of quick, cheap, tasty and healthy meals for you to explore and, more importantly, to enjoy?

  • thomasaikenhead

    Have a look at the blog ‘The Skint Foodie’, in particular the section:

    ‘Mid-week meals for the time-poor’?

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