Which is better for the environment? Is it home-made meals that use fresh ingredients? Ready-made meals? And within ready-made meals which makes the most sense environmentally: chilled or frozen?
Home-made vs Ready-made
There's a life cycle assessment that looks at exactly this, it's called "Life cycle environmental impacts of convenience food: Comparison of ready and home-made meals." The authors research a variety of scenarios (organic vs conventionally farmed ingredients, tomatoes from Spain vs from the UK, and Brazilian chicken vs British chicken). Their research concludes that home-made meals have a lower environmental impact than the equivalent ready-made meal. More specifically, home-made meals had a lower impact for 10 out of 11 environmental impacts. This is because of the avoidance of meal manufacturing, reduced waste and reduced need for storage and refrigeration along the life cycle of home-made meals. The only impact that home-made meals fared worse in was marine aquatic eco-toxicity potential because of the higher electricity consumption for preparing a home meal in comparison to a ready-made meal.
Ready-made: Chilled vs Frozen
Then, taking a deeper look at ready-made meals we see a difference between chilled and frozen meals. If you really wanted to eat a ready-made meal (which is of course, totally understandable!) then the best one for the environment would be a frozen meal that was prepared using fresh ingredients and heated at home using a microwave. The least environmentally friendly option would be to buy a frozen meal made with frozen ingredients (that means that it is frozen in the pre-processing stage before the manufacturing stage) and to heat it with an electric oven. It's also not the best to heat a chilled meal with an electric oven - it's better to use a microwave. In general, the real culprit behind frozen meals and chilled ready-made meals is the type of refrigerant used in the supply chain. It has a huge impact on global warming potential and ozone layer depletion compared to fresh meals, which don't need as much ammonia during manufacturing and transport before reaching supermarkets.
A fun fact when comparing frozen vs chilled ready-made meals is that the refrigeration of chilled meals has a larger impact than the freezing of frozen meals. This is because retailers have open refrigerators for chilled meals instead of the closed display cabinets used for frozen meals, leading to more refrigerant consumption and leakage at the retailer level.
- Home-made is always better. However, it would be EVEN BETTER if we cooked our home-made meals in a microwave instead of in the oven or on the hob. This would be a radical change in the way we cook and would affect the taste of our food so it's not the most practical solution.
- Frozen meals are better than chilled ready-made meals IF they use fresh ingredients (not frozen from the get-go) and are heated in a microwave.
- A final thing we should try and remember is how to store our food properly and reduce wastage. Yes, it's better to eat fresh home-made meals BUT if we're not storing our food correctly and letting most of it spoil then that defeats the purpose. Learn more about how to store your fresh ingredients with Love Food, Hate Waste.