'Ready to cook' is the new convenience food. The meals come from the supermarket with the vast majority of the preparation done, so you can technically cook your own food, but without the faff. They don't have quite the convenience of a ready-meal, but then they go through fewer manufacturing processes, and tend to come complete with fewer additives, so we can feel less guilty about our convenience habits.
These ranges include everything from chopped, mixed vegetables - ready to stir fry, to basted joints of meat, in their own metal roasting tray. There has also been a boom in kits that contain all the meat, vegetables, carbohydrates and spices you need - so you simply assemble it according to the instructions - and have what's essentially a meal cooked from scratch, without any bother.
They are available in the chilled section of the supermarket, and Hello Fresh has also established a booming business - delivering boxes containing everything needed for a number of meals.
They appeal to time-poor households, because you can come in from work, and just bung something in the oven, without any preparation. They also appeal to those who don't have the energy for following recipes and buying lots of separate ingredients.
Sales figures would seem to indicate that we're convinced of their appeal. Last year it emerged that sales were up 8% in a year - growing at twice the rate of ready meals.
The only catch is that we pay dearly for convenience combined with freshness. Hello Fresh, for example, has a tie-up with Sainsbury's where you can pick up a box for two people for £10.
Tesco's range costs between £7 and £9 for two people. And Aldi recently entered the market with an impressive range for just £2.99 for two - which it says can save 71% if you usually get your ready-to-cook meals from Hello Fresh.
It means that you'll pay between £1.50 and £5 per person, per meal, for a 'ready to cook' meal.
You only have to glance at the boxes of any of these items to realise that you are paying someone else to slice your carrots and spring onions, portion everything up in the packaging, and sell it to you.
If you compare the price of whole chickens in Tesco, you can see you're paying up to £1 more for someone to baste it in butter, and seal it in the kind of bag you can cook it in.
Even the Aldi range can be beaten on price with incredibly little effort. Take a chicken stir fry, for example, you can buy the ingredients for four people from Aldi for a fraction of the cost - including chicken breasts, noodles, carrots, onions, garlic, oil, soy sauce and babycorn - for just over £1 each.
A far cheaper option is to actually cook from scratch. Ideally you can cook up batches at the weekend, and freeze them, so you have healthy, convenient meals for a fraction of the price.
The question is whether you can make enough space in your life to do this - or whether you would rather settle for the extra additives, or pay up to five times more for a 'ready to cook' range.
Save money on shopping: ten great tricks
Save money on shopping: ten great tricks
The more work you are prepared to put in, the more you stand to save. If you put your shopping list into mysupermarket.com, you can identify where each individual items is cheapest, and can technically buy every single item at its lowest possible price.
If that sounds a bit too much like hard work, a reasonable compromise is to shop at two supermarkets: once at the weekend and once mid-week. You can buy each item at the cheapest of the two shops, and save money without devoting hours to shopping.
There are several deal-sharing sites, including hotukdeals.com and latestdeals.co.uk. Most of them have a ‘freebies’ section, where you can get items completely free, and all have a section where they post fantastic deals that are well worth taking advantage of.
They will often point the way to coupons for brilliant discounts too.
The more time you have spare to spend looking for these, the more you can save.
It’s worth following your favourite brands on Facebook or Twitter. It’s also important to pick up in-house magazines, try your free local paper, and check any letters from supermarket loyalty schemes for your vouchers. If you have a Nectar card, visit the website before you shop, so you can upload the latest deals to your card.
While you’re in-store, keep your eyes peeled for promotions on packets, and on receipts. Often the deal-hunting websites will offer a short cut to many of these, but if you have the opportunity to do some legwork, you will find plenty of others.
Compare the price of your branded goods (after you use the coupon) with the cheapest supermarket alternative. If the discount makes it the cheapest option, then feel free to use it immediately.
However, if it doesn’t bring the price down below the own brand price, then don't throw it away. Hang onto the coupon, and check Mysuupermarket.com every few days to see if there’s an offer running on the brand at any time before the coupon expires. A deal plus a coupon is often the cheapest option.
Prices change all the time, but it pays to have a shopping list annotated with the usual price - or an old receipt - on hand when you are shopping. When something is on sale, compare it to the usual selling price from your list, to decide if it’s really as good value as it purports to be.
The frugal experts have decent storage areas at home, so if there’s a very special deal on washing powder or toilet paper, tins or toiletries, they can stock up for a few months at a knock-down price. It’s not generally worth doing on fresh produce, or packets with a short shelf life though, because throwing something away that’s out of date will undo all of your good work.
There can be some incredible bargains in the ‘yellow sticker’ sections of the supermarket. Most stores will have a spot for fruit and vegetable reductions, somewhere for chilled food price cuts, one for bakery products, and a final one for those with a longer shelf life that may be a bit battered, or separated from the outer packaging. Check them all for a possible discount.
The ’yellow sticker’ items will usually be reduced at least twice a day: once in the afternoon and once later in the evening. If you can wait to shop at around 7.30pm or 8pm you can get astonishing discounts.
If you want to time your shop exactly, then your best bet is to ask in store when they do their final reductions - don't be shy!
Get to know the rules around freezing ‘yellow sticker’ items, so you can buy when they are cheapest and use over the following weeks and months.
Don't assume something is perishable without checking. Everything from cheese to beansprouts is fine to freeze as long as you treat them correctly (beansprouts need blanching, chilling in ice water, and freezing immediately).
It’s never worth buying something just because it’s cheap: you also have to be able to factor it into your life. If you can't immediately think how you would use that over-ripe avocado, a pack of cut-price tongue or kippers, then don't buy them.