Two-tier food, a reality

Ready-to-eat foods are gaining in popularity. However, you have to be willing to pay top dollar for quality.

No time to cook, a budget to follow, lack of culinary know-how… the remarkable increase in sales of ready-to-eat foods, in whole or in part, is proof that consumers are looking for reasonably priced solutions.

Many people find it hard to eat well, despite an unprecedented food supply. If the wealthiest can buy quality meals at the grocery, the poorest have to settle for lower quality and much less nutritious products.

Cooking meals in a chore, really?!

Some frozen food companies, ready-to-eat meal companies and fast food restaurants spend a fortune trying to convince us that cooking is a chore. Ads in many magazines and on TV praise their meal solutions while disparaging homemade meals, stressing the overwhelming burden of working parents, the tears of their starving kids and the time-consuming complexity of the process: shopping, preparation, cooking, etc. To listen to them, we have no energy left to make an entire dinner after a long day of work, let alone peel potatoes.

It’s cause for concern that most food products promoted in prime time advertising are not found in Canada’s Food Guide… My question: why do we always hear about meal nightmares and rarely about the notions of pleasure, sharing and quality of the time spent making meals and appreciating them with those we love? Likely because it’s more marketable and the underlying fact is that they are selling something.


To answer this question, we have to examine data from the Montreal Diet Dispensary (MDD). Every year for more than 50 years, this renowned charity has established the Nutritious Food Basket (NFB), that is the list of foods required to meet the needs of all individuals at the best cost possible, nutritional needs of individuals according to their age, gender and special needs (eg. pregnancy).

In 2005, the MDD conducted a study in several Montreal neighbourhoods, in collaboration with the Director of Public Health of Montreal. It found that it cost a minimum of $154.26 every week to feed a family of four (two adults and two children aged 14 and 9), or $5.50 per person per day. First shocking revelation, the price of food varies from one neighbourhood to the next. The difference could be up to $56 per week for a family, an enormous amount for a low-income household. Another observation: the more the size of a store decreases, the more the cost of shopping increases. Superstores give you more bang for your buck (although, in the study, there was less of a benefit in disadvantaged areas).

The remarkable variety of ready-to-eat products

  • The food industry has long monitored the “new needs” of consumers and taken advantage of our hectic lifestyles to offer us a range of prepared foods as a solution to our problem of lack of time, ideas or energy.
  • Between 1986 and 2001, the consumption of pre-cooked meals (chicken or fish nuggets, pizza, pasta, quiche, etc.) rose 470%! From 2001 to 2005, the sale of convenience food experienced an astronomical surge in popularity: refrigerated soup (+ 615%), refrigerated pasta sauce (+166%), prepackaged frozen patties (+147%), refrigerated entrées (+126%), seafood-based frozen food and meals (+53%), frozen food and meals (+41%). Sure, they save us time, but not money.

An even more expensive grocery cart

It is not surprising that the cost of a NFB will go up again. Unfortunately, the outlook for the coming year is more increases, even for staple foods, such as milk, rice, wheat (flour, bread, pasta) and legumes (soy, lentils). The reasons? Rising oil prices, diverting food for biofuel production to the detriment of the food supply, climate changes leading to significant crop losses…

Result: in 2012, the cost of a nutritious food basket reached a record $214 per week for a family of four (or $7.65 per person per day), a 39% increase from 2005.

Health experts are worried. MDD Executive Director Marie-Paule Duquette knows her clients’ limits: “Low-income families can only devote 19% of their budget to food. However, to meet their nutritional needs, they should be allocating more than 40%, which is practically impossible given other expenses, such as housing and clothing. The minimum cost of a nutritious food basket is much more than most people can afford.”

We hear the same story from Adam Drewnowski who heads the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington. This world-renowned leader in the prevention and treatment of obesity affirms there are three ingredients to a healthy diet: time, money and know-how. “It can work if you have money. You can also manage if you have time and know-how. But, in a recession, it is very worrisome to see a population with no money or know-how.”

Valuable know-how

  • To eat healthy and not spend a lot of money, know-how means at least one family member has the skills required to plan and cook all the meals, seven days a week. This person has to prepare menus using staple ingredients, such as turkey or whole chicken, fish and economical cuts of meat, vegetables in season, overripe fruit that is on sale, homemade desserts made with eggs and milk, etc. It’s a good idea to be aware of and appreciate the variety of legumes available, such as lentils, beans and peas. The cook does not have a lot of flexibility to take into account what ingredients are used, treats and the food likes/dislikes of each family member.
  • In focus groups led by the Montreal Diet Dispensary, low-income families with young children who cook, or say they do, rarely eat out in restaurants and rarely consume ready-to-eat meals. However, if the couple works, the family buys more prepared meals and eats out in restaurants more often. Those who cook do so out of necessity.
  • This daily task, which demands a lot of resourcefulness and creativity, is made all the more difficult by a lack of culinary expertise and budget constraints. Hats off to those who know how to cope under these conditions and who, despite everything, feel empowered by one short phrase coming out of their kids’ mouths, “It’s good, Mom!”

One aisle for the rich, another for the poor?

In Montreal grocery stores, I often compare the cost per serving, the list of ingredients, as well as the nutritional profile of popular processed foods, such as certain frozen meals and prepared desserts. My unscientific studies revealed the best choices on the nutritional plan:

A/ ...contained interesting nutrients, such as protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals;

B/ ...were less rich and contained better types of fat;

C/ ...contained fewer additives.

However, they were at least 50% more expensive and their price could even be double that of food of lesser quality! This difference in price and quality becomes very relevant when you are feeding an entire family, especially if these foods are consumed on a regular basis.

It’s inevitable: the consumer has to shell out to get the equivalent of a home-cooked meal.

The expression “two-tier food” means nutritious meal solutions that presumably taste better for the wealthy and meals made from less desirable ingredients that are not as healthy for those with low incomes.

“So many reasons led us to offer a support service to ease access to fresh produce, such as low-cost fruit and vegetables, in poor neighbourhoods not well served by food retailers,” adds nutritionist Lise Bertrand from the Director of Public Health. “We applaud the growth of small public markets around the island of Montreal and beyond. Then there’s the Fruixi bike carrier service, fruit kiosks on wheels that travel through neighbourhoods offering top quality local produce at reasonable prices during the summer months. And it works!”

Back to basics

Everybody wants to simply their life. However, when you think about it, staple foods available in Canada are of good quality, readily available and at relatively modest prices. Think of all the good nutrients provided by our many fruits and vegetables, cereals, eggs, dairy products, legumes, meats and poultry …

Too often, we overestimate the time it will take to make a simple meal. One thing is certain: the less you cook, the more complicated it seems. If you spend twenty hours in front of a television per week, why not spend some of that time in the kitchen? You may remember a commercial a few years back, in which a man asks his wife how to make an omelet. She tells him, “Well, it takes eggs and mushrooms!” It’s as simple as that.

Hélène Laurendeau

A nutrition and health enthusiast who loves to share: this description fits Hélène Laurendeau to a tee. She has been active for more than 25 years in the media and communications field. Nutritionist, host, columnist, author and speaker, Hélène holds a Bachelor degree in Nutrition and a Master degree in Epidemiology. She has spread her knowledge alongside Ricardo every week since 2005, as part of his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé, as well as in Ricardo magazine, where she pens the Bien se nourrir (Eating Well) column.