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Curry and convenience: taking the heat out of busy lives

Updated Thursday, 5th March 2009

Has Britain become a nation content to survive on food chosen for convenience?

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Takeaway curry dishes Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Joseph Gough | For a little money, a takeaway curry It’s not surprising that the Money Programme has chosen to highlight the importance of the curry industry to the UK’s economy. Across Britain, Indian food has become a mainstay of consumer meal choices, whether in the form of takeaway food, chilled ready meals or the dining experience offered by Tiffinbites.

In her article on food acculturation (what happens when individuals with different food cultures come into contact, and create changes in the original food culture pattern of the people concerned), food researcher Janet Mitchell rightly pointed out that while British food is traditionally seen as sausages, joints of beef, stews and pies, the reality is that new dishes have replaced the old. What was once seen as ‘foreign’ food is no longer classed as exotic or unusual.

What was once seen as ‘foreign’ food is no longer classed as exotic or unusual

Back in 2003, a BBC survey of the nation’s 10 favourite dinners revealed curry and rice and spaghetti bolognaise to be the country’s most loved meals. When it came to the list of favourite convenience foods, most of the dishes mentioned were also of ethnic origin, particularly Indian food. The transfer of immigrant dishes to a host culture depends upon a number of things, which not only include the availability of the ingredients in shops, but also factors such as the popularization of dishes in restaurants, the influence of the media, and the social ‘rules’ associated with eating at home.

In Western society we lead increasingly busy lives, and as we search for solutions to the time pressures of work and home, many of us have used convenience products to help manage our lives. Convenience food has enabled consumers to cope with the conflict and tensions that sometimes arise between preparing food from scratch and ‘fast food’. Recognising the many roles that women and men have to manage inside and outside the home today, marketers have responded by developing a range of convenience foods that take away some of the pressures we face around mealtimes and eating.

However, convenience food, such as the Indian takeaways, chilled ready meals, and dining out options mentioned in the Money Programme do more than ‘save time’ for consumers. In the past, convenience food was considered to be a poor substitute for ‘proper’ food, however research shows a far broader acceptance of convenience food today, albeit one that varies from country to country.

Studies in the Netherlands found convenience food is a regular part of everyday meals, in Italy it is seen as a good quality shortcut to delivering traditional family meals, and for the UK and Ireland, takeaway is often used as a treat for the family, especially at weekends.

Consumer behaviour theory tells us that food and its consumption play an important part in the construction of our identities. It creates part of the image we like to portray to other people and how we see ourselves. However, convenience foods have not been something that people have always wanted to be associated with since they are seen as contributing to an unhealthy lifestyle.

Organisations such as the Food Commission, who campaign for wholesome food, suggest many are high in sugar, salt, saturated fat and additives, all of which are considered to be contributors to the increasing incidence of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. However, some marketers have successfully repositioned many of their products to reflect greater tradition and quality. As the Money Programme demonstrates, the Tiffinbites selling point of “less than 10% fat” is targeted at the health conscious eater, as their cooking process uses little oil, no ghee, lean meat, and fresh spices.

Broader foreign travel and experience has evolved more adventurous food preferences among many consumers, and homemade is no longer viewed as ‘authentic’ compared to the convenience versions of various ethnic foods. Even the celebrity chefs recommend convenience solutions to home cooking, with Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food cookbook highlighting Patak’s curry pastes.

Food is a key part of our leisure time, and although cooking is still popular, it can be at odds with our desire for convenience or intentions to make ethical or healthy choices. Most family meals are still eaten together, but the increasing popularity of convenience food, snacking and eating out, and the decline in cooking skills and knowledge among UK consumers, has led to concerns about the demise of the family meal.

However, recent research that we have done has shown that in fact many convenience foods on the market today enable consumers to balance busy lives while creating wholesome, nutritionally balanced meals. Convenience foods take away much of the unpleasantness of preparation, remove the need for special skills, and the increased sophistication of the convenience sector in the UK. This is illustrated by Pataks, Noon Products and Tiffinbites, and has reduced perceptual barriers to convenience food for busy people.

We can now substitute the more time consuming stages of a meal with convenience ingredients, reassured that making that choice doesn’t compromise the quality of the end result. We may not always eat a proper meal, but convenience food allows us to eat properly.


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