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  • J Food Sci Technol
  • v.53(2); 2016 Feb

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Ready-to-cook fresh meal: study for shelf life prolongation

A. l. incoronato.

Services Center of Applied Research, University of Foggia, via Napoli, 25, 71122 Foggia, Italy

D. Gammariello

M. a. del nobile.

In this study, to preserve the quality of a fresh meal based on a mix of meatballs and semi-dry vegetables, two main strategies were combined: during process the meat before grinding was dipped in sodium lactate and during packaging different modified atmospheres were applied (30:70 CO 2 :N 2 , 70:30 CO 2 :O 2 , 5:5:90 O 2 :CO 2 :N 2 ). The parameters monitored during the storage at 4 °C were the headspace gas composition, the microbial loads (Total viable count, Pseudomonas spp., lactic acid bacteria and Enterobacteriaceae ), the pH and the sensory quality. Overall, the results indicate that the sodium lactate acted in synergy with MAP improving above all the microbial quality. A significant shelf life prolongation was obtained with 30 % CO 2 in the package, corresponding to a 168 % shelf life increase compared to the control sample in air.


The demand for ready-to-eat or ready-to-cook food is rising due to changing in lifestyle. To cater this need, a range of chilled food products is being introduced in the market continually. Ready-to-cook products are developed by food companies to answer the need of fast preparation; consumers desire high quality, health-conscious products, quickly prepared meal to enjoy at home or office. However, maintenance of quality of complex food dishes is of key importance for success of this sector (Adetunji and Odetokun 2012 ). These products are generally characterized by short shelf life, being good substrates for microbial proliferation. Bacterial growth, color changes and lipid oxidation are to date well-recognized factors responsible for fresh meat and poultry acceptance (Zhao et al. 1994 ). Such parameters may be successfully controlled by modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), being considered by meat industries a valid solution to keep the quality characteristics of meat and meat-derived products. Among microorganisms, MAP affects above-all aerobic Gram-negative bacteria (Gill and Tan 1980 ; Deak and Beuchat 1996 ) but generally, for meat-based products the best effects of MAP on spoilage were recorded when it was combined with active substances applied during process (Gammariello et al. 2014 ; Irkin and Esmer 2010 ; Karabagias et al. 2011 ; Mastromatteo et al. 2011 ; Muhlisin Sun et al. 2013 ).

The use of natural antibacterial compounds, such as extracts of spices and herbs, essential oils, organic acids, salts and bacteriocins is widely reported in the literature to improve food shelf life (Jałosińska and Wilczak 2009 ; Jamilah et al. 2008 ). Since microbial growth occurs primarily on meat surface, many attempts have been made to delay spoilage with organic acids applied by spraying or dipping (Dickson and Anderson 1992 ; Kochevar et al. 1997 ; Hardin et al. 1995 ). Organic acids and their salts are GRAS compounds and approved for use as acidifiers in various meat products (USDA-Food Safety and Inspection Service 1995 ). The acid penetrates the cell of microorganism by means of diffusion and then dissociates and acidifies the cell interior, thus interfering with cellular metabolism or decreasing the biological activity due to pH changes of cell environment (Cherrington et al. 1991 ). Among the acids, many researches have been carried out on lactic acid and their salts (lactates) because it is proved that sodium lactate could improve flavor, color, tenderness, juiciness and cooking yields of ground beef and other meat products (Maca et al. 1997 ). Sodium lactate has been also shown to delay spoilage (Maca et al. 1999 ; Vasavada et al. 2003 ) and pathogens (Mbandi and Shelef 2001 ) in meat.

Considering that sanitation of meat surface prior to grinding or prior to the production of batters may improve microbial control, the objective of this research was to evaluate the influence of sodium lactate applied before processing the meatballs on microbial and sensory quality of a ready-to-cook meal prepared with meat and semi-dry vegetables, then stored under MAP conditions.

Materials and methods

Samples preparation.

A ready-to-cook meal was made up at a laboratory scale with pork ham processed in raw meatballs and semi-dry vegetables (zucchini, peppers and tomatoes). Sodium-lactate (sodium salt of lactic acid, 60 % w / w ) (Giusto Faravelli Spa, Milano, Italy) was used to pre-treat meat before processing and different MAP conditions were applied during packaging. Meat was provided by a meat company, Dodaro Spa (Spezzano Albanese, Cs, Italy) and transported to the laboratory in polystyrene boxes with an appropriate quantity of flaked ice. Semi-dry vegetables were purchased from a local company, Fiordelisi (Fiordelisi srl, Stornarella, Fg, Italy), and transported to the laboratory in boxes. Meat was cut into approximately 30 or 40 g pieces that were divided into five batches. The pieces were treated by dipping for 10 min in pre-chilled (4 °C) aqueous solution of sodium lactate. After 10 min of dipping, meat pieces were allowed to drain for a few seconds to remove excess of solution, on a sterile stainless wire mesh screen at ambient temperature. Untreated samples were dipped in sterile water and were used as the control. All the meat pieces from each batch were ground separately using a meat grinder (Everest, Sberlati & C. s.n.c., Rimini, Italy) equipped with a 4 mm grinding plate. Before use, all metal parts of the meat grinder were also dipped in aqueous solution of sodium lactate for 25 min. Sodium chloride (1 %), cheese (3 %), grated bread (3.5 %), garlic (0.03 %), parsley (2 %) and white bread (10 %) with the addition of milk (20 %), all purchased from a local market, were added to the meat mixture. All ingredients were mixed with a food processor (Multichef, Ariete, Firenze, Italy) for 4–5 min and a homogeneous emulsion-type raw batter was obtained. Subsequently, meatballs were prepared (10 ± 1 g) and then dipped in a batter with distilled water (145 ml water/100 g batter) (CZN0300WA, Spichem, Milan, Italy). The samples were allowed to drain for 10 s to remove excess of batter and then coated in grated bread.

Semi-dry vegetables were seasoned with sodium chloride (0,72 % w / w ), garlic (0,44 % w / w ) and parsley (0,56 % w / w ). The seasoned vegetables were left at room temperature for about 2 h in order to allow the uniform distribution of the ingredients. For packaging, 4 meatballs and 50 g of seasoned vegetable were placed into a tray and packaged in bags hermetically sealed and stored at 4 ± 1 °C. The bags were 220 × 320 mm long, and they are constituted by an anti-fog high-barrier multilayer film made up of polyethylene-terephthalate, ethylene-vinyl alcohol and polyethylene, with oxygen transmission rate (OTR) 2.64 ± 0.12 cm 3 /m 2  day, carbon dioxide transmission rate (CDTR) 2.5 ± 0.01 cm 3 /m 2  day at 23 °C and 0 % RH and water vapor transmission rate (WVTR) 0.69 ± 0.01 g/m 2  day at 23 °C and 90 % RH, thickness 90 μm, kindly provided by Di Mauro (Officine Grafiche spa, Salerno, Italy).

Three gas mixtures were used: 30:70 (CO 2 :N 2 ) (SL-MAP30), 70:30 (CO 2 :O 2 ) (SL-MAP70) and 5: 5:90 (O 2 :CO 2 :N 2 ) (SL-MAP5), by means of a gas mixer (PBI-Dansensor Model 9000, Ringsted, Denmark). Pouches were heat-sealed by means of a packaging machine (S100-Tecnovac equipment, Bergamo, Italy) connected to the gas mixer. NA-lactate-free samples packaged under ordinary atmosphere (CNT-OA), together with treated samples packaged in air (SL-OA) were also prepared as the references.

Two samples for each treatment were randomly removed from the refrigerator at different storage times and tested for microbiological quality, pH measurement, determination of headspace gas composition and sensory properties.

Gas composition of the package headspace

Prior to opening the bags, headspace gas composition was determined by using a Checkmate 9900 gas analyzer (PBI Dansensor, Ringsted, Denmark). The volume taken from the package headspace for gas analysis was about 10 cm 3 . To avoid modifications in the headspace gas composition due to gas sampling, each package was used only for a single determination of the headspace gas composition.

Microbiological analyses and pH determination

Samples of 25 g (each consisting of equal amounts of both meat and vegetable pieces) were aseptically removed from the bags transferred into a Stomacher bag and homogenized for 3 min (Stomacher LAB Blender 400, Pbi International, Milan, Italy) containing 225 ml sterile peptone solution (Oxoid, Milan, Italy). Further decimal serial dilutions were prepared from this homogenate in the same sterile diluents and these were subsequently used for enumeration and differentiation of microorganisms. Total aerobic bacteria (TAB) were determined using Plate Count Agar after incubation for 48 h at 30 °C. Pseudomonas spp. were enumerated on Pseudomonas Agar Base supplemented with cetrimide, fucidine and cephaloridine (CFC) supplements providing a selective isolation medium for Pseudomonas spp. Colonies were counted after 48 h at 25 °C. Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) were enumerated by the pour plating technique on de Man Rogosa Sharpe agar and incubated under anaerobiosis at 30 °C for 48 h. Enterobacteriaceae counts were enumerated by the pour plating technique on Violet Red Bile Glucose Agar after incubation at 37 °C for 24 h. Media and supplements for the microbiological analyses were procured from Oxoid (Milan, Italy). The microbiological analyses were carried out twice on two different batches. The results were expressed as the logarithm of the colony forming units for gram (log cfu/g).

In order to determine the microbiological acceptability limit (MAL defined as the time at which the microbial loads reached the maximum value permitted), the re-parameterized version of the Gompertz equation was fitted to the total aerobic bacterial data (TAB), according to a similar approach also used in previous works dealing with shelf life of meat (Mastromatteo et al. 2011 ; Del Nobile et al. 2009 ). For TAB count the critical limit was set to 5x10 6 cfu/g referred to the 94/65 EC and 2073/2005 EC regulations (EC 1994 ; EC 2005 ).

The pH value was recorded on each sampling day using a pH meter (Crison Instruments model 2001, Barcelona, Spain). The pH determination, conducted twice, was performed on the first homogenized dilution of each sample.

Sensory analysis

A panel of seven experienced judges was used to evaluate color, odor and overall quality of raw samples on an 8-point scale (Das et al. 2008 ). Samples with a score equal or higher than 4 were considered acceptable. A re-parameterized Gompertz equation was fitted to the sensory data (Mastromatteo et al. 2011 ; Del Nobile et al. 2009 ) to allow calculating the sensory acceptability limit (SAL), defined as the time at which the overall quality of product reached the threshold (score = 4).

Shelf life calculation

The shelf life was calculated as the lowest value between MAL and SAL. In fact, it is the time at which one of the meat quality sub-indices reaches its threshold (Mastromatteo et al. 2011 ).

Statistical analysis

Experimental data were compared by one-way Anova analysis. A Duncan’s multiple range test, with the option of homogeneous groups ( P  < 0.05), was used to determine significance among differences. To this aim, Statistica 7.1 for Windows 152 (StatSoft Inc., Tulsa, OK, USA) was used.

Results and Discussion

Microbiological quality of ready-to-cook samples.

The MAL values related to TAB for each sample are listed in the Table ​ Table1. 1 . Data emphasize that the microbial quality limited the shelf life of this ready-to-cook meal. As an example, Fig. ​ Fig.1 1 shows the evolution of TAB plotted as a function of storage time for all the tested samples. For the control samples, a steady increase in the viable cell concentration was observed during the storage period, thus reaching the threshold after about 2 days. Afterwards, cell counts remained practically constant, with a cell population accounting for about 8.62 log cfu/g. As can be inferred from data shown in the Fig. ​ Fig.1, 1 , the presence of the sodium lactate (SL-OA) slowed down TAB growth, if compared to the control sample. The addition of Na-lactate inhibited their growth of about 1 log cycle from the first day of storage; subsequently, this log reduction was more marked after the second day. In fact, treated samples recorded a MAL value of 4.76 days. After this period, the cell load increased and reached values higher than 8.6 log cfu/g at 7th day of storage similarly to the control. As can be seen in the Fig. ​ Fig.1, 1 , the combination of MAP and lactate had an inhibitor effect on TAB cell load. In fact, all investigated active samples showed a significant prolongation of the microbial lag phase, as well as a substantial reduction of the final loads attained in the stationary phase in comparison with the control sample. In particular, the best result was achieved by the SL-MAP30 sample, which showed a MAL value of 6.21 days, whereas SL-MAP70 and SL-MAP5 samples obtained a value of 6.14 and 6.03 days, respectively. Data obtained were in agreement with those of the literature, concerning the use of sodium lactate in some meat products. Papadopoulos et al. ( 1991 ) reported that in cooked, vacuum-packaged beef, increasing levels of lactate resulted in lower total bacteria counts of roasts. Unda et al. ( 1991 ) observed that survival was considerably reduced in vacuum-packed beef roast when treated with brine containing 2 % lactate. The effects of lactate in combination with MAP were superior to the dipping of lactate. In particular, the effect of MAP SL-MAP30 was more effective than other MAP on reducing TAB. The observations above are in agreement with the results reported by other authors. Irkin and Esmer ( 2010 ) reported that the use of MAP (20 % CO 2 - 80 % N 2 ) without oxygen and with/without bay oil was the most effective one in controlling growth of Listeria monocytogenes and Escherichia coli and also to extend the shelf life of naturally contaminated ground chicken meat. Muhlisin Sun et al. ( 2013 ) also proposed use of MAP (30 % CO 2 - 70 % N 2 ) in combination with additives mixture (calcium lactate, sodium acetate and rosemary extract) to reduce aerobic and anaerobic bacteria counts and was effective for maintaining the quality and extending the shelf-life of pre-cooked hamburger patties.

Microbial acceptability limit (MAL), sensory acceptability limit (SAL) and shelf life (mean ± SD) of ready-to-cook meatballs mixed with semidry vegetables

a-c Data in each column with different letters are significantly different ( P  < 0.05)

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is 13197_2015_2136_Fig1_HTML.jpg

Evolution of total aerobic bacteria during storage. The curves are the best fit to the experimental data. CNT-OA (Na-lactate-free sample packaged under ordinary atmosphere); SL-OA (sample treated with Na-lactate 60 %, packaged in ordinary atmosphere); SL-MAP30 (sample treated with Na-lactate 60 %, packaged under MAP 30:70 CO 2 :N 2 ); SL-MAP70 (sample treated with Na-lactate 60 %, packaged under MAP 70:30 CO 2 :O 2 ); SL-MAP5 (sample treated with Na-lactate 60 %, packaged under MAP 5:5:90 O 2 : CO 2 :N 2 )

With regard to Pseudomonas spp., the bacteria were able to proliferate in the CNT-OA sample (data not shown). Their concentration increased from 10 3 to 10 7  cfu/g throughout the storage period. In general, for all the investigated samples with Na-lactate brought about a prolonged lag phase followed by an increase in cell numbers after 6 days of storage. Only for SL-MAP30 and SL-MAP70 samples, the cell load proliferated from 10 3 to 10 4  cfu/g during the 13 days monitoring period. Gram-negative bacteria are generally more sensitive to CO 2 than Gram-positive bacteria (Church 1994 ) because most Gram-positive bacteria are facultative or strict anaerobes (Gill and Tan 1980 ), but individual bacteria vary in sensitivity to CO 2 (Farber 1991 ). Lactic acid bacteria are facultative anaerobes, able to grow under high concentrations of CO 2 (Chouliara et al. 2007 ). These microorganisms constitute a substantial part of the natural microflora of meats (Karabagias et al. 2011 ). In addition, it has been documented that lactic acid bacteria dominated the microbial flora in sodium lactate treated beef during vacuum-packaged storage at 0 °C (Papadopoulos et al. 1991 ) as well as in frankfurter-type sausage treated with Na-lactate and stored at 0–4 °C (Zivkovic et al. 2002 ). In fact, in this study, the samples treated with sodium lactate and stored under MAP showed a steady rise over the storage time and the cell load was slightly lower with respect to that of CNT-OA sample. Only the SL-MAP70 sample showed a low contamination of LAB (data not shown). With respect to Enterobacteriaceae , considered as a hygiene indicator (Zeitoun et al. 1994 ), the trend was similar in CNT-OA and SL-OA with a gradual increase in the counts over the time (data not shown). The initial value of Enterobacteriaceae in all sample was about 1 log cfu/g (day 0), indicative of good quality meat products; the counts increased progressively in the samples packaged under ordinary atmosphere, reaching a value of 6.69 log cfu/g in CNT -OA and 6.32 log cfu/g in SL-OA (day 7). Afterwards, cell counts remained relatively stable, suggesting that the stationary phase has been attained. On the contrary, the samples SL-MAP30 and SL-MAP70 showed a reduced proliferation that remained practically constant until the 7th days. After this period, the viable cell concentration in SL-MAP30 slightly increased over storage period (3.41 log cfu/g), whereas in SL-MAP70 remained unchanged (1.54 log cfu/g). In contrast, the samples SL-MAP5 showed a prolonged lag phase followed by a continued increase in the viable cell concentration after 3rd days of storage, and then a viability loss of about 1 log cycle compared with the samples packaged under ordinary atmosphere, reaching a maximum concentration of about 6.4 log cfu/g at the end of the observation period. This limited growth of Enterobacteriaceae is in accordance with several authors who also reported similar behaviors in MAP packages where CO 2 was used at high levels (Bingol and Ergun 2011 ; Chouliara et al. 2007 ; Esmer et al. 2011 ; Karabagias et al. 2011 ). In addition, with regard to MAP, results of the present study are in agreement with those of Santos et al. ( 2005 ) who reported that Gram negative bacteria such as the Pseudomonads and Enterobacteriaceae are more sensitive to CO 2 than Gram positive bacteria such as LAB.

pH and headspace gas composition of ready-to-cook samples

The pH values did not change significantly during storage at 4 °C in all the active samples (data not shown). These results showed that, over the storage time, the addition of Na-lactate maintained the ready-to-cook meal at almost constant pH, while the value of CNT-OA sample slightly decreased (5.82–5.19) without any significant differences. Sodium lactate was reported to stabilize pH during storage and it is used as a pH control agent (Bingol and Bostan 2007 ; Maca et al. 1997 , 1999 ; Papadopoulos et al. 1991 ).

Headspace atmosphere did not undergo marked changes in composition throughout the storage period (data not shown), suggesting that the initial MAP conditions were protracted for the entire observation period, because of the high barrier properties of the packaging film.

Sensory quality of ready-to-cook samples

Figure ​ Figure2 2 gives the overall quality plotted as a function of storage time for all the samples during storage at 4 °C. The curves shown in the figure were obtained by the fitting to the experimental data, whereas the horizontal solid line is the sensory threshold. The values of SAL parameter are also listed in the second column of Table ​ Table1. 1 . As can be observed, the SAL values were statistically different and strongly affected by the combination of sodium lactate and MAP. It should be noted that the highest score of overall quality was awarded to the SL-MAP30 samples becoming unacceptable after almost 12.90 days, whereas CNT-OA samples were refused after 7.46 days. In particular, the odor was the sensory attribute that limited the overall quality of CNT-OA. The detected off-odors were mainly putrefactive and sour. The other samples received an acceptable sensory score for more than 12.66 and 10.54 days for SL-OA and SL-MAP5, respectively. The value of SL-MAP70 is significantly lower than that of other treated samples, with a SAL value less more than 6 days.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is 13197_2015_2136_Fig2_HTML.jpg

Evolution of the overall quality during storage. The curves are the best fit to the experimental data. CNT-OA (Na-lactate-free sample packaged under ordinary atmosphere); SL-OA (sample treated with Na-lactate 60 %, packaged in ordinary atmosphere); SL-MAP30 (sample treated with Na-lactate 60 %, packaged under MAP 30:70 CO 2 :N 2 ); SL-MAP70 (sample treated with Na-lactate 60 %, packaged under MAP 70:30 CO 2 :O 2 ); SL-MAP5 (sample treated with Na-lactate 60 %, packaged under MAP 5:5:90 O 2 : CO 2 :N 2 )

Shelf life of ready-to-cook samples

Wherever the overall quality of a fresh food product depends on several quality sub-indices, its shelf life represents the time at which one of them reaches its threshold. In the case under investigation, the shelf life of each tested sample was calculated as the lowest value between the MAL, evaluated on the basis of TAB, and SAL related to the overall quality (Table ​ (Table1). 1 ). As can be inferred from data, the microbial quality was always responsible for the product unacceptability. In particular, for all samples packaged under MAP condition a shelf life value more than 6 days was obtained compared to other samples packaged under ordinary atmosphere for which a shelf life value of about 2 days (CNT-OA) and less more than 4 days (SL-OA) was recorded. It should be noted that the highest score of shelf life was awarded to the SL-MAP30 sample that correspond to an increase of 168 %, compared with the shelf life of the CNT-OA sample. This suggests that the dipping process combined with MAP gradually reduced the final viable cell load of the ready-to-cook meal. In fact, the presence of sodium lactate alone did not affect significantly the shelf life, while the dipping of Na-lactate in synergy with the MAP 30:70 (CO 2 :N 2 ) inhibited microbial growth. Therefore, the treatment significantly extended the shelf life of meatballs with vegetables and considering the highly perishable character of processed meat the results could be of great relevance for the industrial sector of ready-to-cook fresh meals.


The mix of meatballs and semi-dry vegetables represents a new product, with high convenience quality and suitable to modern consumer satisfaction, being a strategic solution to overcome the barrier of time-consuming meal. Beyond the convenience, the work demonstrates a valid way to extend the shelf life of the ready-to-cook fresh meal by the use of sodium lactate in combination with MAP. Results highlighted the possibility to extend the microbial acceptability limit of the meal from less than 3 days to more than 6 days, thus confirming the effectiveness of treatments that are easy to be applied and not expensive for future industrial applications.


This work was financially supported by Ministero dell’Economia e delle Finanze, Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca Scientifica e Tecnologica e l’Assessorato Bilancio e Programmazione Regione Puglia by the programme PON 01_01409 – Innovazione di processo e di prodotto per incrementare i profili di sicurezza e per diversificare la gamma dei prodotti (freschi e stagionati) a base di carne suina (SAFEMEAT).

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Ready-to-Cook Foods

Raw, ready to cook foods have been identified as the cause of several foodborne disease outbreaks.

From: Encyclopedia of Food Safety , 2014

Related terms:

Food packaging

R.K. Gupta , P. Dudeja , in Food Safety in the 21st Century , 2017

46.8.2 Aluminum

Aluminum is the most abundant metal on earth. It is light weight, lustrous, reasonably strong, long lasting, and recyclable. It has good barrier properties. It is used for making cans, metallic trays, and forms for ready-to-cook food that are resistant for high and low temperatures, thus can be used for frozen and heated meals. Aluminum can be used as foils for direct food packaging and also for lamination of paper or plastic for better strength, heat stability and barrier against moisture, oils, air, and odors. These are commonly used for packaging soups, herbs, and spices.

Sorghum Grain in Food and Brewing Industry

C. Aruna , K.B.R.S. Visarada , in Breeding Sorghum for Diverse End Uses , 2019

Sorghum is consumed as food and beer in many parts of the world, traditionally in Africa, China, and India, and recently in the United States. Food items are regional-specific and traditional, whereas brewing is universal. Recently the demand for ready-to-eat/ ready-to-cook foods is in rapid rise because of the convenience attached to their utilization. Grain sorghum is the raw material for the above uses, and the quality of grain decides the role in preparation of specific products. As the specific quality requirements for each of the end use is different, there is a need to breed for specific end uses for economic product development. Availability of the raw material with quality grain is the most important aspect. Continuous supply of identity-preserved genotypes encourages the entrepreneurs and industry in establishing sorghum as an industrial crop. Although some end-use specific traits have been identified with a few corresponding genotypes, a dedicated breeding program necessitates the requirement. Apart from this, partnerships between government and stake holders to support farmers and a favorable policy ensuring benefit to small holding farmers, entrepreneurs, and consumers would help in establishing sorghum as a remunerative industrial crop.

Recycled plastics for food applications: improving safety and quality

V. Komolprasert , A. Bailey , in Environmentally Compatible Food Packaging , 2008

13.2 Plastic food packaging and the environment

Plastics were originally developed as synthetic substitutes for natural materials, such as rubber, wood, and metals. Over the last several decades, research in this area has made numerous advances toward development of new plastics for a variety of end-use applications. Plastics are used to manufacture an endless number of relatively inexpensive consumer products, such as household goods, toys, and food packaging. In turn, we have become so accustomed to the ubiquitous presence of plastics that it is difficult to envision our life without plastics.

Advances in the development of new packaging materials and processes have shaped the way we package, deliver, and consume products ( Komolprasert 2006 ). The emergence of fast-food outlets in the 1950s and their ever increasing popularity have created a demand for new kinds of packaging, including disposable single-serve packaging and bulk packaging for ready-to-cook food portions. As thermoplastics became more readily available, the 1960s marked the growth of convenience and prepared food packages. However, as the use of plastics has increased, so has the consumer's concern about the environmental costs and benefits associated with the use of plastics. In particular, the use of plastics has enabled the replacement of natural materials as well as the development of innumerable disposable products, such as plastic packaging, and as a consequence there are environmental impacts associated with the production and disposal of plastics. Plastics generally do not biodegrade quickly and remain in the environment for a very long time.

Over the last several years, the plastics industry has adopted various approaches to plastics recycling in an effort to mitigate the solid waste concerns. The early 1990s marked the emergence of plastic recycling which has become one successful remedy to the increased generation of solid waste that would normally be disposed of in landfills. Based on the United States Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA 2005 ) report, the United States produced more than 245 million tons (M tons) of municipal solid waste (MSW), a decrease of nearly 2 M tons from 2004. This decrease has been attributed, in part, to the decline in individual waste generation to about 4.5 pounds per person per day (lbs/p/d) and an increase in individual recycling of nearly 1.5 lbs/p/d. The EPA (2005) reported that recycling, including composting, diverted 79 M tons of material away from disposal in 2005, up from 15 M tons in 1980, when the recycle rate was just 10% and 90% of MSW was being burned with energy recovery or was disposed of by landfilling. The recycling trends across the board are generally up with container and packaging recycling increased to 40%. Among the materials recycled, paper was recycled at a rate of 50%, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soft drink bottles at 32%, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) milk bottles at a rate of 29%.

Food Safety Management

D. McCrea , in Encyclopedia of Food Safety , 2014

Cooking instructions should give the cooking temperature and time to ensure that the food is served safely and at its best: there should be no risk of a foodborne disease however the food is to be cooked.

When using different appliances the variations in time and temperature can be considerable and specific details should be given for each method.

It is important to ensure that food is cooked according to the correct instructions, not only for it to look and taste good but also to ensure that it is safe to eat. Some foods need thorough cooking to destroy any potentially harmful bacteria they may contain: this is particularly important for chicken, ready or preprepared meals, and eggs.

For some foods cooking is the final stage of food safety control to ensure food safety. Consumers must follow instructions to ensure that this control point is carried out as required. Food business must validate instructions and ensure that this final control measure is clear and easy to follow.

Providing clear instructions can be a due diligence defense should any subsequent foodborne disease occur through incorrect cooking. Specifically to reduce the hazard of Salmonella found in eggs, labeling is the final control measure among several, beginning on-farm right through to storage and use by the consumer: correct cooking will ensure safety against contamination of the raw egg. Raw eggs can pose a high risk to consumers, and particularly to vulnerable groups, specific warnings must be given on the label – Do not eat raw – Cook thoroughly until hard – Do not eat soft boiled eggs. Thorough cooking is necessary to destroy any potential food hazards, likewise for minced beef, which can be susceptible to contamination with E. coli and if not cooked correctly can cause severe renal problems and death in children.

Raw, ready to cook foods have been identified as the cause of several foodborne disease outbreaks. For example, in the US in 2007 ‘pot pies’ caused a foodborne disease outbreak from Salmonella , and similarly frozen, not-ready-to-eat microwavable meals have been implicated in other salmonellosis outbreaks. The pot pies associated with this outbreak had a raw flour crust and were ‘not-ready-to-eat.’ Consumers could cook according to their preference. Even so, consumers were required to ensure that minimum cooking temperatures were reached to control microbiological hazards. In addition, because raw frozen poultry pastes had been used to make the liquid portion of the chicken and turkey pie fillings, the pies might have contained undercooked poultry, or been cross contaminated from these raw poultry pastes, which often harbor Salmonella . This outbreak report identified labeling concerns, specifically, recommended microwave cooking times on the pot pie packaging were based on wattage categories, but most consumers (who became patients) were unaware of microwave wattage. In this case improper microwave cooking could not account for the entire outbreak, however, given the limited knowledge of consumers about microwave wattage, and the frequency of deviating from microwaving instructions, microwaving probably led to inadequate cooking.

Inadequate microwave cooking has been thought partly responsible for other previous outbreaks of Salmonella infections. Industry and regulators should consider examining the manufacturing processes for frozen not-ready-to-eat foods to determine the extent to which microwave cooking is safe for these products. Labeling and cooking instructions on ‘not-ready-to-eat’ frozen foods should be clear to ensure that consumers are aware of health risks, and to facilitate compliance with validated cooking methods.

Clear and prominent listing of output wattage on microwave appliances might improve consumer adherence to manufacturer's cooking instructions. Consumers should follow cooking instructions specific for an oven's wattage.

Although often foods designed to be cooked in a microwave oven will give a warning to follow the specific wattage of the oven being used, many consumers, as noted above, are unaware of the wattage of their appliances. And even this instruction is no guarantee of correct heating. The only accurate way to ensure that the correct internal temperature has been reached is to use a food thermometer. Although these are common in food service, they are not so common in domestic situations.

Given the limited use of food thermometer in the home, some manufacturers use specific instructions on microwave foods, particularly to cook foods until ‘piping hot throughout,’ with instructions to stir during cooking, and to allow standing time to equalize the temperature throughout before serving. This is very important because hot and cold spots can hide, especially in frozen or chilled foods; the whole food product must reach the required high temperature. ‘Piping hot’ is not a specified temperature and can be ambiguous, but it provides general advice for consumers to ensure that a high enough temperature has been reached.

If the product needs to be defrosted before cooking, this instruction must be followed to ensure safe time–temperatures are reached during cooking.

The importance of correct cooking temperatures cannot be underestimated for food safety. All of this information and instruction seems obvious. Often, the specific details can be overlooked or ignored and consequently can contribute to foodborne illness if cooking temperatures have not been high enough to destroy harmful microorganisms that can cause foodborne diseases.

Recent Trends in Active, Smart, and Intelligent Packaging for Food Products

Gargi Ghoshal , in Food Packaging and Preservation , 2018

1 Introduction

Packaging is the most essential practice aimed to provide stable quality, and long-lasting food and pharmaceutical products for their containment, storage, shipping, delivery, and end-use. The essential purpose of packaging is protection from mechanical damage and prevention or inhibition of chemical changes, biochemical changes and microbiological spoilage ( Galic et al., 2011 ). Moreover, packaging plays number of major roles to provide information about products nutritional composition and calorie content, to present information about material type, consistency, shape and volume of the substance, and color, as well as compatibility between the food product and the covering material.

Periodical increment of use of packaged processed foods, the quantity of wrapping objects used, causes the increase of waste materials, which is dangerous for ecological balance. Landfills have been overfilled and some materials do not undergo degeneration at the same speed as others, resulting in environment pollution. Therefore, for the most appropriate selection of any packaging material, it is not only essential to know the different environmentally friendly recyclable packaging material types that can be used for food packaging, but it is also essential to design bioengineered packaging material for food products. Packaging materials normally used for food packaging are glass, metal, paper and cardboard, wood, and plastic, as well as packaging material from mixed substances with respect to raw materials used for their production, although all the aforementioned materials possess advantages and disadvantages.

Glass as packaging material: Glass is chemically inert and inorganic, highly see-through, can be recycled any number of times, can be given any shape keeping comparable mechanical properties, and can be sterilized at high temperatures. Glass has excellent barrier properties to gasses and water vapor. The disadvantages are that the manufacturing of glass requires high temperatures, that is, it is an energy intensive process, in addition to being weighty and breakable. Although glass is nonbiodegradable, it is nonpolluting and recyclable, and widely used for manufacturing bottles and jars.

Metals as packaging material: Metals, such as tin, steel, and aluminum, in particular, are used for food packaging. They also have excellent barrier properties to gas and moisture. Although metals are comparatively costly and require energy intensive manufacturing, they are also recyclable, can be sterilized, and can be used for food manufacturing, metallic trays fabrication, and ready-to-cook food packaging, and frozen and heated meal packing. As it has very good barrier property, metals are frequently used in laminates for packing sweets, cheese, coffee, tea, and other products. Aluminum foils are used for closure manufacturing for jars and bottles.

Paper and cardboard: Low-priced wood pulp cellulosic materials are recyclable and biodegradable, and paper waste can be burned (with power recovery). Advantages are that paper goods are lightweight and have good printing properties. However, they offer poor barriers to air, moisture, and other gasses. Paper has low tear strength; however, bags and boxes can be produced to pack dry foods, such as sugar, salt, flour, bread, and cakes, and labels for packages for glass, metal, and plastics are also made.

Synthetic plastic: Main advantages of synthetic plastic are that they cost less to manufacture than many other packaging materials, better strength due to presence of better mechanical properties, and good barriers to air moisture, gas, and so on. Due to these properties, currently plastics often replace glass, metal, and paper, with the ease of processing and modifying for offering required properties; they are lightweight, aesthetic, unbreakable, elastic, transparent or colored, but they are also nondegradable in nature. Some plastics can be recycled or burned. Polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terepthalate, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride are examples of synthetic plastics.

Biodegradable plastics: There are two types of biodegradable polymers. Both the biodegradable polymers are hydroxybutyric or hydroxyvaleric acid-based polymers. Both of them are produced during biosynthesis. First one undergoes enzymatic degradation due to the action of microorganisms, bacteria, and fungi. Another category is biodegradable but nonrecyclable polymers, made from synthetic polymers combined with edible starch extracted from cereals, such as rice, corn, and potatoes or cellulose. During decomposition only starch can undergo decomposition to oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water in aerobic circumstances, and to water and methane in anaerobic conditions. Though it is relatively expensive, the synthetic component only breaks down to small fragments and disperses.

Laminates: Laminated packaging contains thin multiple layers of paper, paperboard, cellulose, wood, metal, plastic films, and so on, which have excellent barrier properties to moisture, gas, air, and so on. Each layer has a different property so that it provides longer protection of food materials. As paper is present, laminates exhibit good printability; as metal is present, laminates are strong; and laminates can also offer hermetic sealing owing to the possibility of welding. The disadvantage is that it is difficult to recycle and reuse the packaging material due to difficulty in separation of layers.

Active and intelligent packaging: This type of packaging contains substances that extend the shelf life of the food material by preventing the causes of deterioration or identifying and indicating the chemical and biological deteriorating element that changes the inner atmosphere of the packet. Usually moisture, ethylene, or oxygen scavengers, emitters of carbon dioxide, antioxidants, and antibacterial agents are used in active packaging.

Multiple-use packaging, for example, glass bottles, can be collected, washed, and refilled any number of times unless damaged. The expenditure is mainly for collection and washing.

Packaging material, such as paper, glass, metal, and plastics like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used for beverage bottles are collected and segregated to recover the original material and can be processed again chemically and reused. Costs are higher than in simple recycling.

Some packaging is destined for burning, that is, paper, cardboard, and some plastics. In some cases they cannot be recycled or this is not profitable. Energy recovery through burning is especially profitable for mixed materials that are difficult to segregate. Some chimney gases need to be cleaned, and finally ashes are dumped in landfills.

Single-use, naturally degradable packaging from paper and biodegradable plastics, used as fast-food utensils, are allowed to decompose in the natural atmosphere.

Edible packaging that can be consumed along with food is mainly made from starch, gelatin, pectins, and wheat bran. These are biodegradable, and are also important feed for animals.

Packaging materials suitable for landfills are made without any treatment. This is the old and traditional method of disposal that is the cheap, but nonecological, solution to environmental pollution.

The quality attribute of a packaged food product is the combined criteria that are highly appreciated by consumers. Quality factors, such as appearance (freshness, color, aroma, and defects), texture (crispness, toughness, stickiness, spreadability, and tissue integrity), flavor (taste and smell), nutritive value (vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibers), and safety (no microbial contamination) of the packed food and pharmaceutics are mostly caused by mass transfer phenomena, such as moisture absorption, oxygen invasion, flavor loss, undesirable odor absorption, and the migration from outer package to interior products.

The shelf life of food products is defined as the period during which the food product will remain sound, retain desirable physicochemical, textural, and sensory attributes and microbial characteristics, as well as nutritional value as declared on the label, during storage under the recommended conditions. Shelf life of food is influenced by various factors, such as intrinsic (water activity, pH value, redox potential, available oxygen, nutrients, natural microflora, biochemical product, and preservative) and extrinsic factors (time–temperature profile, temperature control, relative humidity, exposure to light, including spectroscopy in ultraviolet and infrared irradiation, environmental microbial count, composition of environment in packaging, subsequent heat treatment, and purchaser handling) during processing, storage, and delivery. Consequently the interactions of these factors limit the shelf life of packed product.

Generally, modern studies on food packaging focus on the improvement of new packaging materials with elevated barrier properties because these can minimize the total amount of materials required and thus are effective as regards the cost in material handling, distribution, and waste reduction. Another approach is safety that is connected with public health and protection from biodegradation. In that field, new packaging materials and new packaging techniques have been developed. Finally, packaging should be designed to be environmentally friendly. For example, it can be achieved by a fractional amount of synthetic packaging materials replaced by biodegradable or edible materials.

Without packaging, the quality and safety of food would be compromised so it is essential that all food is packed for its preservation and shelf life. Usually food packaging performs a number of contrasting tasks: it protects food from contamination and spoilage, it makes it easier to ship and store foods, and it provides uniform measurement of contents. By permitting brands to be created and standardized, it makes advertising meaningful and large-scale supply and mass merchandising possible. Food packages with dispensing caps, sprays, enclosable openings, and other features make products more usable and convenient.

Bioengineered packaging materials are an emerging class of new generation packaging materials in the food packaging industry with superior barrier properties and strength compared to biopolymer materials. They are created from renewable resources, and therefore they are biodegradable and environmentally friendly with better barrier properties and with mechanical strength that is superior to that of synthetic polymeric films. Other than edible films, which can be consumed as a part of food, no other bioengineered packaging materials are consumable. By controlling the respiratory swap in controlled atmosphere packaging (CAP), bioengineered packaging materials can be used to extend the shelf life of fresh produce, such as fruits and vegetables, as well as to improve the quality of fresh, frozen, and processed meat, poultry, and seafood products by protecting from moisture loss, preventing the lipid oxidation reaction, eventually stopping discoloration, retaining product appearance, and preventing oil uptake during frying by applying a coating of batter or bread. Bioengineered packaging material is the interface between two vital areas of food packaging industry: edible films and nanocomposites. In this chapter, we summarize a procedure for the substitution of neat biopolymer with biodegradable traits to revolutionize the food packaging industry. Beyond basic principles, applications of active, antimicrobial, intelligent, and smart packaging are discussed, giving special attention to biodegradable, edible packaging. Different detector’s functions and their applications will also be discussed.

Alternative approaches to the risk management of Listeria monocytogenes in low risk foods

Jeffrey M. Farber , ... Sanjay Gummalla , in Food Control , 2021

5 Hazards-based versus risk-based strategies for controlling foodborne listeriosis

Prior to 1981, listeriosis, the disease caused by L. monocytogenes was primarily considered a disease of domestic and feral animals. The disease was only rarely reported in humans, and it was often presumed that such cases resulted from exposure to infected animals. However, an outbreak of listeriosis in 1981 was traced to contaminated coleslaw in Nova Scotia, Canada made from cabbage that had been fertilized with sheep manure and held in cold storage prior to use ( Schlech et al., 1983 ). This outbreak led to a re-evaluation of how listeriosis cases were investigated, i.e., these outbreaks tend to be highly dispersed geographically and are largely limited to individuals who have suppressed immune systems, including the elderly, pregnant women and their newborns, individuals with certain chronic diseases, and patients taking immunosuppressive medications. This led to the identification in the 1980's and 1990's of typically small listeriosis outbreaks in North America and Europe associated with pasteurized and unpasteurized milk, certain cheeses and other dairy products, various RTE meats, and smoked seafood products ( Ryser & Buchanan, 2013 ). Listeriosis is considered a rare disease with an annual incidence in developed countries of between 2 and 5 cases per 1,000,000 persons. In the US, it is estimated that there are approximately 1600 cases of invasive listeriosis per year.

Between the initial 1981/1982 outbreak and the present, the US food safety agencies (FDA and FSIS) developed regulatory frameworks to deal with this emerging foodborne pathogenic microorganism. As pointed out earlier, the policies and frameworks for regulating L. monocytogenes were summarized by the then Director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Dr. Fred Shank and FDA co-authors ( Shank et al., 1996 ) in “Food Control” in 1996, as part of a special issue that had representatives from various national governments (e.g., Canada, UK, France, Denmark). In developing its emerging policy towards the pathogen, the FDA took a “hazards-based approach,” i.e., the detection of L. monocytogenes in a food sample would cause the food to be considered adulterated. However, in reaching this policy, they faced several challenges such as the ubiquitous nature of the microorganism, its ability to overcome a major means of controlling foodborne enteric pathogens (i.e., refrigeration), the low probability of infections even in high-risk patients, the limitations in available detection methodologies, and the epidemiological evidence that the bacterium was almost exclusively associated with RTE foods. So, in reaching their regulatory policy, they did consider the relative risk of the pathogen by articulating the testing program requirements.

While the early US policy is considered a hazard-based approach, a number of the decisions in developing those policies attempted to take into account some factors that affected the risk of invasive listeriosis. One of the key decisions related to the policies of FDA and FSIS for L. monocytogenes was the decision to restrict testing to RTE foods; raw foods that are intended to be cooked prior to consumption (i.e., RTC foods) were not covered. Secondly, the primary focus of the initial implementation of the regulatory policies was RTE foods where epidemiological associations had been established or anticipated (e.g., RTE meats and poultry, dairy products such as milk/cheeses/butter, RTE seafood products). If a product had a label that specifically stated that the product had to be cooked prior to consumption and had validated cooking instructions, this would not be considered a RTE food. The third “risk-based” decision captured in the hazards-based approach was a restriction on the size of the samples to be analyzed. For FDA regulated products, a “ Listeria -free” product was based on a standard sampling plan that required that no L. monocytogenes were detected in two 25 g-samples of the product. The number of samples required could be considered a risk-based decision when compared to other pathogens such as Salmonella enterica where a high-risk food fed to high-risk individuals often has sampling plans requiring sixty 25-g samples. It is worth noting that despite limiting L. monocytogenes sampling to two 25-g samples, occasional positive samples with low levels of L. monocytogenes were detected.

The outbreaks and sporadic cases of listeriosis, as well as extensive research on the ability of various foods to support the growth of this bacterium, has provided a profile of the factors that affect the relative risk of a consumer contracting foodborne listeriosis. This includes highly detailed risk assessments that have been conducted by national governments, intergovernmental organizations (e.g., WHO, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2004 ), and research scientists ( Buchanan et al., 2017 , 1997 ; Bemrah et al., 1998 ; Lindqvist & Westoo, 2000 ; Hitchens & Whiting, 2001 ; Food & Drug Administration, 2003 ; Carrington et al., 2004; FAO/WHO, 2004; McLauchlin et al., 2004 ; Sanaa et al., 2000 ; Francois et al., 2006 ; Yang et al., 2006 ; Pouillot et al., 2009 , 2012 , Pouillot, Gallagher et al., 2015 , 2016 , 2007 ; Pérez-Rodríguez et al., 2007 ; Keeratipibul & Lekroengsin, 2008 ; Pradhan et al., 2009 ; Ross et al., 2009 ). These parameters include ability of the food to support the growth of L. monocytogenes at refrigeration (2–5 °C) or chill temperatures (6–9 °C), extended refrigerated storage, exceedingly high levels of L. monocytogenes in a food product, and mishandling on the part of the consumer, particularly inadequate refrigerated storage. It has been estimated that preventing the growth of L. monocytogenes in food decreases the risk of infection by > 1000-fold ( World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2004 ).

The hazards-based policy remained in place until after the L. monocytogenes risk assessments by the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Food Safety Inspection Service (2003) and the World Health Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation (2004) and the Codex Alimentarius Commission recommended the adoption of a 2-tier international standard based on whether the food supported the growth of L. monocytogenes over the shelf life of the food product. As mentioned, the US supported the adoption of the Codex standard and, in 2008, FDA proposed to harmonize their L. monocytogenes policies. The rationale underlying this was that providing an incentive for manufacturers to reformulate their products so that they no longer supported the growth of L. monocytogenes , would improve public health. As mentioned earlier, the various risk assessments clearly demonstrated that preventing the growth of L. monocytogenes in RTE foods would reduce the risk of listeriosis cases by 1000-fold to 10,000-fold. It is worth noting that during the discussion of the 2-tier policy, the US largely achieved its 2000 and 2010 goals for reducing foodborne listeriosis cases. It is also worth noting that in 2006, FSIS introduced three alternatives for RTE meats and poultry based on: i) whether the product received a lethal treatment after final packaging; ii) whether the product contained an antimicrobial treatment or process before packaged; or iii) did not have either of the alternatives. The degree of microbiological testing required for verification was then dependent on the control alternative used by the manufacturer. It should be noted that among all the risk-based strategies implemented or considered, none absolutely assures the elimination of listeriosis. However, they do lay out a scientifically supportable framework for managing risks and improving public health, in an era where wasting food can have dire consequences even in the richest of developed countries.

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Tracing the growing consumption, market, and possible health effects of ready-to-cook food products

For people who prefer easy cooking methods, struggle to find time to spend in the kitchen, or simply don't possess the required culinary skills, these ready-to-cook options are the perfect way to neither compromise on taste nor depend on restaurant food..

ready to cook food

You may love to experiment in the kitchen, but a break from cooking elaborate meals is always welcome, isn’t it? As such, have you ever tried ready-to-cook dishes that are gaining momentum in the country owing to various reasons like — being relatively cheaper, extremely convenient, and available in a variety of options? In fact, according to market research company Technavio, the ready-to-cook market share in India is expected to increase by USD 451.57 million from 2021 to 2026.

For people who prefer easy cooking methods, struggle to find time to spend in the kitchen, or simply don’t possess the required culinary skills, these ready-to-cook options are the perfect way to neither compromise on taste nor depend on restaurant food. Additionally, the pandemic further fueled the shift in demand towards these products, reported Business Wire . “Ready-to-cook food products turned into one of the few industries that witnessed a surge in immense demand during the coronavirus pandemic. With countries on lockdown and most people working from home, ready-to-cook food products were flying off the shelves over the last few months,” it noted.

The same stood true for Pratik Sharma, a 25-year-old working professional from Delhi , who first discovered these food options when he was away from family during the Covid-19 lockdown . “Unfortunately, I don’t know how to cook and was tired of the bland meals I managed to prepare for myself every day. It was then while browsing through an online grocery app, that I discovered these instant mixes and bought a couple of packets of rajma and chhole to try. They took very little effort to make and turned out to be surprisingly delicious,” he told indianexpress.com , adding that he has been “a fan” ever since.

Explaining how various brands tapped into this rising demand, Amit Mange, co-founder and COO, Ceres Foods, said that they launched their ready-to-cook products during the pandemic. “We noticed that the Indo-Chinese cuisine resonates with customer taste palates, which they end up consuming at least twice a week, if not more. And on the other side, we saw demand for specialised Indian curries like laal maas , nalli nihari, rogan josh, etc, that are difficult to execute at home. We quickly identified the opportunity and decided to create an RTC (ready-to-cook) product range for home cooking,” he said.

ready to cook food research paper

He was quick to add that the response from customers has been phenomenal, both during and after the pandemic. Adding that they source authentic ingredients locally from the region to bring out the flavour , he said that these products minimise “dependency on skill”.

The brand’s portfolio — comprising 7 variants — is uniquely focused on curating celebrated non-vegetarian dishes from across India. “These dishes require a high level of skill and specialised ingredients. With our products you can cook up specialised dishes like laal maas, mustard fish and Champaran within 30 minutes,” Mange said.

Adhering to the safety and hygiene standards, he highlighted that these dishes require just 3-4 steps to make. Something similar stands true for Maai Masale — an authentic Maharashtrian ready-to-cook curry paste brand offering five vegetarian and three non-vegetarian options — which launched in 2021.

Bhakti Kote, founder, Maai Masale, explained, “We started right during the pandemic. We were planning to launch this way before it but didn’t get the right opportunity. But the pandemic gave us enough time to research the idea and work on our product, and understand the actual gap in the market to cover.”

She highlighted that these ready-to-cook food items are “simple to use” and can make allow one to make any curry in just “three steps”. “We looked at the convenience, people’s demand and the ongoing work-from-home culture. Especially in metro cities, women too are working. So we realised that these ready-to-cook mixes are the need of the hour, especially for women, students, and elderly people who may not be able to cook on their own. These mixes give a very homely taste — something that was our main purpose,” Kote said.

However, Technavio’s report also highlighted that the growing health concerns will be a major challenge for the ready-to-cook market in the coming years as health experts often criticise these products for being unhealthy and to be the root cause of diseases like diabetes, obesity , and heart problems, among others.

To understand more, we reached out to nutrition and diet experts to know their opinions on the same. “When talking about the health meter, they are certainly not the best options. The reason being, these mixes are mostly loaded with high preservatives to increase the shelf-life of the product and also contain artificial colours and flavours to make the taste better and original. There can be a no better alternative to freshly cooked food as there is a control of temperature and the cooking time, on the contrary in ready-to-eat mixes it is quite difficult to determine if the time mentioned at the back of the pack is optimum for the food preparation in a healthy manner. Also, re-heating partially cooked food can also cause the loss of various essential nutrients,” Indrani Ghosh, chief dietician, Manipal Hospital, Salt Lake, Kolkata said.

She further explained that added amount of preservative if consumed frequently, can be really bad for the health in the long run. “Risk of diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, increase in cholesterol level, diarrhoea and cancer get increased,” Ghosh said, adding that in tropical countries like India, where infectious diseases are quite common, there is difficulty in the storage of these food mixes as these meals need to be stored at a lower temperature to keep them fresh for a longer duration, which leads to extra cost.


In addition to the preservatives, these ready-to-cook food mixes also have harmful chemicals such as artificial colours and flavours, “which have been related to comparable diseases”, highlighted Neha Pathania, Chief Dietician, Paras Hospitals, Gurugram.

“Therefore, food that is not being stored at optimum temperature is prone to develop bacteria and can lead to food poisoning, bloating, and gastric problems,” she said.

So, should you completely avoid them? Experts advised following certain measures and consuming these mixes “rarely”.

*Read the labelling and content *Should be certified by FSSAI *Check the dates of packaging *Nutritional information per 100 g or so should be given *Don’t buy if you are not sure about its quality and safety *Check the required time and method for cooking *Place on the top shelf *Keep safe holding temperature

Ghosh said that “the age group that can consume these products without any problem are mostly the youngsters”, with Himashi Sharma, Senior Dietitian, Indian Spinal Injuries Centre adding that “those with some medical history and health concerns should avoid the consumption of ready-to-cook food products completely”.

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Frequency of eating home cooked meals and potential benefits for diet and health: cross-sectional analysis of a population-based cohort study

International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity volume  14 , Article number:  109 ( 2017 ) Cite this article

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Reported associations between preparing and eating home cooked food, and both diet and health, are inconsistent. Most previous research has focused on preparing, rather than eating, home cooked food; used small, non-population based samples; and studied markers of nutrient intake, rather than overall diet quality or health. We aimed to assess whether frequency of consuming home cooked meals was cross-sectionally associated with diet quality and cardio-metabolic health.

We used baseline data from a United Kingdom population-based cohort study of adults aged 29 to 64 years ( n  = 11,396). Participants self-reported frequency of consuming home cooked main meals. Diet quality was assessed using the Mediterranean Diet Score, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) score, fruit and vegetable intake calculated from a 130-item food frequency questionnaire, and plasma vitamin C. Markers of cardio-metabolic health were researcher-measured body mass index (BMI), percentage body fat, haemoglobin A 1c (HbA 1c ), cholesterol and hypertension. Differences across the three exposure categories were assessed using linear regression (diet variables) and logistic regression (health variables).

Eating home cooked meals more frequently was associated with greater adherence to DASH and Mediterranean diets, greater fruit and vegetable intakes and higher plasma vitamin C, in adjusted models. Those eating home cooked meals more than five times, compared with less than three times per week, consumed 62.3 g more fruit (99% CI 43.2 to 81.5) and 97.8 g more vegetables (99% CI 84.4 to 111.2) daily. More frequent consumption of home cooked meals was associated with greater likelihood of having normal range BMI and normal percentage body fat. Associations with HbA 1c , cholesterol and hypertension were not significant in adjusted models. Those consuming home cooked meals more than five times, compared with less than three times per week, were 28% less likely to have overweight BMI (99% CI 8 to 43%), and 24% less likely to have excess percentage body fat (99% CI 5 to 40%).


In a large population-based cohort study, eating home cooked meals more frequently was associated with better dietary quality and lower adiposity. Further prospective research is required to identify whether consumption of home cooked meals has causal effects on diet and health.

The prevalence of obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as type II diabetes, hypertension, and certain cancers, have been increasing steadily worldwide [ 1 ]. These changes have been accompanied by a decrease in the time spent cooking at home in the majority of developed countries [ 2 , 3 ]. Concern has been expressed by policy makers, practitioners and researchers in the field of food and nutrition regarding a perceived decline in cooking skills, which has been hypothesised to be linked to the increase in diet-related NCDs [ 4 , 5 , 6 ].

Certain studies, primarily cross-sectional in design, have indicated that a higher frequency of cooking and preparing food at home may be associated with consuming a healthier diet [ 7 , 8 , 9 ] and benefits to health and longevity [ 10 , 11 , 12 ]. In contrast, other cross-sectional research has suggested that home food preparation and cooking may be associated with diets lower in fibre and higher in fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt [ 13 , 14 ] and could potentially be detrimental to health [ 15 , 16 ]. Adding to this confusion, the majority of research to date has used cooking and food preparation practices as an exposure, rather than the consumption of home cooked food itself. Since eating food is more proximal to potential diet and health outcomes, focusing on behaviour upstream may be more likely to introduce confounding, for example regarding gender – given that more women than men engage in food preparation [ 3 ], and women tend to have healthier diets [ 17 ]. Of key primary interest therefore is establishing whether consuming home cooked meals is associated with benefits to diet and health, and subsequently investigating who eats home cooked meals, and then who prepares these meals and why.

To date, research investigating the potential advantages and disadvantages for diet and health of cooking and preparing food at home has generally focused on specific dietary indicators, rather than overall diet quality or health, and assessed measures cross-sectionally or after a brief follow-up period [ 18 ]. Most studies have been small in size, with associated limited scope to identify significant associations [ 8 ]; limited to a specific geographical area [ 19 ]; and/or restricted to population subgroups by for example age [ 10 , 20 ] or ethnicity [ 11 ].

Despite the fact that the evidence base for relationships between cooking and both diet and NCDs is mixed and inconclusive, the promotion of home cooking forms part of public health strategies to improve diets and reduce obesity and diet-related NCDs internationally [ 21 ]. Further research is therefore crucial, to investigate on a large scale the potential associations between consumption of home cooked meals and diet and health outcomes.

In this study we aimed to assess whether the consumption frequency of home cooked meals was cross-sectionally associated with indicators of diet and cardio-metabolic status. In view of the current evidence base, we hypothesised that eating home cooked meals more frequently would be associated with markers of a healthier diet and improved cardio-metabolic health.

Data source

The Fenland Study is a population-based cohort study investigating interactions between genetic and lifestyle factors in determining obesity and diabetes. The study recruited adults born between 1950 and 1975 from general practice lists in Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom (UK), between 2005 and 2015 [ 22 ]. Participants were invited to attend one of three clinical sites in Cambridgeshire to take part in a detailed assessment. A total of 12,434 participants undertook baseline assessment (approximate response rate 27%), which involved a range of clinical, biological and anthropometric measurements, and completion of questionnaires. The data collection tools are available online [ 23 ].

Study exclusion criteria included previously diagnosed diabetes, psychosis, terminal illness, pregnancy, and inability to walk unaided. The Fenland study was approved by the Health Research Authority National Research Ethics Service Committee – East of England Cambridge Central – and performed in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. All participants provided written informed consent to participate in the study.

Frequency of consumption of home cooked meals

Exposure was derived from an item in the participant questionnaire: ‘When eating your main meal at home, how often do you usually eat home cooked meals?’ Response categories were: never or rarely; one to two times per week; three to five times per week; or more than five times per week. The first two response categories were collapsed to yield appropriate numbers for statistical analysis, as previously [ 24 ], giving a three category variable: less than three times per week, three to five times per week, and more than five times per week.

Indicators of diet quality

We assessed a range of dietary outcome variables, namely Mediterranean Diet Score (MDS) [ 25 ], Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) score [ 26 ], plasma vitamin C, and fruit and vegetable intakes. Participants completed a 130-item, semi-quantitative food frequency questionnaire (FFQ) for their food intake over the previous year [ 27 ], which has been shown to yield valid and reproducible food intake assessments, and has been validated previously in dietary data collection in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) studies [ 28 ]. The FFQ EPIC Tool for Analysis was used to convert food intake frequency to energy, nutrient and food intakes [ 29 ]. Total daily intake was provided in grams for carbohydrate, fibre, fat, saturated fat, sugar, protein, fruit, vegetables and alcohol. Total daily sodium intake was measured in milligrams, and total daily energy intake in kilojoules. Dietary intake values were winsorized at 1st and 99th percentiles, by replacing the smallest and largest percentage values in the distribution with the observations closest to them [ 30 ]. This was undertaken to account for their positively skewed distribution, and the limitations of the FFQ as a tool to collect precise data on dietary intake [ 31 , 32 ]. Data on dietary supplements were not collected.

The consumption of a more DASH accordant diet is associated with positive health indicators and lowered cardio-metabolic risk [ 33 , 34 , 35 ]. The DASH diet assumes that beneficial impact is derived from the overall diet, rather than individual foods or nutrients playing important roles [ 36 ]. A DASH score was computed from each participant’s dietary intake using the method developed by Fung et al. [ 26 ]. This index includes eight components (one nutrient and seven food groups) based on eating guidance from the United States (US) National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute [ 37 ]. Scoring is established through quintile rankings, on the basis of relative comparisons to the rest of the sample, with men and women classified separately. Participants are allocated a score from one (lowest quintile) to five (highest quintile) for energy-adjusted intake of: low-fat dairy products; whole grains; nuts, seeds and legumes; fruit (includes fruit juice); and vegetables (excludes potatoes). In contrast, for intakes of red and processed meat; sodium; and sugar-sweetened beverages, participants are allocated a score from one (highest quintile) to five (lowest quintile). Scores are then combined to give a total DASH score, ranging from a minimum of eight to a maximum of 40 points. In this study, DASH scores were standardised using the z-score, to yield a semi-continuous measure of participants’ relative standing.

The Mediterranean diet is generally considered to be low in consumption of red meats, moderate in consumption of fish, poultry, fermented dairy products and wine, and high in consumption of fruits, legumes, cereals and olive oil [ 38 , 39 ]. Concordance with the Mediterranean diet has been linked with positive health outcomes, in particular the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease [ 40 ]. A Mediterranean diet score (MDS) was calculated from each participant’s dietary intake using sex-specific tertiles, according to relative comparisons with the rest of the sample. Scores of zero, one or two were allocated for each of nine dietary components, including legumes; fruit and nuts; vegetables; ratio of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids to saturated fatty acids; fish; meat products; dairy products; cereals; and alcohol [ 25 ]. In order to appraise quality of diet independent of quantity, dietary intakes were adjusted to a 2000 kcal/day diet using the residual method. This also aimed to help reduce measurement errors, since energy intake is partially associated with over-reporting and under-reporting of dietary intake [ 41 ]. MDS scores were then standardised using the z-score.

Plasma vitamin C (μmol/l) provides an objective biomarker of fruit and vegetable consumption [ 42 ] and fruit and vegetable intake is promoted in dietary guidelines [ 43 , 44 ]. Fasting venous blood samples drawn into heparin-containing tubes and stabilised using metaphosphoric acid (10%) were measured for plasma vitamin C levels by fluorometric assay within two months, as undertaken previously [ 45 ].

Markers of cardio-metabolic health

We used body mass index (BMI), percentage body fat, haemoglobin A 1c (HbA 1c ), cholesterol and hypertension as indicators of cardio-metabolic health. Elevated total cholesterol and low levels of high density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL) are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease [ 46 ], and the derived ratio of total cholesterol to HDL is used in the QRISK2 model to estimate risk of cardiovascular disease over the next ten years [ 47 ]. HDL and total cholesterol were measured in mmol/l in fasting venous blood samples, and the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL calculated for analysis. In line with UK guidance, a ratio of 4.0 or greater was used to indicate higher risks to cardio-metabolic health [ 48 ].

Excess body fat and raised BMI have been associated with increased risk of various NCDs [ 49 ]. Height and weight were measured at the clinical sites by trained observers, with participants wearing light clothing and barefoot. Height was measured to the nearest 0.1 cm using a wall-mounted calibrated stadiometer (SECA 240, Birmingham, UK). Weight was measured to the nearest 0.1 kg with a calibrated electronic scale (TANITA, BC-418MA, Tokyo, Japan). BMI was derived as weight (kg) divided by height (m 2 ). Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA; Lunar prodigy advanced fan beam scanner (GE Healthcare)) was used to assess body composition, and has been described in detail elsewhere [ 22 ]. A three-compartment model (fat mass, fat-free mass and bone mineral mass) was used to estimate percentage total body fat. In line with international guidance, overweight was defined as BMI 25 kg/m 2 and above [ 50 ] and excess percentage body fat as 25% and over for males and 38% and over for females [ 51 ].

Haemoglobin A 1c (HbA 1c ) has previously been used to assess risk of developing type II diabetes [ 52 ]. Participants’ HbA 1c was measured on entry to the study from fasting venous blood samples, in either mmol/mol or as a percentage. A conversion algorithm was used to convert all measurements to mmol/mol, and in accordance with international guidance [ 52 ], a level of 42.00 mmol/mol (6.0%) or higher was used to indicate increased risk of type II diabetes.

Hypertension is associated with an elevated risk of developing cardiovascular disease [ 53 ]. Using an upper arm cuff and automated oscillometric device, three sets of diastolic and systolic blood pressure measurements were performed on each participant. The first readings were discarded and the lowest systolic and lowest diastolic readings from the last two readings were used for assessment. In adherence to UK guidance [ 54 ], readings of at least 90 mmHg diastolic and 140 mmHg systolic were considered indicative of hypertension. Participants currently taking hypotensive medication, or self-reporting a diagnosis of hypertension from a clinician, were also classified as hypertensive.

In view of the current evidence base regarding factors influencing dietary intake [ 55 ], a self-administered questionnaire was used to collect demographic and behavioural variables including sex, age, smoking status (current/ex-smoker or never smoker), and first degree family history of relevant diseases such as type II diabetes. Participants were asked whether or not they had been employed in the past four weeks, and those answering yes were identified as currently working. Participants reporting more than 48 h working in any one week were identified as working overtime. Socioeconomic status was assessed using age at leaving full time education, which was divided into three categories: education up to age 16 years (compulsory education); over 16 and up to 18 years (post-compulsory school education); and over 18 years (higher education).

Physical activity was measured objectively using an integrated movement and heart rate sensor (Actiheart; CamNtech, Cambridge, UK) attached to the chest via two standard ECG electrodes and worn during free-living over six days [ 56 ]. A ramped treadmill protocol test was used to individually calibrate heart rate, as undertaken previously [ 57 ]. Monitoring data were cleaned for measurement issues and sensor wear time was specified as at least 48 h, although data were not necessarily spread over a full 24 period. Periods of non-wear were inferred from the combination of non-physiological heart rate and prolonged periods of inactivity, which were taken into account to minimise diurnal information bias when summarising the intensity time-series. Data were processed [ 58 ] and a branched equation framework [ 59 ] used for modelling to estimate intensity time series. These were collated over time to yield daily physical activity energy expenditure (kJ/kg per day).

Statistical analysis

All analyses were on a complete case basis. Thus, participants with missing data on any of the variables described were excluded ( n  = 1038), leaving 11,396 participants (91.7% total cohort) in the analysis. The outcome variable with the greatest missingness was vitamin C (missing for 350 participants) and the covariate with the greatest missingness was physical activity (missing for 227 participants). Differences in the characteristics of Fenland study participants included and excluded from the analytic sample were tested using the Mann–Whitney test for continuous variables and Pearson Chi squared test for categorical variables.

Differences in covariates and markers of diet and cardio-metabolic health across the three frequency categories of consuming home cooked meals were assessed using descriptive statistics (Kruskal-Wallis test and Pearson Chi squared test). Separate analyses were then run for each outcome variable, using linear regression for continuous diet variables and logistic regression for binary health variables. Analyses were adjusted for covariates: sex, age, alcohol intake, smoking status, age at leaving full-time education, physical activity, working status, and overtime working, with supplementary adjustment for family history of diabetes for the outcome of HbA 1c . The analyses for markers of cardio-metabolic status were additionally adjusted for dietary variables (MDS, DASH score, plasma vitamin C, fruit and vegetable intakes) to assess the potential health benefits of consuming home cooked meals independent of dietary improvements.

All analyses were conducted using Stata (version 14; Stata Corp.) and in view of the large number of comparisons, 99% confidence intervals were used to determine if variables were statistically significant (see Additional file 1 for details of the participant sample).

Participant distribution is summarised in Additional file 2 . A slight majority of the included sample was female (53.3%), with median age 48.9 years. Most participants were non-smoking (88.2%), with no family history of diabetes (76.1%), median alcohol intake of 5.47 g/day and physical activity expenditure of 51.0 kJ/kg/day. Most participants had left full time education by 18 years of age (62.2%), were currently in work (82.8%), and did not work overtime (88.8%). There were significant differences between the included and excluded participants in terms of sex, age, smoking status, physical activity expenditure, working status, and frequency of consuming home cooked meals.

Table 1 shows that 6.2% of included participants consumed home cooked meals as their main meal less than three times per week, 32.4% consumed these three to five times per week, and 61.5% consumed these more than five times per week. Participants who ate home cooked meals more frequently tended to be female, older, non-smokers, not currently in work, working fewer hours and not working overtime, older at leaving full time education, with greater daily alcohol intake. These associations were all statistically significant at p  < 0.01. Participants who consumed home cooked meals more frequently generally had higher plasma vitamin C, higher fruit and vegetable intakes, and higher MDS and DASH score. They were also less likely to have an overweight BMI, excess percentage body fat, high risk cholesterol ratio, or to be at risk of developing diabetes according to HbA 1c level.

Multivariate associations between the frequency of consuming home cooked meals and indicators of diet quality and cardio-metabolic status are shown in Table 2 . In all cases, consuming home cooked meals more frequently was significantly associated with indicators of a healthier diet, as measured by higher MDS, DASH score, plasma vitamin C, and fruit and vegetable intakes. These associations were present for both consuming home cooked meals three to five times per week, and more than five times per week, compared with the reference of less than three times per week, and remained robust to adjustment for sociodemographic and behavioural covariates. In particular, those who consumed home cooked meals more than five times per week consumed 62.3 g more fruit (99% CI 43.2 to 81.5) and 97.8 g more vegetables (99% CI 84.4 to 111.2) daily than those who consumed home cooked meals less than three times per week. This equates to more than three-quarters of a portion of fruit, and almost one and a quarter portions of vegetables, or approximately two extra portions of fruit and vegetables per day.

In terms of cardio-metabolic status, consuming home cooked meals more than five times per week compared with the reference of less than three times per week was significantly associated with all markers except hypertension in the unadjusted models. After adjustment for sociodemographic and behavioural covariates (model 1), the association between consuming home cooked meals more than five times per week and high risk cholesterol ratio was extinguished. After further adjustment for dietary variables (model 2), only the associations with having a normal range BMI and lower percentage body fat remained significant. Such associations indicated that consuming home cooked meals more than five times per week compared with the reference was associated with improved adiposity, independent of the effects due to diet. Those consuming home cooked meals more than five times per week were 28% less likely to have a BMI in the overweight range (99% CI 8 to 43%), and 24% less likely to have excess percentage body fat (99% CI 5 to 40%), compared with those who consumed home cooked meals less than three times per week. Overall, a higher frequency of consuming home cooked meals was associated with markers of improved cardio-metabolic health, including lower risk cholesterol ratio, normal range BMI, lower percentage body fat, and lower risk of diabetes according to HbA 1c level.

Statement of principal findings

In accordance with our hypothesis, a higher frequency of consuming home cooked main meals was significantly associated with indicators of a healthier diet, namely DASH score, MDS, plasma vitamin C, fruit intake and vegetable intake. Similarly, eating home cooked meals more frequently was significantly associated with several markers of cardio-metabolic health, including lower likelihood of having an overweight BMI, and lower likelihood of excess percentage body fat. Associations between frequency of home cooked meal consumption and markers of cardio-metabolic health were strongest at the highest consumption frequency of eating meals more than five times per week.

To our knowledge, this is the first large scale, population-based study to address associations between the frequency of consuming home cooked meals and indicators of both diet quality and cardio-metabolic status. The study has been reported according to the STROBE-nut guidelines [ 60 ] (see Additional file 3 ).

Strengths and weaknesses of the study

The Fenland study is a large cohort, with detailed sociodemographic data, objective physical measurements and samples, and comprehensive dietary measures. Participants in this study were from the county of Cambridgeshire, which is representative of the wider population in England in terms of adult obesity and several lifestyle variables, such as smoking and levels of physical activity [ 61 ].

Overall diet quality was assessed using two composite diet scores, DASH and MDS. Using two composite scores provided robust evidence in support of potential associations between consuming home cooked meals more frequently and higher diet quality. These results were supported by similar associations with higher fruit and vegetable intakes, measured by both FFQ, and plasma vitamin C as a biomarker. We used consumption, rather than preparation, of home cooked meals as our exposure, which is likely to be closer on the potential causal pathway to diet and health outcomes. The use of objective measurements for determining cholesterol ratio, BMI, percentage body fat, HbA 1c level and hypertension is likely to increase the validity of these markers of cardio-metabolic status, and the confidence in conclusions drawn from resultant analyses.

This research is also subject to some limitations. The cross-sectional nature of the data means that direction of cause and effect cannot be established, although follow-up data collection in the Fenland study is currently underway, which will enable future longitudinal analysis. Participants were recruited between the ages of 29 and 64 years, and are therefore not representative of the full UK population age range. Given that food preparation practices vary with age [ 62 ], our results may not be generalizable to younger populations. We excluded participants with missing data on any of the analytic variables, and excluded participants were systematically different from the rest of the cohort in terms of certain characteristics (see Additional file 2 ). Furthermore, differences in cooking and food culture internationally may mean that the relationships between consuming home cooked meals, diet quality, and cardio-metabolic health, vary between countries. Therefore, our findings may not necessarily be generalizable to other populations.

The fruit and vegetable intakes and DASH and MDS dietary scores were derived from FFQ data, which although validated, may be subject to error and biases [ 31 , 32 ]. The composite scores assessed diet quality relative to other participants, rather than establishing absolute values, and ranking groups may constitute a broad range. The exposure variable for consumption of home cooked meals was derived from a questionnaire item, and given the absence of consensus on home cooking terminology [ 63 , 64 ], participants may have interpreted this question differently. We collected data specifically on home cooked meals eaten at home and not those eaten elsewhere, such as packed lunches taken to work or place of study. The self-reported nature of several sociodemographic and behavioural variables, such as smoking, may have led to variables being correlated with each other, with associated risk of type II analytical errors.

Although we adjusted for a number of relevant potential confounders in our analyses, residual confounding remains possible. If people who consume home cooked meals more frequently are also more likely to engage in other health promoting behaviours, this could artificially strengthen associations between increased consumption of home cooked meals and markers of cardio-metabolic health.

Interpretation of findings in the context of existing research

Our findings reflect those of others that found associations between home food preparation and cooking and higher quality diets. A recent systematic review [ 18 ] identified that potential benefits included intake from healthier food groups [ 19 , 65 , 66 ]; greater fruit and vegetable preference and healthy eating self-efficacy [ 67 ]; enhanced nutrient intake [ 7 , 68 ]; higher Diet Quality Index-International score and intake from healthier food groups [ 20 ]; trend towards higher Healthy Eating Index score [ 69 ]; consumption of a healthful dietary pattern [ 70 ]; and improved adherence to: Healthy People 2010 dietary intake objectives [ 8 ], Balance of Good Health (now Eatwell Guide) criteria [ 71 ], and a Mediterranean diet using the KIDMED index [ 72 ]. A greater frequency of home cooked meals has also been associated with higher Healthy Eating Index scores [ 24 ]. However, the majority of this research has been cross-sectional and therefore unable to conclusively indicate direction of causation. Most studies have also employed self-reported measures, which are vulnerable to bias [ 73 ], and have used food preparation practices as an exposure, rather than the consumption of home cooked food itself.

Our results also support previous studies that identified associations between home food preparation and cooking and potential advantages to health. Greater home cooking frequency has been linked with longer lifespan [ 10 ] and more frequent consumption of meals prepared at home has been associated with reduced risk of developing type II diabetes [ 12 ]. Amongst adolescents, healthier home cooking by a caregiver was linked with lowered risk of having an overweight or obese BMI [ 11 ]. However, our findings conflict with a US study that reported more time spent on home food preparation and associated clean-up at baseline, or increased involvement over time, was linked with an adverse cardio-metabolic profile [ 16 ]. Possible reasons for this discrepancy include that the US study used time spent preparing meals, rather than meal consumption, as the exposure, and the exposure included clean-up time, which may have a differential impact on cardio-metabolic health. Since food preparation activities are strongly patterned by gender [ 18 , 74 ], this may also confound observed associations with health.

Meaning of the study: possible mechanisms and implications for clinicians and policymakers

Our findings indicate that an increased frequency of consuming home cooked meals is associated cross-sectionally with markers of a healthier diet, and indicators of improved cardio-metabolic health, particularly in terms of adiposity, cholesterol and diabetes risk. Links between more frequent consumption of home cooked meals and dietary benefits could be attributable to healthier food preparation methods, increased dietary variety and/or consumption of healthier food groups. Such links may also be due to decreased intake of convenience foods, which tend to prioritise ingredients such as fat, sugar and salt to increase palatability and preservation, over those for optimising health [ 75 ].

The association between a higher frequency of consuming home cooked meals and potential benefits for health in terms of hypertension was not significant in the unadjusted model, and in terms of cholesterol was no longer significant after adjustment for sociodemographic and behavioural variables. This may be because the hypertension variable was poorly ascertained, since in addition to blood pressure measurement, participants were required to report on any previous diagnoses of hypertension, and receipt of hypotensive medication. However, we conducted a sensitivity analysis for the relationship between frequency of consuming home cooked meals and hypertension, with the inclusion and the exclusion of participants diagnosed with hypertension by a doctor and/or receiving hypotensive medication. Regardless of whether or not these participants were excluded, the relationship was not significant. Cholesterol is strongly genetically determined [ 76 ], and the impact of home cooked meal consumption may not have been sufficient to result in statistically significant changes.

The cross-sectional association between higher frequency of consuming home cooked meals and lower adiposity was robust to adjustment for sociodemographic, lifestyle, and dietary covariates, whilst the association with lower likelihood of being classified as at risk of diabetes according to HbA 1c level was borderline significant. Although the direction of causation cannot be established, this indicates that home cooking potentially confers benefits to health, beyond those mediated through dietary changes. Such benefits from eating home cooked meals might be attributable to consumption of smaller portion sizes [ 77 ]; moderated snacking behaviour [ 78 ]; more structured mealtimes and the time of day at which meals are consumed [ 79 ]. Increased social cohesion has been linked with potential health benefits [ 80 ], and it is plausible that higher social capital may be associated with more sociable eating patterns. Given the potential time and effort involved in home cooking, home cooked meals may be more likely to be shared together than meals from other sources, and a range of benefits to diet, health and wellbeing derived from shared mealtimes have been identified [ 81 , 82 ].

Our results support previous research indicating putative benefits from home cooked meals, suggesting that public health promotional messages should advocate for cooking at home as a positive approach for improving diet and health. Strategies could also be considered for supporting people to learn to cook healthy meals, and to use their skills often, for example using digital technology and social media to provide shopping list generators, food preparation teaching videos, and nutritional information. Regularity is particularly important, given that our findings indicated the greatest potential advantages from consuming home cooked meals were experienced at the highest frequencies of consumption. Infrequent home cooking, such as a weekly Sunday lunch, is unlikely to be of benefit to population health, and cooking habits should be adopted as part of the daily routine. This is in accordance with research suggesting that routinized home cooking behaviour is more likely to be maintained and prioritised over time [ 83 ].

Unanswered questions and future research

The evidence base for associations between home cooking, dietary indicators and cardio-metabolic status requires further longitudinal studies to establish causal relationships. This could be facilitated by incorporating questions on home cooking into current large scale national longitudinal surveys, particularly those with more detailed existing dietary components. Additional analyses, for example using structural equation modelling, could be employed to explore causal pathways more fully in future. It will also be insightful to identify who eats home cooked meals and why, and then who prepares these meals and why. Other questions include exploring further the potential benefits of home cooking beyond those mediated through diet, and determining the most effective approaches to encourage home cooking, which may require a combination of tailored interventions.

In a cross-sectional population-based study, consuming home cooked main meals more frequently was associated with a range of indicators of a healthier diet, and several markers of cardio-metabolic health including adiposity, cholesterol and diabetes risk. Strongest associations were observed for the highest frequency of consuming home cooked meals, more than five times per week. These findings suggest that regularly eating home cooked meals may confer benefits to diet and health, and that home cooking promotion and skill development should form part of future public health initiatives. Further research regarding causal relationships between home cooking, diet and health; the wider social aspects of home food preparation; and evaluation of interventions to promote home cooking, is required.


Body mass index

Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension

European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition

Food Frequency Questionnaire

Haemoglobin A 1c

High density lipoprotein

Mediterranean Diet Score

Non-communicable diseases

United Kingdom

United States

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The authors would like to thank all the volunteers who participated in the Fenland study, as well as the Fenland Study Coordination, Field Epidemiology, and Data Cleaning teams.

The Fenland Study is funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council. Support from Medical Research Council programmes MC_UU_12015/1 and MC_UU_12015/5 is acknowledged. This report is independent research arising from a Doctoral Research Fellowship Grant DRF-2014-07-020 for the lead author (SM), supported by the National Institute for Health Research. JA and MW received funding from the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR), a UK Clinical Research Collaboration (UKCRC) Public Health Research Centre of Excellence. HB and SM are members of Fuse, also a UKCRC Public Health Research Centre of Excellence. Grant reference number is MR/K02325X/1. Funding for CEDAR and for Fuse from the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Economic and Social Research Council, Medical Research Council, the National Institute for Health Research and the Wellcome Trust, under the auspices of the UKCRC, is gratefully acknowledged. The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the National Health Service, the Department of Health, the funders or UKCRC. The funders had no role in the study design; in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data; nor in the writing of the report and the decision to submit for publication.

Availability of data and materials

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the MRC Epidemiology Unit, under restrictions according to the MRC Policy and Guidance on Sharing of Research Data from Population and Patient Studies. Data are available upon reasonable request, with permission sought from [email protected]

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Susanna Mills, Heather Brown & Martin White

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Wendy Wrieden

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SM, HB, WW, MW and JA designed the study. SM led the data analyses, supported by JA and HB. SM drafted the manuscript. All authors contributed to the interpretation of results and critically reviewed the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Susanna Mills .

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The Fenland study was approved by the Health Research Authority National Research Ethics Service Committee – East of England Cambridge Central – and performed in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. All participants provided written informed consent to participate in the study.

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Additional files

Additional file 1:.

This file provides requested information regarding how the sample was recruited, how representative the sample was of the target group, how the analysed sample differed from the recruited sample, and how missing data were handled. (DOCX 17 kb)

Additional file 2:

Characteristics of Fenland study participants included and excluded from the analytic sample. This table compares the characteristics of participants in the Fenland study who were included in the current study analytic sample, and those who were excluded. (DOCX 24 kb)

Additional file 3:

STROBE-nut: An extension of the STROBE statement for nutritional epidemiology. This table provides a checklist, reporting adherence of the current study to the STROBE-nut guidelines. (DOCX 34 kb)

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Mills, S., Brown, H., Wrieden, W. et al. Frequency of eating home cooked meals and potential benefits for diet and health: cross-sectional analysis of a population-based cohort study. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 14 , 109 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-017-0567-y

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Received : 15 May 2017

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Published : 17 August 2017

DOI : https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-017-0567-y

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