Hello dear readers! Today, I am excited to delve into a topic that has been cooking up a storm in China – the phenomenon of ready-made meals. As someone who has lived in the US and now residing in China, the contrasts and comparisons in food culture never cease to amaze me. And one aspect of this is the burgeoning market of ready-made meals. So, let’s slice and dice through this fascinating topic, shall we?

Ready-made meals, as the name suggests, are meals ready to be devoured with minimal to no cooking required. Imagine a situation where you are running late for work or just too tired to cook; this is where ready-made meals come as a lifesaver. In China, these meals are meticulously pre-washed, cut, matched, and processed dishes that are preserved through freezing or vacuum packing for consumer convenience1​. Whether you’re craving for some spicy Kung Pao chicken or a bowl of comforting noodle soup, there’s a ready-made meal waiting to satiate your taste buds, with the additional benefit of saving time and effort.

The ready-made meal market in China is not just a fleeting trend but has seen significant growth, reaching a monumental market size of 419.6 billion yuan in 2022. What’s more astonishing is the consistent growth rate of around 20% over the past decade. This isn’t merely a testament to the evolving consumer habits but also the reflection of a rapidly modernizing society where convenience is king.

The trend of ready-made meals is not just a culinary shift but embodies a lifestyle change, blending modernity with tradition in a unique way. Through these meals, people can enjoy a taste of authentic Chinese cuisine without the hassle of preparation and cooking, a boon especially for the bustling urban populace.

This burgeoning market has opened up a smorgasbord of opportunities not only for food manufacturers but also for individuals seeking a convenient, yet traditionally rich dining experience. So, in today’s post, we will simmer over the various facets of this culinary trend, its impact on society, and what it heralds for the future of dining in China.

Development of Ready-Made Meals in China

The journey of ready-made meals in China is a reflection of the nation’s openness to global trends, and its ability to adapt and innovate. This journey didn’t start in China; it began with a significant invention on the other side of the world.

A Stroll Down the Frozen Aisle of History

The year 1920 marked the dawn of a new era in the food industry globally with the invention of the first rapid freezing machine in the United States. This invention laid the foundation for frozen foods, which gradually found their way into the households of many by the 1950s. The appeal was simple yet profound; it provided a solution to the age-old problem of food preservation, making meals readily available at one’s convenience.

As frozen foods gained popularity, Japan, a nation known for its tight-knit work schedule and fast-paced life, embraced the concept of ready-made meals. The ‘meal packs’ or料理包 (liàolǐ bāo) emerged as a quick, convenient meal solution for the bustling populace. Following the trend, Taiwan too saw the advent of ready-made meals, where they were popularly known as ‘mom’s meals’ or ‘home-packed meals’, embodying the warmth and nutrition of a home-cooked meal with the convenience of fast food.

The wave eventually hit the shores of Mainland China, blending seamlessly with the fast-paced urban lifestyle. The concept of ready-made meals resonated with the modern-day consumer, offering a taste of tradition in a convenient package. The burgeoning middle class, the growing number of dual-income families, and the relentless pace of urban life further fueled the growth of ready-made meals in China.

The Frozen Boom: China’s Ready-Made Meal Market

Fast-forward to recent times, the data speaks volumes about the booming market of ready-made meals in China. The market size burgeoned to a staggering 419.6 billion yuan in 2022, with an astonishing year-over-year growth of 345% in sales during certain festivities2. The trend is not showing any signs of cooling down, with projections showing that the market size is expected to soar to 1072 billion yuan by 2026.

The evolution and acceptance of ready-made meals are not just a fad; it’s a reflection of changing lifestyle dynamics. With penetration rates of ready-made meals projected to increase from the current 10-15% to 15-20% by 2030, it’s evident that the convenience, efficiency, and variety offered by ready-made meals are here to stay.3

Moreover, the surge in ready-made meal consumption is not just a win for consumers; it’s a boon for the food and beverage industry. With reduced labor and material costs, restaurants and fast-food chains like McDonald’s and KFC have found a gold mine in ready-made meals, further popularizing the concept among the masses.

Controversies Surrounding Ready-Made Meals

Recent discussions around ready-made meals in China have stirred some controversies, notably involving schools and the broader understanding of what constitutes a ready-made meal. Below, the main controversies are explored in detail.

Ready-Made Meals in Schools:

A significant controversy has arisen from the introduction of ready-made meals in schools. This issue became particularly contentious at the beginning of a new school term, sparking much debate and concern among parents, educational departments, and the general public45. The primary worries revolved around the quality and nutritional value of these meals. In some areas, parents voiced their dissatisfaction with the meals provided, complaining about slow delivery, poor quality, and unappetizing taste. Videos shared on social media showed students eating hurriedly at the school gates with their parents, as school canteens were closed and parents were not allowed to enter the campuses. Some parents even resigned from their jobs to deliver meals to their children. The main issue here appears to be a lack of transparency and choice concerning the provision of these ready-made meals, with some parents demanding more transparency and the ability to opt-out of these meal services.

Misinterpretation and Confusion Around Ready-Made Meals:

There seems to be a general confusion surrounding the definition and acceptance of ready-made meals. A case in point involved a brand named Yuan Ji Yun Jiaozi, which was questioned for using ready-made ingredients in their products. The brand later clarified that it utilizes a central kitchen delivery system similar to the one used for supermarket fresh cold meat. This incident sparked a broader discussion on what exactly constitutes a ready-made meal6.

The understanding of ready-made meals appears to be quite blurred among some consumers, with a portion of them mistaking it for heated ready-to-eat dishes. Comments on social media posts related to this issue revealed misconceptions like, “Aren’t ready-made meals supposed to be the type of dishes you pour onto a plate and heat up for consumption?” or “Shouldn’t ready-made meals be the kind of stewed pork that you pour out of a bag?” This misunderstanding extends to differentiating between fully-cooked meals, semi-cooked meals, and raw prepared ingredients, indicating a lack of clarity in public perception regarding ready-made meals.

These controversies not only reflect the concerns over food safety and quality but also highlight the necessity for clear communication and education on what ready-made meals are, and how they fit into the modern Chinese lifestyle.

Not All Ready-Made Meals Are Problematic

Addressing Extreme Remarks:

The narrative surrounding ready-made meals took a bitter turn when a remark likening them to “pig and dog food” made rounds on social media​.7 This remark, made by a food connoisseur during a live broadcast, triggered a hot debate among netizens. Although clarified later as a personal expression rather than an industry critique, it left a sour taste in the mouths of many consumers who find ready-made meals a convenient choice. It’s essential to note that such views are extreme and by no means representative of the industry as a whole.

Standardizing Chinese Cuisine:

There’s a silver lining to the ready-made meals trend. By reducing labor and raw material costs, ready-made meals can play a pivotal role in standardizing Chinese cuisine and offering a competitive edge against Western fast food chains. This standardization could potentially lead to higher profits for restaurants, contributing to the sustainability and global competitiveness of Chinese culinary traditions.

The ready-made meal market is more nuanced than the controversies suggest. As it continues to evolve, it’s reshaping the food industry landscape, offering a blend of tradition, modernity, and convenience. By addressing the concerns and working towards standardization and quality assurance, ready-made meals can indeed find a favorable spot in the Chinese food market.

As we dice through the layers of the ready-made meals market in China, it’s clear that this trend is much more than a culinary fad. It mirrors the fast-paced lifestyle of modern-day China, offering a blend of tradition and convenience. The surge in ready-made meals reflects a societal shift towards convenience, yet it’s also stirred controversies, especially concerning school meals and public perceptions.

The negative remarks likening ready-made meals to “pig and dog food” were disheartening but represent extreme views that don’t define the industry​​. On the brighter side, ready-made meals present an avenue to standardize Chinese cuisine, giving it a competitive edge against Western fast-food chains.

However, the journey of ready-made meals is not without bumps. The concerns around food quality, safety, and the misinterpretation of what constitutes a ready-made meal need addressing. A more nuanced discussion and better regulation are essential to ensure that the convenience of ready-made meals doesn’t compromise on quality and safety.

The pot of ready-made meals is simmering with potential. With the right ingredients of regulation, education, and innovation, it can morph into a culinary trend that’s wholesome, convenient, and reflective of China’s rich food culture.

As we put down our forks on this topic, it’s clear that the last bite of this discussion hasn’t been had. So, let’s continue to chew over the implications and possibilities that ready-made meals bring to the table in China. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome, so feel free to share them below. Until next time, bon appétit!

  1. https://xueqiu.com/1973934190/222153263 ↩︎
  2. https://new.qq.com/rain/a/20220802A07D6300 ↩︎
  3. https://new.qq.com/rain/a/20220802A07D6300 ↩︎
  4. 拆解预制菜声誉危机:万亿赛道正遭遇成长阵痛_腾讯新闻 (qq.com) ↩︎
  5. 多地争议不断!预制菜进校园,到底由谁说了算?_新闻频道_央视网(cctv.com) ↩︎
  6. 预制菜频频卷入风波,人们争议的关键在哪里?_腾讯新闻 (qq.com) ↩︎
  7. 风口上的预制菜,为何争议不断?_澎湃号·湃客_澎湃新闻-The Paper ↩︎