The supermarket meal deal I ate every day to lose a stone
It’s the one certainty in my life. Every working day, I have the same thing for lunch – a supermarket meal deal. I am a meal deal addict. I take one on every train journey I go on, I even bought one while queuing to see the late Queen lying in state. Unhealthy? Not necessarily – because for the past year, I have eaten a meal deal every single day and I have still lost a stone.
Yet, the meal deal is under attack. Researchers at the University of Birmingham found that budget meal deals, which cost around £3.50, often contain well over the 600 calories recommended for people to consume for lunch.
But what the researchers missed is that not all meal deals are created equal and, if you choose wisely, they don’t have to be bad for you. When I started buying them I wasn’t thinking about my waistline. What I wanted was a quick, cheap, easy lunch. That’s why meal deals exist – to satisfy the likes of me: hungry office workers who think Pret A Manger is pretentious, don’t get paid enough to go to Pure and scorn the idea of slaving away at home pre-making a packed lunch.
Like Dominic Raab, who apparently eats the same Pret lunch every day, I stuck to the same sandwich. I have enough decisions to make every day without having to choose a sandwich. My original Tesco meal deal was a chicken, bacon and stuffing sandwich (£2.50), a packet of tangy cheese Doritos (90p), and an Innocent fruit smoothie (£2.36). I confess, the reasoning behind these options was good honest penny pinching. This particular combination would net me a £2.76 saving in the days when a Tesco meal deal was £3 (it is now £3.90 or £3.40 for a Clubcard holder.)
I never thought about calories until a friend told me that my Tesco mono lunch was around 914 calories. The research from Birmingham shows I could have made even more unhealthy choices. A triple sandwich box averages at 657 kcal and a baguette averages 528 kcal. Add crisps and a fizzy drink or smoothie and a daily meal deal starts to look like a serious health problem.
The beauty of the meal deal, though, is that there is choice. I’m happy to say that I’ve mended my ways. Lockdown really highlighted what my meal deal habit was doing to me. I was still eating a meal deal for lunch every day and, with gyms closed, my weight ballooned. I decided to sort my diet once and for all – and that meant my meal deal habit had to change.
Now, instead of the sandwich (483 kcal), I go for a chicken and bacon Caesar salad (393 kcal), I’ve swapped my crisps (275 kcal) for a pot of apple slices (43 kcal), and the 300ml smoothie (156 kcal) has been eschewed in favour of a litre of water (0 kcal). So at 436 kcal, I’m consuming less than I would if I ate a single BLT sandwich from Pret, and comfortably sitting at well below the 600 kcal lunch recommended by the Government’s recommended guidelines.
Since I first decided to change my meal deal, about 18 months ago, I’ve lost around a stone and the fancy scales at the gym tell me my visceral fat (the fat that sits around the heart and other organs) has dropped too.
Of course, changing my meal deal isn't all I've done - since the gym reopened I go once a week, and, now that I’m working in the office, I have to go a bit further to get to a branch of Tesco, so I'm notching up a minimum of 10,000 steps a day, roughly treble what I was getting during the pandemic. Still, the meal deal itself is the only change I've made to my diet so it can't be hurting.
In spite of the research, I’d say meal deals make it easier than most lunch options to choose healthily. The nutrition information is easy to find. Calories, fat, salt and sugar content are prominently displayed on each item, with the easy-to-follow traffic light system.
I’ve tried all the supermarkets and am now a specialist. Tesco’s meal deal is the connoisseur’s choice, Sainsbury’s takes second place unless you’re after a sausage roll as your “main” – hot food as part of a meal deal is a revelation. Boots’ is decent and their excellent rice bowls deserve a special mention. In my opinion, Asda’s is not much cop – their wraps invariably have one half with no filling and the other with all the filling.
Incredulous colleagues still ask me if I get bored of eating the same meal every day or whether I would prefer something slightly more upmarket. The truth is their remarks, derisively made, miss the point entirely. My stock response is the same as it’s always been: I’ll eat anywhere you suggest, as long as you’re paying. In the meantime though, I’d rather save my cash and enjoy my salad in peace.
The five healthiest supermarket meal deals
Tesco: Just Ham Sandwich + Green Olives With Herbs + Evian Sparkling Natural Water
Price: £3.90 or £3.40 with a Clubcard
A ham sandwich might seem a bit plain, but it's only 248kcal on its own and less than 5 percent of your daily recommended fat intake. It’s decent quality, served on white bread which is higher in sugar but it’s quite a small sandwich so no need to worry too much. The olives are only 90kcal and contain a lot of vitamin E which has been linked to heart health, though they are salty so the water should help quench your thirst.
Sainsbury’s: Potato And Egg Salad + Popchips Barbeque Potato Chip Crisps + Pink Bolt Zero Strawberry & Kiwi
Meal deals don't have to be based around a sandwich. This one features a pot of fresh salad with cooked potato, lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumber and an egg. It's a good balance of veg, protein and slow release carbs. It comes with a pot of salad cream, but if you wanted to be even healthier you could leave it off. Popchips are one of the healthier types of crisps because they aren’t fried, though you could swap them for a healthy fruit salad if you wanted to save even more calories. And after that, the Pink Bolt Zero is a well-deserved treat.
Asda: Fish Sushi Selection + 2 Eggs + 7UP Free Lemon & Lime Bottle
Asda’s meal deals are 3-for-2 rather than any specific price so you could get a cheaper one but the sushi fish selection is too tasty to turn down, and the eggs offer a hit of protein. Surprisingly a 7UP bottle contains only 10kcal since the recipe was changed post-sugar tax.
Morrisons: Chicken Salad Sandwich + Chicken Tikka Kebabs + Vita Coco Natural Coconut Water
Chicken with a side of chicken might sound ridiculous, but this meal deal is high in protein - the macronutrient which takes the longest time to break down in your stomach, thus keeping you fuller longer. Coconut water also contains electrolytes helping you rehydrate after activity, though if you wanted to shave some calories off this meal deal switching it for plain water would help.
Co-Op: Prawns with Mayonnaise on Malted Bread + Watermelon Wedges + Cloudy Apple Juice 250ml
The prawn mayonnaise sandwich is only 294kcal, but it's served on malted bread which has a lower glutamic index so it takes longer for the sugars to be broken down, keeping you feeling full for longer. Helpfully, the watermelon slices and apple juice offer a bit of sweetness to perk you up and almost no salt to balance things out.