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There’s a new number one in chilled ready meals. For the first time, Charlie Bigham’s has outsold Rustlers – and by a considerable margin. There’s now £43.5m between the two brands, knocking the latter off its perch for the first time in at least eight years.

Bigham’s value has grown £21.7m on volumes up 8.5%. CEO Patrick Cairns attributes this success to “focusing on quality” and positioning itself as a credible alternative to scratch cooking. “Our aim is to provide a real alternative to eating out or simply to keen cooks who fancy a night off,” he says.

Even as a proudly premium brand, Bigham’s has a part to play during the current cost of living crisis, Cairns adds. “While it is a challenging environment, we believe this proposition is as relevant as ever.”

Fellow premium brand Cook is similarly optimistic, having grown sales of its frozen ready meals by £1.2m. Brand director Claire Postans says the retailer has added a ‘chef’s table’ freezer to offer “something a bit more special than an everyday meal”.

The rise of these meals may seem strange in a cost of living crisis. But as budgets tighten, ready meals could stand to grow in popularity, suggests Elaine Rothballer, head of marketing consumer brands, food division, at Rustlers owner Kepak.

“At a time when we are all more aware of budget pressures, we expect to see an increase in at-home occasions with consumers,” she says. “This presents an opportunity for retailers to create meal deals targeted specifically at the occasion, and Rustlers is the perfect addition.”

Higher demand for better value options puts ambient suppliers like Rustlers, which are typically cheaper than their chilled counterparts, in a strong position. But these brands can equally trade on premium cues, says Naomi Shooman, brand director for quick meals, soups & snacks at Batchelors owner Premier Foods. She points to the brand’s Pasta ‘n’ Sauce Chef’s Special range, added in September.

“People are demanding evening meals that suit their busy lifestyles while delivering on taste and quality,” she sums up.

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Could This be the hottest meat alternative brand of the year? Quite possibly. After all, it’s growing value fast while innovating at breakneck speed. Among its wealth of NPD this year is a chilled ready meals range. Added in September, Isn’t Pork Meatballs & Spaghetti, Isn’t Chicken Thai Green Curry and Isn’t Pork Sausages & Mash (rsp: £3.95/380g) are low in satfat, high in protein and microwaveable in under five minutes. They launched after the supplier bagged £8m from the crowd in May.

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