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Artillery Row

The real deal with meal deals

England needs a better lunchtime culture

The supermarket meal deal is something of an institution in modern Britain. It was in 1980 that Marks and Spencer tasked a few quick-fingered workers, in a handful of stores, with making simple preparations. Salmon and cucumber was one early edition, egg and cress another. Soon came the now famous prawn mayonnaise (Margaret Thatcher’s favourite). They started at 43p and were sold in plastic cartons along the food aisles.

Keen for a bite of what would become a multi-billion pound packaged sandwich industry, other supermarkets followed suit. It wasn’t long before purpose-built factories sprang up, and production lines whirred. Lunch time Britons have been courting, no, utterly relying on convenience ever since. There’s just something about processed ham in between cheap sliced bread.

It wasn’t a supermarket that invented the meal deal, the pinnacle of a quick and easy lunch. It was a pharmacy. Boots, in 1985, became a pioneer when it started toying with the idea of partnering mass-made sandwiches with a snack and a drink. As an early adopter to a nationwide distribution system that allowed the same products to be flogged in every store, what had been a new and fervent modicum of accessibility became a cultural flagstone in a busier world.

In sixth form, my friends and I used to frequent our local Co-op to buy meal deals of varying arrangements. It was as if a combination of tuna and sweetcorn on granary, a bag of McCoy’s and a can of Coca Cola were paving the way toward adult life. We would see office workers doing the same in their white Next shirts, and nothing prepared us for pretending to read Spies by Michael Frayn like a plastic bag full of empty calories.

Meal deals were a properly significant part of growing up in Britain

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say meal deals were a properly significant part of growing up in Britain. Most were in the region of £3 back then, maybe even less in budget retailers. The price point drew us in and only required light pilfering from our parents’ purses.

Lo, with social media, discussions about meal deals developed, evolved. Memes erupted. Who’d have thought, only ten years ago, that pairing a chicken salad with Hula Hoops and a Lucozade would ever inspire vitriol? People continue to proudly share their meal deals, and peers are always quick to denigrate or praise. When Tesco, a bastion of the meal deal if for no other reason than being the nation’s biggest grocer, raised its meal deal price to £3.90 (sans Clubcard), many aired their discontent.

I’m 33 now and no diehard fan of the nanny state. The sugar tax has clearly not worked. Then again, I’m also no fan of the meal deal — not any more, anyway. This is not to betray my roots. If anything, I am only hopeful that younger generations grow up eating better when entrusted to go out and spend.

The fact is, Jamie Oliver was spot on when he cataclysmically altered canteen grub forever. I was there when the soggy burgers disappeared, and the tomato pasta arrived. I know.

I also think the Welsh Government is correct in its plans to ban unhealthy items from meal deal sales. New legislation is to be introduced in the Senedd next year, and it is expected to become law in 2025. Certain foods will also be barred from being displayed in prominent parts of a supermarket.

Why are we incapable of nipping out for a baguette?

Such measures will likely prove unpopular — they might be labelled futile or reductive by champions of freedom — but the NHS is expiring, and obesity just isn’t going away. We cannot support a super-sized country with National Insurance.

I think meal deals have had their time in the sun. However loved, they are actually rather ridiculous. Have you tried a Boots wrap lately? Mostly, they taste of little other than sugar blended with warm mayonnaise. Where does the meat come from? God knows. How much salt is required of the tortilla to enact any semblance of taste?

Meal deals helped fuel a changing Britain. Today they are laughable. These sandwiches are monstrous by design — so very lacking in flavour that attempts by retailers to jazz them up with accoutrements like “nduja” or fancy chutney only convince me that their architects are wholly aware of their deficiencies.

Cast your eyes over to France, Spain or Italy and witness a sturdier, healthier, more rounded lunchtime protocol. It isn’t oppressive or limited by an imperial sort of time keeping. Why are we incapable of nipping out for a baguette or sitting down to a light onion quiche with a watercress salad? Why do we insist on buying low quality hoisin duck wraps and sushi rolls drier than a Keir Starmer speech?

I hope Wales succeeds in its attempts to quash the meal deal, and I hope the rest of the UK jumps on board. I’ll be sad to see their demise. I’ll mourn their loss. It’s time, though. Not all institutions need last, so sack off the soggy sandwiches.

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