Meal solutions for the catering industry

The cost of meal solutions to foodservice operators

As food customers, we know time savers (such as takeaways) invariably command a premium – after all, someone else has done the work for us. For caterers, ready-made dishes are known as meal solutions. The wide range and availability can still surprise those not in the world of catering and hospitality. Whilst the public is familiar with pizzas and party food, they may not expect a ‘chicken breast filled with mushroom, wrapped in bacon and spinach sauce’ to have been delivered as a single Stockkeeping Unit (SKU) that morning. One supplier emphasises some of the benefits as ‘consistent portion sizing and food waste reduction’, which we agree with!

Firstly identify and tackle intangible costs

At the heart of Caternet is procurement, so we used our software to price four popular foodservice dishes and question if pre-prepared ingredients come with any hidden costs or benefits.

Some rules; these were the live prices at the time of writing, based on wholesale sizes for contract caterers. The ‘per portion’ labels are ingredients only (they do not account for overheads such as energy and labour). ‘Cook time’ means no prep or defrosting.

The Breakfast Omelette

How do you like your eggs in the morning? Industry data shows over 13 billion eggs are consumed in the UK every year. In fact, 2019’s numbers are already tracking up by 2%, in part thanks to the rise of diets that favour eggs as their protein source. In turn, omelettes remain a popular offer for quick service breakfasts. For chefs, making an omelette can be fairly time consuming. Each take around eight minutes of cooking and require supervision. For this illustration we’ve chosen a ham, mushroom and cheese omelette.

Pre-produced difference: £0.48/portion cheaper

  Chef-made Ready-made
Cook time 8 minutes 70 seconds
Portion cost   £1.35 £0.87

Are chef’s omelette stations under threat? Watch this viral sensation – based at the M Social Hotel in Singapore.

The Canteen lunch: Panini with a side of parmesan sweet potato skins


Did you know the UK’s most popular panini fillings are cheese, chicken, and tuna? If they’re easy to produce then why would a canteen procure ready-made? It may be because a high-volume commercial grade grill costs over £1100. In this example, the ingredients are chicken, cheese, green pesto and tomato puree.

Pre-produced difference: £1.23/portion more expensive

  Chef-made Ready-made
Cook time 10 minutes 2 mintues
Portion cost   £1.28 £2.51

‘Loaded’ potato skins have made their way onto many menus since originally crossing the Atlantic with their American friends (nachos and hot wings) in the 1990s. Caternet visits commercial kitchens every week, and one trend we’ve noticed is not leaving are the upscaled versions of ‘food porn’ – popular this decade. A basic swap here is to sweet potato skins.

Pre-produced difference: £0.54/portion more expensive

  Chef-made Ready-made
Cook time 60 minutes 15 minutes
Portion cost   £0.27 £0.81

The Staff restaurant lunch: Stuffed butternut squash

This vegetarian dish joins other stuffed vegetables found in most staff restaurants – from bell peppers to fried jalapeños. To include vegetarians, some versions have replaced bacon to include pistachio, coconut rice and tahini paste. The recipe we tested uses sunflower seeds, mozzarella and cannellini beans. The price variance certainly reflects the amount of manual work required to produce frozen versions of this dish.

Pre-produced difference: £2.98/portion more expensive

  Chef-made Ready-made
Cook time 2 hours 4 minutes
Portion cost   £1.19 £4.17

Catering software to measure input and output

As highlighted in our introduction, these prices don’t include ever-increasing overheads. By now you’ll likely have spotted the heavy decrease in required staffing hours and equipment. Time is under pressure more than ever before, as caterers seek more permanent ways to safeguard revenues. Ultimately, caterers will use these meal solutions to tackle wage bills. An average chef’s wage stands at around £10 an hour (as sampled by

Once a contract is signed, your mission is to prove contract value and remain competitive. This doesn’t mean quality and service should diminish. Caternet gives contract caterers easy-to-use tools to govern cost-plus tariff policies, purchase with live prices to retain supplier discounts, and recover costs with paperless invoicing.

James Waldron is Content Manager at Zupa

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