Hum, ping, rip: the sounds of cooking

We talk River Cafe but we eat ready-made from the microwave. It's the private vice of the modern mid

Social historians of the future will have a hard time reconstructing the culinary habits of our era. Unearthing all those River Cafe Cook Books, Smeg ovens and Global knives, they may suspect we were a generation of obsessive amateur chefs. The contrary evidence, contained in millions of disposable plastic trays and cardboard sleeves, will be lost. Britain has the biggest market for ready meals in Europe, and the recent fragmentation of this market shows the growing importance of food as a marker of social class and cultural capital.

Ready meals fall into three main categories: ambient, frozen and chilled. At the bottom of the social heap is the ambient ready meal (ARM), a freeze-dried or canned product stored at room temperature. Its heyday was the 1960s and 1970s, when Vesta boxes of dehydrated beef granules and crispy noodles enjoyed a certain space-age glamour. In the microwave era, however, emptying sachets into saucepans and boiling water seems like hard labour. The ARM market now mainly consists of pot snacks, which have to be marketed as guilty pleasures because of their indelible associations with student wasters who won't cook or wash up.

Frozen ready meals also suffer from what retailers euphemistically call "low aspirational appeal". Here you will find the complete meals - roast beef platters, shepherd's pies and fish suppers - that carry on the tradition of the all-in-one TV dinner. Introduced in 1953 by the American firm Swanson and inspired in part by airline food, the first TV dinner (frozen turkey with giblet gravy, sweet potatoes and green peas) was arranged in a divided metal tray and packaged in a box that looked like a television.

In America, where frozen foods still dominate the ready meals market, people are proud of this heritage. The Smithsonian Institution now displays the original Swanson tray, and Hollywood's Walk of Fame bears its imprint. In Britain, though, the freezer section is always at the back of the supermarket and has an un-welcoming atmosphere, in which browsers rarely linger. The unstated reason is that frozen dinners are meant for poorer shoppers looking for special offers, such as the unfortunately named bogofs (buy one, get one free), which make up half their sales.

Take a look at the contrast in the chilled section: aubergine Parmigiana, smoked salmon lasagne, Catalan chicken. The chilled ready meal is a virtual middle-class monopoly, the gastronomic equivalent of Next or Radio 4. Ironically, its origins lie behind the Iron Curtain in the form of chicken a la Kiev, which the novelist and food writer Lesley Chamberlain describes as a "Soviet hotel and restaurant classic" unknown under the tsars. When Marks & Spencer launched its chicken Kiev in 1976, it single-handedly created the middle-class market for what it called "recipe dishes". The chill-cook meal really took off in the time-is-money, lifestyle-conscious Thatcher era. "Ready-made meals, once the tinned provender of elderly widowers and young boozy bachelors, are climbing the social ladder," wrote a Guardian journalist in 1987. "Exotic recipes, low-calorie concoctions, new chilling techniques and the ubiquitous microwave have all helped give market cachet to the instant sachet."

The rise of the chilled ready meal as a signifier of middle-classness mirrors the growing power of supermarkets. These perishable meals rely on the just-in-time distribution networks that only the supermarkets can organise. Their own brands dominate the market and, because they make huge mark-ups on them, they position them in well-lit cabinets near their entrances, next to the fruit and veg so they have an aura of freshness.

Supermarkets outsource ready-meal production to small suppliers that can react quickly to restaurant trends and customer feedback, easily available through point-of-sale monitoring and loyalty schemes. This allows the market to be highly responsive to recent changes in lifestyle and attitudes, the most significant of which is our increasing unease at the idea of convenience itself.

Convenience food has long been associated with the poor diet and general indolence of the lower classes. In "The Waste Land", T S Eliot wrote disapprovingly of "the typist home at teatime" who "clears her breakfast, lights/Her stove, and lays out food in tins". Today, convenience food is the focus of disparate anxieties about farm mechanisation, unhealthy additives, the dangers of obesity and the dominance of the big retailers.

The chilled ready meal avoids these associations through its implicit links with a particular class identity: the "cash-rich, time-poor" professional. This harried individual shops after a hard day's work and is prepared to pay more for convenience with quality. Supermarkets do not market cook-chill meals explicitly at this constituency, but the store placement, packaging and content of the meals themselves are designed to differentiate them as much as possible from the primitive rectangle of the slob's TV dinner. Chilled meals are marketed as premium ranges, with distinctive graphics, colour coding and telling descriptors: "fresh", "slow-cooked", "restaurant", "home-grown".

In his book Consumption, Food and Taste, Alan Warde argues that the cultural meanings of food are based on tension between care and convenience. We want food preparation to be quick and easy without losing the association of mealtime with love, conviviality and good taste. This explains the apparent paradox of rising sales in ready meals and the enhanced status of complicated recipes cooked with fresh ingredients, whether at home or in a restaurant. Eighty per cent of the UK market for chilled meals consists of international recipes (mainly Indian, Chinese and Italian) for which we have developed a taste through eating out, cookery programmes or books, but are too busy or incompetent to make ourselves. The unintended side effect of the foodie revolution has been to expand the market for the cosmopolitan ready meal.

Yet middle-class consumers like to feel that they are doing more than simply waiting for the ping of the microwave and then peeling back the Cellophane. So now they buy "meal centres" with "vegetable accompaniments", giving themselves the onerous task of opening two packets instead of one, and assembling their beef bourguignon and double butter mash on a plate. If they are feeling intrepid, they buy ready-to-cook foods such as stir-fry mixes, cooking sauces or meat that has been pre-stuffed and marinated; if they are eager to impress, they buy gourmet meal kits with prepared ingredients and idiot-proof instructions. We have invented an activity somewhere between microwave instantaneity and cooking from scratch: food assembly.

Our anxieties about convenience food have come full circle. In the 1950s, manufacturers found that housewives preferred products that still allowed them to do some work: cake mixes to which egg had to be added, or uncooked pies instead of products that simply had to be reheated. Like the woman in the old advert who passed off convenience food as her own in order to impress her husband's boss, we want to kid ourselves that we are not sacrificing quality for expediency.

The difference is that this anxiety now has more to do with class than gender. But since the own-brand ready meal is hardly ever advertised, and cookery writers rarely refer to it except as an object of opprobrium, the class politics of convenience food are the product of tacit, unconscious collusion between retailer and consumer. Note to future historians: don't bother sifting through the archaeological remains of middle-class kitchens. The true measure of our times was the ready meal.

Joe Moran lectures at Liverpool John Moores University. His book Reading the Everyday is out this summer from Routledge