Instant food usually refers to precooked food that requires very little preparation prior to eating it. This often tends to include foods that are dehydrated and just require the addition of water to prepare. The marketing concept behind the idea of instant food is that people in fast-paced, mobile societies no longer have the time to cook and prepare food in the traditional manner, yet they still want meals that are nutritious and taste good. Convenience food labeled as instant food is an attempt to satisfy this need, while being palatable enough so that consumers will choose them over foods that require the use of recipes and cooking. Ready-made food sometimes has the reputation of being expensive and loaded with preservatives, additives, and other potentially harmful fillers, food colors, and so on, which can give it a negative image in the mind of the consumer when shopping for groceries.
Among the easiest category of instant food to produce and package are grain-related products, such as noodles, flavored oatmeal, breakfast cereals, and more. This is because these foods are naturally stored in airtight, dry conditions to preserve their quality, and usually require nothing more than the addition of hot water or milk to quickly prepare. Dehydrated potatoes are another widely popular instant food that just require the addition of hot water, and they are often served in institutional settings for public school lunches, and in nursing or retirement homes where preparing potatoes in the traditional manner can be time consuming and impractical. Other types of common instant food products include drink mixes, such as instant coffee, tea and nutrition supplements for milk that add both flavor and vitamins. Instant coffee requires no preparation in a standard coffeemaker, and can be ready to drink in less than a minute with water heated for it in a microwave, as can tea and other hot drinks, such as cocoa or powdered fruit-flavored drink mixes resembling orange and other juices.
One other broad category of instant foods is that of the TV dinner, a prepackaged dinner usually containing all the standard elements of a traditional dinner such as meat, vegetables, and some sort of dessert, pasta, or grain product. The earliest TV or frozen dinners were introduced to the US market in 1945, and, by 1954, 2,500,000 of them had already been sold. The convenience of instant food led it to dominate a large section of the retail food market after TV dinners gained more variety and standardization in 1954, coupled with the television switching to a color format in the early 1950s in the US.
TV dinners pioneered the way for another unique type of instant food preparation that came into existence in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the US. The portable Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) was created for the US military, as well as similar preparations for astronauts on the US Apollo missions to the Moon or in the orbiting space station Skylab, known as retort pouches. Variations on the MRE now exist for inclusion in lifeboat supplies on ships, as emergency food supplies provided by the United Nations to refuge populations, and in Kosher or Halal form to accommodate Jewish and Islamic belief systems.