What is Prepared Food?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What is the difference between food and prepared food? Does it matter? In this lesson, we'll look at the prepared food industry and see why this classification can be very significant.

Prepared Foods and Culinary Arts

It's no secret that the job of a chef is to prepare food. That's what chefs do. However, what this means in the modern world may not always be what you'd think.

In the absolute broadest sense, prepared food is food that is ready for consumption, having been assembled by someone else and sold to a consumer. The person purchasing the food does not have to slice, dice, cook, or assemble; that has been done for them. They pay for the ability to simply receive food that is ready to eat. Again, this is a very broad definition. To see what this really means in the 21st century, we need to look a little closer.

Kinds of Prepared Food

For retailers in the 21st-century United States, prepared food generally refers to food that is produced and sold by a manufacturer. There are countless varieties of prepared foods, but let's start by organizing them into two overarching categories.

Fresh-Prepared Food

Perhaps the most obvious kinds of prepared foods are what we call fresh-prepared foods. This term is exactly what it sounds like, food that is prepared either upon receiving an order or in anticipation of an order. Fresh-prepared foods are assembled individually by hand, and often within the view of the consumer.

For people in the culinary arts today, fresh-prepared foods are likely to be an important part of their career. Beyond the obvious applications, fresh-prepared foods are one of the fastest-growing sectors of grocery stores and marketplaces. In what some researchers call the ''Whole Foods effect'' (named for the popular grocery store), modern consumers are demanding a wider range of high-quality and nutritious prepared food options that are accessible, affordable, and ready to purchase. You may have noticed things like sushi bars, salad bars, even tapas bars popping up in your local markets. These are all part of a trend that researchers expect will only continue to grow over the next several years.

Commercially Prepared Foods

Of course, not everybody has time to cook an extravagant meal, and many people feel like they don't even have time for fresh-prepared food. This brings us to our second category, commercially prepared foods, those that are mass-produced long before they are expected to be consumed.

Commercially prepared food is a big business

Commercially prepared foods include the ready-to-eat foods you'll find in a grocery store, things like canned soups, packaged grains, or frozen dinners. Many of these are what we can also call convenience foods, a broad term for food products that are designed and marketed primarily around the concept of convenience.

Most people in culinary arts programs expect to be in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant or managing their own food truck, but convenience foods are among the most-often consumed products in the world today. By 1999, this industry had an estimated value of 4 billion dollars, and convenience food has come a long way since then. For every convenience product, somebody has to design the recipe and figure out how to preserve the food via canning, freezing, drying, or other methods in a way that can be replicated on an industrial scale without compromising the quality of the food. That's a big job, and one that employs many people from the culinary arts field.

Food and Taxes

From a culinary perspective, we can define prepared food in broad terms and that's okay. However, this definition becomes much more important for retailers because food is taxed differently depending on its classification. In the early 2000s, an effort was made in the United States to define prepared food because products in this category are taxed at a different rate.

One of the leading opinions was adopted by the state of New Jersey, which adopted the following legal standards for prepared food:

  • ''Food sold in a heated state or heated by the seller''
  • ''Food items that are a result of the seller combining two or more ingredients''
  • ''Food sold with eating utensils provided by the seller''

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