Chen Jia doesn't often cook, but she still managed to prepare a hearty meal on Chinese New Year's Eve for her family without ordering any restaurant takeout.
"Thanks to the ready-made food I had purchased online, we enjoyed a decent Spring Festival dinner," said Chen, who lives in east China's Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province.
The 31-year-old public servant couldn't help sharing photos of the semi-self-cooked feast on social media. Many of those were exquisite dishes such as sweet fermented rice stewed fish and mushroom casserole that require a complicated cooking process.
Known as "3R food" (ready to cook, ready to heat, ready to eat) in the industry, ready-made food has gained wide popularity in China over recent years among both catering businesses and individual consumers. According to a report by consulting agency iiMedia Research, the market value of 3R food in China hit 345.9 billion yuan ($51.09 billion) in 2021 and is expected to exceed 515 billion yuan by 2023.
In big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, ready-made dishes have become regular items on the grocery shopping list of those who seek culinary fun but are short of leisure time.
It is especially the case for traditional festivals, for which a feast at home still outweighs restaurant dining, as shown in a survey conducted by Hema Fresh, Alibaba's fresh-food chain, before the Spring Festival. Over half of the customers surveyed said they would buy ready-made dishes for their family reunion dinner.
In the e-commerce shops of short video platform Douyin, sales of ready-made food during the recent holiday shopping spree have increased 248 percent from a year ago.
Those with hard-to-handle materials such as big-chunk seafood and meat are more popular than other categories, said Tian Xin, the general manager of Hema 3R Commodity Center.
Meanwhile, products with distinctive local features or innovative fusions have become better received. At Hema Fresh, for example, a chicken soup made of Yunnan-raised chicken and locally grown mushrooms and a dish mixing roe-rich crabs with eight-treasure rice pudding have both seen a sharp rise in sales in January compared with the month before, according to the company.
China now has over 63,000 companies in ready-made food production and related services, according to Qichacha, a leading platform offering company information inquiry services, but industry insiders believe there is still great potential to be tapped.
Bai Jianbin, owner of a catering business in Hangzhou, believes that the boom of 3R food in China is fueled by growing acceptance of new cooking styles.
With an improved fresh food supply chain and more healthy, characteristic recipes to accommodate a wider variety of appetites, ready-made food is expected to become more dominant on Chinese people's dinner tables, Bai said.