New meal kits improved convenience from the home to the office, with a little something for the kids, as well. General Mills’ Progresso Complete line joined the growing ranks of complete meal kits, while Campbell’s took soups into the quick-and-easy arena with Soup at Hand, a handheld soup product. Gerber, meanwhile, realized that parents need a quick option for the youngest children and introduced Lil’ Entrees in toddler favorite varieties.
  • Prepared meals evolve.
  • Consumers can create meals with varying levels of involvement.
  • Products for adults focus on convenience.
  • Products for children add fun to mealtime.
Increased commutes and extended workdays are contributing to the popularity of prepared meals, which inherently provide consumers a convenient breakfast, lunch or dinner in just minutes. While convenience is certainly the main strength of many prepared meals, consumers also have shown interest in changing their monotonous eating habits by choosing foods with exotic and ethnic flavors.

Products for Children

Fifteen years ago, Oscar Mayer's, Madison, Wisc., Lunchables created a substantial market for children's lunch products. However, the meat, cheese and cracker kits of yesterday have given way to the taco, nacho, and pizza kits of today. The new products put the original selection to shame, luring children with intricate desserts, juice boxes and cartoon characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants. The Oscar Mayer Lunchables Make Your Own Magic kit even includes candy stampers to imprint magical shapes and symbols on bologna and encourages children to just “lick 'em, stamp 'em, eat 'em.”

Although the selection is plentiful, many parents question the nutritional content of prepared meals. Yves Veggie Cuisine, Delta, British Columbia, Canada, is looking to change the segment with its Good Lunch Meal Kits that contain low levels of cholesterol, fat, and sodium. The company introduced the “I Love Veggies Turkey Kit,” which includes meatless veggie turkey slices, crackers and cheese. Gerber, Fremont, Mich., introduced its Lil' Entrees shelf-stable meals in toddler-friendly varieties such as Pasta Wheel Pick-Ups & Chicken. The meals are ready after cooking them for 30 seconds in the microwave and contain no artificial preservatives, additives or colorants.

The Fisher Boy Confetti Fish Sticks from High Liner Foods, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada, were introduced to give children the best of both worlds. The fish sticks are covered with colorful confetti pieces to present an element of fun but are also claimed to be a good source of protein and to contain eight essential vitamins and minerals.

Office Eats

To avoid eating out everyday, many office employees attempt to bring a brown bag lunch from home—only to find it waiting in the refrigerator two weeks later, forgotten and inedible. New products with an extended shelf-life may put an end to smelly tuna and moldy bread, or at least delay the problem a bit. Fun Fresh Concepts, Chicago, experimented with the trend by introducing a line of convenient and long-lasting Oriental Pasta Cups that boast a refrigerated shelf life of 30 days, allowing the product to be lost from memory for quite some time. The company also set out to prove that prepared lunches are not just for children anymore with its “adult” Santa Fe Salad Bowls and Turkey & Swiss Sandwich Kit with a focaccia roll, tortilla chips, and crème cookies.

Campbell's, Camden, N.J., Soup at Hand is another hassle-free lunch product that includes a “sipping lid” to avoid the need for utensils, which can be scarce in the office. The product requires about one minute in the microwave and does not require refrigeration—greatly reducing the risk of losing your lunch to the overcrowded communal fridge.

Frozen to Perfection

Health-conscious consumers can breathe easy—the selection of prepared nutritious meals continues to increase considerably. In fact, with giants such as Stouffer's, Solon, Ohio; ConAgra, Omaha, Neb.; and Weight Watchers, Woodbury, N.Y., leading the way, the endless variety could leave consumers shivering in the frozen foods aisle. Healthy products also are becoming more plentiful, and sophisticated flavors can be found in a number of frozen meals. For example, the Lean Cuisine Mediterranean Chicken meal from Stouffer's includes tomato sauce, black olives, butternut squash, sun dried tomatoes, dried peppers, and accents of garlic and olive oil—an ingredient list typically rattled off by restaurant waiters, not frozen dinner packages.

Although interesting flavors and ingredients break the monotony of everyday meals, some may ask, “What happened to simple foods like mashed potatoes?” For those of us who prefer comfort foods, National Harvest, Kansas City, Mo., introduced Super Stuffers low-fat frozen baked potato meals. The “Fully Loaded” meal is ready to eat in seven minutes and includes one large baked potato stuffed with sour cream, cheddar, bacon and chives.

For the male consumer looking for a quick dinner after work, Swansons, Deerfield, Ill., introduced a number of frozen meals under the Hungry Man XXL label, with portion sizes three times larger than the low-fat products found in the same section. In fact, the Backyard Barbeque meal contains over a pound of chicken, pork and mashed potatoes per package, which should certainly please even the largest appetite. For the consumer in search of a frozen meal with a kind word, Mary Ellen's Blessings at Home frozen entrees from Request Foods, Holland, Mich., claim to have a “Blessing enclosed to share with your family.” To accent the warm feeling, the line includes traditional family favorites such as Old Fashioned Meat Loaf, Homestyle Turkey, and Lasagna Lovers Lasagna.

New flavors began to permeate meal kits, as Inn on the Creek decided to spice up bland pasta dishes.

Ethnic Flare

Sales from ethnic restaurants have skyrocketed in the last five years, a result of increasing diversity and international travel. New “ethnic” products are becoming more exploratory and are not limited to the Chinese, Mexican and Italian selections already familiar to many consumers. In fact, a number of new products are inspired by Thai, Japanese, Indian and Mediterranean cuisine—in response to their growing popularity among consumers. The Ethnic Gourmet, Framingham, Mass., introduced a line of Thai-inspired Meal Bowls in selections such as Pad Thai with Shrimp, Singapore Noodles, Chicken Vindaloo and Chicken Massaman, which consists of white-meat chicken cooked in coconut sauce with bamboo shoots, onions and red pepper.

Veggie Natural, Alameda, Calif., had the same idea with its Indian frozen entrée, the “Nearly Nirvana Combo,” and Thai entrée, the “Ayutthaya Spicy Thai Combo,” which includes red curry, yellow curry and jasmine rice. ConAgra proved that not all products are easy to categorize with the introduction of Twist and Sprout frozen meals, which it test marketed under the Square Roots label. The product line has a low-key vegetarian positioning and experiments with intense flavor combinations inspired by a number of recognizable sources. Three of the entrées are: “Far Out East Vegetable Cups” with rice and plum soy sauce; “Mystic Curry” with eggplant, peas, and wild red rice in a curry sauce; and “More Mambo” with seasoned vegetable pot stickers, lentils, and pasta in an orange cinnamon sauce.

Many consumers expect a limited variety and selection from private label products produced by mass merchants. However, Target Corporation, Minneapolis, effectively put an end to the stereotype by introducing a novel assortment of products with the help of Ming Tsai, a celebrated chef. The line includes Japanese Toasted Nori Seaweed, which is used to wrap sushi rolls, Blue Ginger Rice, Japanese-style Sushi Rice, and Thai-style Jasmine Rice.

It's Not Delivery...

It may be difficult for products in the supermarket to compete with the freshness of delivery pizza, but a few new arrivals are remaining competitive by offering consumers unique benefits and ingredients. For example, A.C. Larocco, Spokane, Wash., introduced a line of heart-healthy, high-fiber pizzas made with organic whole wheat and honey crusts. Health was not the only focus, however, as the product line includes six savory selections: Cheese & Garlic, Garden Vegetarian, Greek Sesame, Tomato & Feta, Shiitake Mushroom, and Polynesian.

Eating pizza on the run can be a difficult process, which led to the creation of portable products in new formats designed to avoid cheesy messes. Foster Farms, Livingston, Calif., introduced Go-Stix pizza on a stick, a product reminiscent of the epitome of portability, the carnival corn dog. The product includes pizza fillings surrounded by baked dough to give consumers the ability to take pizza anywhere, without the need for utensils. Another car-friendly product is the Pizza Pretzel from Kim & Scott's Gourmet Pretzel, Chicago, which includes mozzarella, fontina and goat cheese—an attractive option for one-handed eating.

Mary Ellen’s Blessings at Home frozen entrees from Request Foods, Holland, Mich., went for a comforting approach—both in the package and product. Including a “blessing enclosed to share with your family,” the line included traditional family favorites.

Some Assembly Required

A complete meal can now be created with five minutes of prep time and 30 minutes in the oven, compliments of the numerous meal kit introductions from virtually every competitor in the segment. For the holidays, General Mills, Minneapolis, presented a Green Bean Casserole Kit (under the Progresso Complete line) that is ready to eat after 30 minutes in the oven. The package includes every component necessary to create the traditional favorite—one can of Progresso creamy mushroom soup, two cans of Green Giant green beans and one pouch of french-fried onion topping. Other meal kits such as the Classic Mediterranean Pasta Salad Mix from Inn on the Creek, Midway, Utah, spice up bland pasta dishes by including toppings such as sun dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, olives and cheese.

The information in this article was derived from Mintel International's Global New Products Database, www.gnpd.com, 312-932-0400.

Website Resources

www.oscar-mayer.com — Oscar Mayer
www.yvesveggie.com — Yves Veggie Cuisine
www.gerber.com — Gerber
www.highlinerfoods.com — High Liner Foods
www.funfresh.net — Fun Fresh Concepts
www.campbellsoup.com — Campbell Soup Company
www.stouffers.com — Stouffer's
www.conagra.com — ConAgra
www.weightwatchers.com — Weight Watchers
www.nationalharvest.com — National Harvest
www.requestfoods.com — Request Foods
www.ethnicgourmet.com — The Ethnic Gourmet
www.target.com — Target Corporation
www.aclarocco.com — A.C. Larocco
www.fosterfarms.com — Foster Farms
www.kimandscotts.com — Kim & Scott's Gourmet Pretzel
www.generalmills.com — General Mills

Sidebar: Going Global

In the U.K., quite a few prepared meal introductions included vegetarian products loaded with fruits, vegetables and legumes. Sainsbury's introduced a line of vegetarian-friendly meals under its “Way to Five” product line, created to make it “easier and exciting for the consumer to get the recommended five daily portions of fruits and vegetables.”

Products in the line boast sophisticated flavor components, apparent in the potato-cauliflower-carrot meal, which is bathed in a mild Sri Lankan sauce of yogurt, coconut milk and fresh coriander. Prepared meals with all-natural and organic ingredients also are common in the U.K., and due to the recent media focus on the health concerns associated with genetically modified organisms, products such as Cauldron Foods' Mushroom Medley Bake with organic shitake mushrooms are quite popular.

New packaging trends also are driven by the growing convenience trend, evident from the introduction of self-heating products from foreign producers. In Canada, D&B Specialty Foods introduced a product under the Chef 5 Minute Meals brand that includes its own “portable oven,” capable of heating the meal in five minutes once activated. In the Netherlands, R&R Foods introduced a similar line of prepared meals in packages with the ability to heat the product to a maximum of 80 degrees Celsius.