Considering the national fixation with quick and convenient food items, it will come as no surprise to find prepared meals lead the way among introductions in the meal and meal center category. However, what may be surprising is the diversification of the segment.

In 2003, prepared meals catered to audiences such as vegetarians, low-carb dieters and organic consumers--many of them tailored for the expanding palates of the discerning consumer.

Amy's Kitchen (Petaluma, Calif.) added a number of organic Indian meals. Palak Paneer combines creamed spinach and paneer, a fresh, pressed, whole-milk cheese. The gluten-free meal also includes basmati rice and Rajmah Dal, made from organic kidney beans. The company's Mattar Paneer, an Indian whole meal, boasts Mattar Paneer (combining the cheese with curried peas) in a spiced sauce; chana masala, a spicy mix of organic garbanzo beans and sweet organic tomatoes; and basmati rice, plus carrots and onions, spiced with tumeric.

Trader Joe's (Monrovia, Calif.) was another to add Indian-inspired prepared meals to its lineup. The company's Chickenesque Masala is an Indian-style masala with meatless “chicken,” rice, herbs and spices, and a creamy tomato sauce. Meanwhile, its Curry Gyoza Meal Kit boasts chicken gyoza with vegetables and rice in a curry sauce.

For the curry connoisseur, Satnam Overseas Limited (New Delhi, India) introduced Heat & Eat Indian Curries. The ready-to-eat curries in a flexible foil packaging are packed using steam sterilization to extend shelflife. Another of the boil-in-bag convenience items, the line features such varieties as Peshawari Dal Makhani (Whole Black Lentils Curry with Red Kidney Beans), Punjabi Kadhi Pakora (Bengal Gram Flour Dumplings with Yoghurt Sauce) and Aloo Palak (Spinach Gravy with Chunky Potatoes).

Thai One On

In influences from other areas of the East, Epicurean Specialties (Sebastopol, Calif.) turned to Thai cuisine for inspiration. The company's Thai Kitchen brand added a Peanut Bake, which offers roasted peanuts and exotic Thai spices positioned as a one-step seasoning for meats. A similar positioning centered around Thai Kitchen's Peanut Sauce Mix, combining freshly roasted peanuts with spices to create a Thai peanut sauce for grilled meats, seafood and vegetables, with noodles or in marinades.

Venturing beyond mainstream fare was not solely the province of smaller companies, however. ConAgra (Omaha, Neb.) debuted Flavor Adventures, a low-fat, low-cholesterol sub-brand to its Healthy Choice line. Promising “unique ingredients not commonly found in frozen entrées,” the premium line offers Oriental Style Beef, Beef Merlot, Chicken Margherita and Chicken Tuscany. Unlike so many other introductions this year, though, ConAgra did not set its sights on carbohydrates with this line; the Chicken Margherita offering, for example, claims 42g of carbs.

Also venturing down an ethnic path, albeit in a different way entirely, Kraft Foods (Northfield, Ill.) pursued the U.S.'s burgeoning Hispanic population with bilingual packaging (Spanish and English), aiming for Hispanics interested in frozen pizza as a convenient family meal option. The three flavors in the line are Queso (cheese), Pepperoni and Suprema (sausage, pepperoni, peppers, onions and black olives).

Taking an ethnic line into even more convenient territory, Ruiz Food Products (Dinuba, Calif.) launched El Monterey Cruncheros. This new brand, with items suitable for appetizers, a snack or a meal, offers six varieties: Southwest Chicken Taquitos, Taco Beef & Cheese Taquitos, Chicken & Cheese Taquitos, Cream Cheese & Jalapeño Burritos, Nacho Cheese & Beef Mini Fried Burritos, and 3-cheese & Grilled Chicken Quesadillas. In Canada, the company added convenient packaging to its Supreme Burritos. The “ovenable” package surrounds three varieties: Monterey Shredded Beef & Cheese, Grilled Beef Fajita and Grilled Chicken Fajita. The Great White North also had the opportunity to enjoy El Monterey's take on breakfast in that same package, with two varieties of breakfast burritos--Egg, Cheese, Salsa & Bacon and Egg & Sausage.

A similarly convenient, if completely different, format also propelled the launch of Los Cantaros' Mexican Meals from Gerber Agri (Atlanta). Targeting the Hispanic population in the Atlanta area, the products offer traditional Mexican dishes in a boil-in-bag. Varieties include a Fully Cooked Tasty Beef Barbacoa, Fully Cooked Traditional Flavor Beef and Pork, Fully Cooked Tasty Beef Tongue, and a soup variety (Fully Cooked Traditional Menudo).

The south-of-the-border influence can be found in Chef's Choice Mexican Style Pork Bowl from Aurora Foods (Columbus, Ohio). Its seasoned pork is combined with peppers, onions and cheese in a spicy Mexican-style sauce.

Premium Siding

Far from ethnic (well, at least to U.S. consumers) but still convenient, Unilever Bestfoods (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.) brought its two-part side dish concept stateside as Lipton Sides Plus. In the Broccoli Mashed Potatoes & Cheddar Sauce and Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes & Homestyle Gravy varieties, attached but separate parts of the package contain a sauce or gravy mix. The company has had a similar product known as Lipton Sidekicks for some time in Canada, and added pasta versions this year, in the form of Sundried Tomato & Roasted Garlic, White Cheddar & Broccoli and Spicy Spaghetti flavors.

Positioned as snacks but, let's face it, undoubtedly a lunch item for some consumers, Oscar Mayer Snacks to Go from Kraft Foods sought once again to get Lunchables into the hands of adults. “Designed for adults,” according to package literature, the products offer a meat and dipping sauce combination or a meat/cheese/cracker offering. The line is Kraft's second pseudo-Lunchable for adults this year, as Kraft Lunch Specials was presented in an easily portable box with a built-in handle. Further differentiating the meal kit from its more kid-friendly counterpart are the products it includes: It's Pasta Anytime spaghetti with marinara sauce, SnackWell's-brand cookies, and Crystal Light lemonade. A possible player in the obesity battle, the product has 8g of fat, although it also claims 510 calories.

Fat awareness, however, was not the primary focus of healthful introductions this year. Nope, that honor went to products that cut carbohydrates. Not left out of the wide-ranging trend, several prepared meals catered to the carb-conscious crowd. LowCarb Gourmet (Destin, Fla.) introduced Mike's Low Carb Gourmet line in gourmet stores, consisting of a number of meat-and-vegetable dinners prepared by gourmet chefs, according to the company. The nine meal varieties, all with 14g or less of carbohydrates, include such varied fare as Roasted Catfish, Creole Salmon and Louisiana Jambalaya. The same company also ventured into desserts with low-carb (7g) versions of three varieties of cheesecake.

The Veggie Verge

Back in the prepared meal arena, vegetarians were not ignored this year. In its Soy Creations line, i Foods (Los Angeles) offered two versions of vegetarian pizza made with soy ingredients. Smoked Soy-Salmon and Grilled Soy-Chicken Pizza could be found, and the company also took pot pies into vegetarian venues with Soy-Chicken Pot Pie in Kung Pao Sauce.

When it comes to vegetarian, most folks immediately conjure thoughts of tofu, and several introductions did not disappoint those expectations. The King's Café brand in Canada added Crispy Soya Fillets, Soya-Tofu Squares, Soya Nuggets, and Vegetarian Roasted Chicken in its King's Vegetarian (Brampton, Ontario) food meal collection. The fillets and squares are both cholesterol-free.

Tofu also was found in a couple of the ready-to-eat FreshPak Noodle Bowls from Annie Chun's Gourmet Foods (San Rafael, Calif.). The 100% natural, vegetarian bowls come in such flavors as Miso Soup with Tofu and Scallion, Teriyaki, and Udon Soup with Tofu and Spinach, all in microwaveable, biodegradable bowls.

Vegetarian tofu ravioli mixes ginger, garlic and cilantro seasonings in durum flour pasta pockets covered in a peanut sauce in a new offering from Ripattoni Foods (San Francisco). Thai Tofu Organic Pasta also is all-natural.

Sea Fare

Taking advantage of the positive health news surrounding fish consumption, a number of companies positioned maritime meals in the convenient corral. Omega Foods (Eugene, Ore.) offered consumers a beef substitute in the form of an all-natural Shrimp Burger. Several other burger varieties already are available, including salmon, tuna and mahimahi. Those latter three varieties of fish also can be found in fillets from EcoFish (Portsmouth, N.H.), which donates 25% of profits to conservation.

Lobster, likewise, went convenient in Hancock Gourmet Lobster's (Cundy's Harbor, Maine) Pemaquid Lobster Pot Pie. Individually packaged in a ceramic ramekin ready to be baked and served, the dish offers Maine lobster meat, cream sauce and a splash of sherry, topped with puff pastry. It is available in health food stores and via the Internet or mail order.

Imported from Italy under the Sailor Marine (Hunter Marine, Dorval, Quebec) brand, a line of seafood-based entrées includes Risotto with Seafood, Spaghetti with Seafood, and Spaghetti Vongole. Also available in Hunter Marine Foods' (Dorval, Quebec) line are seafood-based sauces like Marinara with Mussels and Vongolata Sauce with Clams. The seafood elements of the products are still in their shells.

While some sought to expand the variety of meal options via new or innovative ingredients, a pair of companies has decided to make the best of what consumers probably already have. Realizing that consumers likely have pasta and rice in their cabinets or pantries, Tony Chachere's Creole Foods (Opelousas, La.) dumped those from its newest line of meal kits. Rice & Pasta Toppers included such varieties as Red Beans Seasoned with Sliced Smoked Sausage, and Chicken and Smoked Sausage Jambalaya.

ConAgra followed a similar rationale with Banquet Meal Toppers. The company designed its “meat in sauce” varieties to be poured over rice, noodles or potatoes. The microwaveable product came in Beef, Chicken and Turkey varieties.

Much of the information in this article was derived from Mintel International's Global New Products Database,, 312-932-0400.

Website Resources

Prepared Foods' article: “Meatless in the Mainstream” ,

History of meal kits from the Christian Science Monitor,

Frozen food trends from the American Frozen Food Institute

Going Global

Chicken has made its way onto frozen pizzas in the U.S., but Singaporeans could enjoy a different poultry on their pizza. Marinated duck meat, Peking sauce, onion and Mozzarella cheese are found on Asian Pizza from Tee Yih Jia Food Manufacturing.

Elsewhere, prepared meals seem to be following a trend similar to one in the U.S.--a move to seafood. In France, for example, Nestle's Maggi brand offers salmon and shrimp in the Saumon & Crevettes Sauce Hebes Fines Tortellini & Champignons variety of the Saveurs du Littoral line. The two-serving meal retails for the equivalent of $6.43.

That country also saw a prepared meal incorporate, of all things, wild boar. The Civet de Sanglier aux Myrtilles meal from Picard offered four servings of wild boar with bilberry for the equivalent of $25.82.

In Ireland, Speedysnacks went a similar route to Omega Foods in the U.S. by offering burgers of a different sort. However, while Omega Foods took a seafood slant, Speedysnacks turned to chicken. Their Southern Fried Chicken Burgers are ready to eat after 70 seconds in the microwave.

Also following a trend seen in North America, Thai food grew in prepared meal popularity. In Australia, Masterfoods introduced a 98% fat-free Chicken Tikka Masala rice bowl, while in Spain, G Costa launched Simply Thai Meal Kit under the Blue Dragon label. Each of the latter kits contain ingredients to create an authentic Pad Thai meal, including sauce, bean sprouts, palm sugar, fish sauce and noodles.

While perhaps no longer considered “ethnic” in the U.S., Mexican cuisine has expanded all over the world. Fajita meal kits, in particular, seem popular in 2003, as new such offerings appeared in the U.K., Belgium, Brazil, China, New Zealand, Singapore and Spain.