Stouffer's Lean Cuisine introduced a line of panini sandwiches that attain crispiness by means of a microwaveable grilling tray.

  • Worldly thinking

  • Healthful positioning

  • Time-saving items

    According to The NPD Group's annual Food for Thought survey, nearly half of American consumers spend 30 minutes or less preparing dinner. This statistic indicates the need for (and the rapid growth of) the convenience meals, soups, sides, and processed meats categories. Interestingly, the importance of convenience in the foods consumers purchase appears to have stabilized. Though still seeking convenience (almost a given), consumers are purchasing products to meet additional needs: notably, ethnic flavors, health benefits and involvement in meal preparation.

    Immigration into the U.S. has added much racial, ethnic and cultural diversity to the country's population in the past 20 years. Exposure to a broad array of foods in restaurants, supermarkets, on television cooking shows, in magazines, recipes on the Internet, and in travel to foreign countries has expanded Americans' food horizons, encouraging them to experiment with a wide range of ingredients and tastes. As a result, this increased awareness of foreign and ethnic foods has resulted in mainstream U.S. consumers seeking a variety of flavors and tastes in their prepared-at-home meals. Manufacturers recognize the growing opportunity to market products with ethnic or “exotic” ingredients. Convenience meals, soups and sides give consumers the opportunity to try new tastes without the risks associated with purchasing exotic ingredients and using untested recipes.

    This past year, Birds Eye introduced an orange chicken stir-fry meal under its Whole Market Meals label. The item featured white-meat chicken tossed with crispy Asian vegetables in a sweet and tangy orange sauce. Consumers needed only to heat, simmer and serve.

    Staying on the Asian theme, Thai Kitchen's Simply Asia's Heat & Serve Quick Noodles were pre-cooked Asian noodles with honey teriyaki sauce and a crunchy shallot sesame seed topping. Touting the authenticity of the product was a key objective on the website ( “We've traveled the Orient to bring you the famous and delicious flavors that have made this food loved throughout the world. Following long-kept traditional recipes, our sauces and seasonings capture each Asian region's distinct character and flavor. Our authentic noodles—made in and imported from Asia—are formulated with the highest-grade wheat or rice flour. Our sauces are custom blended in small batches using only superior-grade soy sauces, fresh Asian spices and other premium ingredients…”

    Three-cheese and Chicken Quesadilla was a new Lean Pockets variety said to be a good source of calcium and protein.

    Indian Giving

    Annie's Tamarind Tree offered fast vegetarian Indian entrées, made with “authentic blends of savory Indian spices.” Each entrée came with its own rice pouch to create a complete meal. All eight entrées were wheat- and gluten-free, and some were vegan and/or low-fat.

    A popular East Indian side dish was offered in a convenient format by Patak's. The Basmati Rice was said to be fast, simple and a convenient way to serve perfect rice every time. Its microwaveable packaging heated rice in 90 seconds.

    Venturing to the European subcontinent, Bertolli offered Italian flair with its frozen meal line extensions, including Chicken alla Vodka & Farfalle with asparagus in a creamy tomato vodka sauce; Spicy Shrimp Fra Diavolo & Penne with tri-colored peppers in a spicy tomato sauce; Meatballs Pomodoro & Penne with peppers and onions in a tomato basil sauce; and Chicken Florentine & Farfalle with spinach in a parmesan cheese sauce.

    Moving to Mexico, the Del Real line of “traditionally cooked” processed meats expanded to include family-size, fully cooked 2lb carnitas (fried pork). The line is rounded out by carne molida (ground beef), pork and chicken chorizo and chicharrones (pork rinds).

    Weight Watchers Smart Ones also offered a “south of the border” flair, with its side dish Santa Fe Style Rice & Beans. The low-fat, microwaveable entrée contained 310 calories and 7g of fat.

    Thai Kitchen's Simply Asia's Heat & Serve Quick Noodles attempted to follow the company's philosophy: “to continue to use time-honored traditional Asian culinary methods to ensure the very best quality and taste.”

    Healthy Choices

    Recent events have further motivated consumer desire for healthier food products. For example, obesity among adults and children has reached critical proportions. From 1995 to 2000, adult obesity increased 35%, and childhood obesity increased 36%. Some 31% of adults in the U.S. are considered obese, while more than 15% of children have body mass indexes indicating obesity.

    Targeted to kids, Kraft Foods introduced a “healthful” pasta product. Each serving of Supermac was said to be a good source of whole grains and vitamins B1, C, D and E, as well as an excellent source of calcium. The product was offered in four varieties: SpongeBob Squarepants®, Spiderman®, Fairly Odd Parents® and regular elbow. When prepared using the suggested preparation instructions (which call for 2tbsp of 0g trans fat spread and 1/3c fat-free milk), Supermac products met the company's Sensible Solution nutrition criteria.

    Adding vegetable and minestrone varieties, Campbell's Healthy Request Soup was made with beef stock, contained 30% less sodium than the regular product, and was 98% fat-free.

    Also targeted to kids, Annie's Homegrown introduced D.W. Whole Wheat Pasta & Alfredo in May 2005. Following the success of its Arthur all-natural macaroni and cheese, Annie's created a flavor for his little sister D.W. Featuring whole-wheat pasta to provide growing bodies whole grains and a creamy Alfredo sauce rich in calcium, this macaroni and cheese was promoted as a healthy, delicious meal for the entire family.

    Also in May 2005, Kraft announced the introduction of the Back to Nature line of shelf-stable pasta, cereal, granola, crackers and cookies. Free of hydrogenated oils, Back to Nature organic shells and cheese were positioned to compete directly with successful niche operators, such as Annie's Homegrown, Kraft's only competition other than store-brand products.

    As of July 1999, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began allowing manufacturers of foods containing at least 51% whole grains to make a label claim in reference to the foods' role in reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer. Many products offer consumers the whole-grain benefit, including Knorr Lipton Pasta Sides. The chicken variety features fettuccini pasta in a savory chicken-flavored sauce. The product is free of added preservatives, flavors and colors.

    Filling Up

    Stouffer's Lean Cuisine introduced a line of panini sandwiches that grilled in the microwave with a revolutionary microwaveable grilling tray. Reduced in fat and calories, the new products were available in the following four varieties: steak, cheddar and mushroom—with strips of beef steak, mushrooms, caramelized onions, and cheese on sourdough bread; chicken, spinach and mushroom—strips of grilled white-meat chicken, spinach, sliced mushrooms, roasted red peppers, mozzarella, Romano and Parmesan cheeses with an Asiago cheese sauce on Italian bread; chicken club—with strips of grilled white-meat chicken, crumbled pepper bacon, diced tomatoes, and cheddar cheese with a light garlic ranch sauce on sourdough bread; and Southwest-style chicken—strips of grilled, mesquite-seasoned, white-meat chicken, grilled green peppers, diced tomatoes, onions and Monterey Jack cheese with a zesty Southwest sauce on sourdough bread.

    Campbell's Healthy Request Soup added vegetable and minestrone varieties. The vegetable soup was made with beef stock, contained 30% less sodium than the regular product, and was 98% fat-free. It had no monosodium glutamate (MSG) and was low-cholesterol.

    As the obesity crisis continues to get press coverage, and consumers seek healthier, yet still convenient alternatives, the growth of healthful alternatives for convenience products is expected to continue. USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 likely will influence consumer choices, with the recommendation to increase intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. Attention to portion size, fat, calories, sugar and sodium could attract consumers who want healthier convenience foods and who think their needs are not being met by current meal products. Such attention also could increase usage among existing consumers by giving them an easier way to eat healthfully.

    Involvement in Meal Prep

    Mintel's “Cooking U.S.” (May 2005) report notes consumers are spending more on foods that are quick and easy to prepare, providing them with good-tasting and often healthy meal options that will not cut into time spent on other activities, including necessities such as childrearing and careers. As such, products offering quick and easy meal solutions are gaining in popularity, especially for weekday use. Mintel's “Meal Kits” (May 2005) further notes that meal kits appeal to the fun and sense of accomplishment that even an undertaking as modest as meal kits can bring. A full 52% of respondents to Mintel's survey say they would like to prepare food at home more often but do not have the time, and 25% say they would prepare more food at home if they had the skills; 83% say they like preparing food at home.

    Manufacturers have designed a variety of options to meet the varying need of consumers for involvement. Several products are ready to go, requiring the simple addition of one ingredient. For example, Oscar Mayer introduced a Louis Rich-brand chicken teriyaki variety to its Dinner Starters line in November 2005. The product included grilled chicken breast cuts with rib meat and teriyaki sauce, and consumers “just add rice” to complete the meal. Chicken teriyaki also met consumers' desire for increased ethnic selection. Other flavors available included chicken Alfredo, four-cheese and chicken, and sweet and sour chicken.

    Sara Lee's Jimmy Dean Breakfast Skillets required the addition of eggs and could be prepared in 10 minutes. The product provided four servings and came in three varieties: ham, featuring diced potatoes, ham, red and green peppers, and onions; Southwest style, with potatoes, sausage, peppers, corn, black beans, chipotle cheese and onions; and sausage, with potatoes, sausage, red and green peppers, and onions.

    Offered in a similar format, yet requiring the addition of beef or chicken, Green Giant Create A Meal! Teriyaki Stir Fry meal kit was available in a newly designed package. Under its One Pot Sauce brand, Trader Joe's introduced Mexican-style chili that requires only the addition of meat.

    With all ingredients included, Tyson's Chicken Enchiladas kit featured seven flour tortillas, white queso sauce, sour-cream-flavored cheese sauce and white-meat chicken. It could be assembled in minutes.


    On a front completely opposite from “ready in minutes,” crock pot owners had a number of new options. Many of these simply required pouring contents into a slow cooker, yet often provided much more appetizing appeal—and the appearance of effort—than simply “zapping” a tray. The scent of the meal, cooking on the kitchen counter throughout the day, wafted through the household. Convenience crock pot meals allowed consumers to feel they had made a “home-cooked” meal, yet required minimal effort.

    Banquet introduced a new Crock-Pot Classics flavor: homestyle pork. This product consisted of a savory sauce, pork, red-skin potatoes and vegetables. Also new was a meatballs and pasta variety. These new SKUs rounded out the existing selection that included: chicken with red-skin potatoes and vegetables; herb chicken and rice; beef stew; chicken and dumplings; stroganoff with beef and noodles; and creamy chicken with pasta.

    Marie Callender's also introduced a line of Crock Pot Complete Meals. The line included traditional chicken and potatoes, hearty beef stew, and chunky chicken and noodles varieties.

    On the kid front, Oscar Mayer introduced Nacho Cheese Chicken Shake-Ups, allowing children to season their chicken nuggets. Lunchables Chicken Shake-Ups Meal contained the following: five pre-cooked, breaded, nugget-shaped, 100% white-meat chicken patties, a nacho cheese seasoning packet, an Oreo chocolate cookie-flavored Jell-O pudding stick and a Kool-Aid Jammers 10 tropical punch juice drink (which had only 10 calories). The Shake-Ups concept allowed children to place the chicken nuggets in a pouch, add the nacho cheese seasoning, and then shake it up to coat the chicken nuggets with flavoring.

    Mintel notes that some consumers are looking for an excuse to cook, so it could make sense to promote cooking as being recreational, relaxing, a creative outlet, something to do with or teach children, or a way to promote health (for instance, by controlling portion size). Given Mintel's prediction of the increased desire of consumers to have some involvement in their meal preparations, introductions of this variety are expected to increase, with entirely new concepts sure to be seen.

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

    Sidebar: Going Global

    Meal options for prepared lunches across the world offered lots of variety and appetite appeal. Similar benefits of ethnicity, health awareness and involvement could be seen even in quick-to-serve lunch options. The Finnish seemed to appreciate Indian cuisine: John West Tastes of the World packs an Indian-style tuna lunch with tuna chunks, rice, red peppers, onion and sultanas in a curry sauce.

    Australians seeking a healthy lunch alternative needed to look no further than Simplot's Edgell Light Lunch Garden Vegetable Pasta Salad. This was a ready-to-eat salad in a light, sweet tomato dressing. It was 97% fat-free and contained no preservatives or artificial colors, with each pack providing two portions of vegetables.

    Canadian kids enjoyed assembling Schneiders Smart Lunch meal kit, available in a pizza combo variety. The product contained three slices of pizza crust, Sun-Rype strawberry kiwi juice, pizza sauce, pepperoni, two sour JuicyBlues candies, and part-skim milk mozzarella cheese. It was said to be an excellent source of calcium, vitamin A and zinc. Mini-Deli Combo and Fajitas meals also were available.

    In France, Pommes de Terre á la Ricotta Salmon Atlantique (made by Fleury Michon) was a ready-to-eat cold lunch meal with Ricotta cheese, potatoes and salmon. In Taiwan, Family Mart introduced a curry and pork steak prepared meal said to have a heavy, original and refreshing Japanese flavor. The curry had been stewed for 100 hours with many kinds of fruit.

    In Russia, King Lion Tyla offered Instant Egg Noodles with Stewed Sturgeon & Vegetables in a Mushroom Sauce. Said to be suitable as a business lunch, it claimed to contain real sturgeon.