The prepared meals category revolves around helping consumers save time, so convenience would seem a given. However, the instant noodle, pasta and rice segment of the meals category saw a substantial increase in convenience-based claims, with Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD) noting a particular upsurge in “convenient” and “microwaveable” claims in the latter part of the year. The segment also benefited from a number of health positionings, such as low-fat or added vitamins and minerals. These healthy angles helped position these products (heretofore regarded largely as side dishes) as competitors to meals and snacks in their own right.

It is, however, the convenient claim that is this segment’s true hallmark. Consumers facing time-crunched lives are turning to snack-like meals of small dishes at several points throughout the day. Mexico, for instance, saw Productos Alimenticios La Moderna release Instant Noodles Soup under its La Moderna Kids brand. Sopa Instantánea is a wheat flour pasta soup with shrimp. Microwaveable and fortified with vitamins (B1, B2, niacin and folic acid) and calcium, the line also includes chicken, beef and shrimp with chili varieties.

Of the healthier introductions in the meals category over the past years, whole-grain positioning seemed particularly strong. Lean Pockets made with whole grain, for example, featured 220 calories, 7g of fat and 16g of whole grains per serving.

Be Prepared

In the prepared meals segment, a search of Mintel’s GNPD finds a strong surge in “microwaveable” claims, with “convenient” not far behind. “Low-in” claims could be found, as well, and premium offerings are starting to focus on authenticity and high-quality ingredients.

Convenience again played a natural role in this segment, which is not a surprise considering the prepared meals concept is tailored to save consumers cooking and preparation time. A Mintel report (“Frozen Meals--U.S. 2007”) found 74% of U.S. consumers who eat frozen meals say they prepared them in the microwave, while 89% of those who eat frozen meals choose them because they are convenient. One of the most interesting products in this arena featured a packaging innovation: a cooking system to help keep delicate ingredients separate while cooking. The Chicken Tikka Masala & Basmati Rice meal under the Discover Cuisine Flavors of India brand was repackaged into the dual-tray microwave cooking system. A product of The Pasta Mill, it promises that the “top tray simmers” while the “bottom tray steams.” Perhaps even more notably, the product also carries a label noting “Health Check from the Heart & Stroke Foundation.”

Also joining the microwaveable ranks, Overhill Farms’ Meals to Go brand of ready meals featured turkey breast with mashed potatoes, dressing and gravy; beef pot roast; and cheese tortellini in a microwaveable tray. A similar product could be found from Hormel Foods: chicken breast and dressing with gravy was one of a host of new varieties under the Hormel Compleats brand. The meals were microwaveable in 90 seconds.

Also taking advantage of the microwave, Bob Evans Farm released Pigs in Blankets. The smoked sausages with cheese were wrapped in dough and could be microwaved in 20 seconds when refrigerated or, when frozen, in 45 seconds.

The year also proved strong for claims of no additives/preservatives. A Mintel report (“Shelf-stable Meals--U.S.”) found 56% of American consumers said they would be interested in all-natural versions of shelf-stable meals. Of these, 62% said they would be willing to pay slightly more for these formulas, suggesting natural products may have a future in the prepared meals segment. Numerous organic ranges also could be found this year, exemplifying the growing importance of ingredients and their source. That same report found 47% of U.S. consumers said they would like to know about the ingredients in a product before buying it--well ahead of the 36% saying the same in 2002.

Italia Foods’ Vallo Diano brand added Rigatoni Diano, comprising rigatoni pasta in tomato sauce with chicken sausage, chicken strips, peppers and onions. Another microwaveable product, it promised to be 100% natural and also “100% pork-free.”

“Natural” remains an ill-defined label, though, and many consumers are seeking organic products, somewhat challenging to find in the prepared meals segment. However, recent years have seen a slew of organic entries. This year, Fairfield Farms Kitchens introduced several chicken meals under its Organic Classics brand: Rice & Chicken; Confetti Rice Pilaf & Chicken with Honey BBQ Sauce, described as “tender slices of organic chicken breast with authentic honey chipotle sauce surrounded by aromatic Basmati rice (it also bears a number of “low-in” claims: fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol); Cajun Style Chicken Tetrazinni with Penne Pasta; and Chicken Marsala with Mashed Potatoes.

Prepared meals remain burdened with an unhealthy image, as consumers tend to view them as over-processed and less natural compared to cooking from scratch. The “Shelf-stable Meals” report found 30% of Americans do not eat them because they do not believe they are healthy. The aforementioned Confetti Rice Pilaf & Chicken with Honey BBQ from Fairfield Farms promised to be low in a variety of areas, but it was far from the only meal featuring something of a healthy angle. This path could prove wise, considering Mintel’s research finds 60% of American consumers said they would be interested in low-sodium versions of shelf-stable meals.

Canada saw Lucerne Foods opt for the low-fat route with its Roasted Vegetable Lasagna under its Eating Right brand. The microwaveable product is made with multi-grain pasta and, in addition to being low in fat, is also high in fiber. Heart & Stroke Foundation-approved, the line also includes a microwaveable Italian Chicken Tomato Lasagna.

Health has taken on whole new meanings in recent years. Lucerne staked its healthy concept on multi-grains and low-fat, while Kahiki Foods went after consumers seeking to avoid artificial additives, colors or preservatives, as well as trans fat. The entrées have joined the Kahiki Naturals brand in two flavors: General Tso’s Chicken and Mandarin Orange Chicken. Speaking to the typical natural/organic consumer, the company promises the products are “minimally processed.”

For many consumers, calories are the true enemy, and this year saw several low-calorie introductions. Michelina’s introduced Sesame Chicken under its Michelina’s Signature Lifestyle Selection brand. The microwaveable entrée features breaded white meat chicken nuggets and sesame plum sauce with pasta, while boasting 400 calories per serving. A spaghetti and meat sauce variety has 370 calories per serving.

Nestle likewise went the low-calorie route, when it reformulated the recipe for its Pork Stir Fry under its Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine Spa Cuisine Classics brand. With only 280 calories and 0g trans fat, the product includes roasted duck, edamame and water chestnuts in an Asian-style garlic sauce over whole-wheat pasta, which is made with 100% whole grain. The company also reformulated a grilled chicken primavera variety.

Catering to the weight-conscious, Heinz introduced Weight Watchers SmartOnes Anytime Selections, a line of hand-held, mini-meals in two flavors: Chicken & Cheese Quesadilla and Calzone Italiano. The company furthered its efforts in health and wellness with the launch of Smart Ones Fruit Inspiration, the first line of frozen meals to contain a half-serving of fruit.

With restaurant takeout an increasingly attractive proposition to consumers, manufacturers are realizing the need to promise and deliver on restaurant-quality expectations. Freschetta’s PizzAmore frozen pizza took the concept a step closer to delivered pizza by pre-slicing the pie.

For the Kids

Children’s meals, a small segment of the prepared meals category, showed signs of breaking out in the latter parts of the year, appealing to time-crunched parents looking for a fast and sometimes healthy meal solution. To lure the young people, the products featured popular characters, fun shapes or interesting themes.

Heinz introduced Pasta Shapes in Tomato Sauce in Canada. The DreamWorks Shrek Pasta Shapes in Tomato Sauce was microwaveable and free from preservatives. The line also included Disney Princesses and SpongeBob SquarePants versions. Amy’s Kitchen avoided the licensed character route for its Kids Meals Mexican Quesadilla. Made with organic wheat, rice and beans, it contained no trans fat, MSG, preservatives, GMO or bio-engineered ingredients, but it did include a chocolate cake for an end-of-meal treat.

In its instant noodle kit introduction, Thailand’s Mawai Food Corp. targeted health-conscious individuals and, at the same time, included a Kids Bowl Seafood variety that offered 200mg of omega-3 with docosahexaenoic acid fatty acids. The three flavors for the grown-ups were seaweed, chicken and Tom Yam Kung. The noodles had no monosodium glutamate or salt and also boasted 60% lower saturated fat, when compared to other instant noodles. Interestingly, the flavoring was not added on the noodle; it was packed separately to prevent the nutrients from being damaged by heat during the cooking process, the company noted. Also, catering to the environmentally conscious, the packaging was “nature-friendly, reusable food-grade plastic.”

Big Time

The year also saw a number of larger options, theoretically attempting to appeal to men: Mintel’s “Frozen Meals” report found that 58% of American men who eat frozen meals would like bigger portions, as opposed to 39% of women. Speaking directly to the males, Pinnacle Foods Corp. debuted Roasted Carved Turkey under its Hungry-Man brand. Made with mostly white meat turkey with gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes and corn, it retailed in an 18.7oz pack.

Meanwhile, Birds Eye Foods introduced No Beans Chili con Carne under its Nalley Big Chung brand, but extra beef set this product apart. The “beefiest” chili combined a blend of seasonings with “15% more savory ground beef than government standards require,” while also being microwaveable.

Adding Up

Processors have realized that health means more than just ridding the diet of “bad” elements. Many consumers are looking for benefits from their diet, and several companies incorporated additional vitamins and vegetables to their lines. Taylor Fresh Foods’ Taylor Fresh Steam Cuisine brand added a Broccoli with Rice and Cheese variety made with harvest vegetables. The company described it as a fresh, 100% natural product that will steam in the microwave in two minutes. With no preservatives, it was also high in vitamins A and C.

Mexico saw Eden Foods’ release of Kidney Beans & Rice under the Eden Organic brand. The product was rich in antioxidants and a good source of fiber, while also low in salt and fat. In Canada, meanwhile, Unilever released Pasta Meals under the Knorr Mediterranean Inspirations brand. The range of microwaveable meals included a garlic shrimp, penne and cherry tomatoes variety in a white wine sauce (featuring two servings of vegetables); chicken, rigatoni and broccoli; rosemary chicken, linguine and cherry tomatoes; and shrimp and penne primavera varieties.

Special dietary needs also have emerged as a concern for manufacturers in the past year, with introductions for vegetarians, celiac sufferers and lactose-intolerant consumers. Kashi extended its line of all-natural, prepared meals with a new Black Bean Mango option comprised of black beans, onions, roasted peppers, Kashi seven whole grains, sesame pilaf and a mango sauce. Suitable for vegans, the Kashi meal has 8g of protein and 7g of fiber per serving.

Amy’s Kitchen continued to introduce items appealing to consumers seeking meals with reduced allergens. Its Indian Mattar Tofu was a non-dairy variation of traditional matter paneer, using tofu along with organic peas in a delicately seasoned sauce. Organic-certified, the mildly spiced meal had no GMOs, preservatives, trans fat or gluten.

The latter was similarly absent from the Cheddar Broccoli Risotto released in Canada from Lundberg Family Farms. The company described the product as “a creamy rice gourmet meal in the Italian tradition.” Gourmet is emerging as a key point of differentiation for prepared meals, and authentic recipes with locally sourced ingredients might be a way for manufacturers to appeal to those consumers looking for restaurant-quality meals at home. For instance, Portobello mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and cavatappi pasta were just some of the ingredients added to Kraft's Macaroni & Cheese in the company’s effort to attract what it called "liberated boomers.” The Kraft Bistro Deluxe line was described as a "sophisticated Mac & Cheese experience with unique ingredients that appeal to an adult palate." Kraft also made headlines in the category late in the year by a simple word change: its South Beach Diet line saw its moniker become South Beach Living, an effort to encourage people to “adopt life-long healthy eating habits.”

Centerpiece

A focus on healthy dishes at home has become a hallmark of the meal centers, pizzas and pies segment of the prepared meals category. Organic, natural, additive-/preservative-free and “low-in” claims all saw strong activity over the year, as health issues continued to dominate the landscape. However, similar to the other segments in this category, convenience dominated, with package labels featuring such phrases as “ready in seconds” and “grab and go.”

In Canada, Amore Foods introduced a California Chicken Sandwich under its Signature Grills brand. The sautéed chicken and sun-dried tomato dressing on a baguette featured a microwaveable grilling pouch for two-minute preparation. A Giant Gobbler variety was also available, comprising sliced turkey breast, grilled veggies, provolone cheese and a sun-dried tomato and mayonnaise dressing on a focaccia bun.

The U.S. saw a number of such introductions, including Mini Quesadilla Slices from Farm Rich. The cheese and chicken variety comprised all white-meat chicken, mozzarella, cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses with chicken and tomatillo salsa in a wedge-shaped crust. The microwaveable product can be ready in 30 seconds.

Schwan’s Home Services’ Grilled Cheese Toastwich was similarly quick to prepare. It promised crisp and butter-grilled dough filled with a cheddar cheese blend, and Schwan’s also launched a microwaveable Sausage Breakfast Bagel pouch.

Nestle introduced a couple of convenience-oriented sandwiches. One was more of a repackaging, as the Mexican Style Three Low Fat Cheese and Chicken Quesadilla version of Lean Pockets’ Stuffed Sandwiches got a new look and, more importantly, a new on-the-go sleeve. Nestle also introduced Hot Pockets Pizza Stix Pepperoni Snack, a grab-and-go meal said to be ideal for a quick lunch. The Hot Pockets brand also saw a bit of fortification, as Nestle included seven essential vitamins and minerals in the Chicken, Broccoli and Cheddar variety of its Croissant Crust line.

Similar to the Lean Cuisine product were Van’s International’s Stuffed Sandwiches. However, the Van’s products were vegetarian sandwiches that were microwaveable and featured no artificial colors, flavors or trans fat. The four varieties included: sausage, egg and cheese; western-style egg and cheese; pepperoni pizza; and ham and cheese.

All-natural was also a selling point for DiCapo Foods’ Hot Tamales released under the Jim’s Famous brand. The microwaveable products came in beef and chicken varieties.

In addition to natural offerings, consumers were able to find new organic options, as well. Elena’s Food Specialties introduced an Organic Chicken Burrito under the PJ’s Organics brand. The hand-rolled flour tortilla was wrapped around organic chicken and two cheeses. A release in Canada, meanwhile, also went the ethnic route: Fillo Factory’s Mushroom and Leek Sandwich under the Aunt Trudy’s Fillo Pocket brand was a microwaveable, snack-sized item certified as vegan, while also being free from trans fat and cholesterol.

Healthy is also a strong selling point for parents seeking a mealtime option for their children, and processors are responding with healthier items. Hain-Celestial Group, for example, introduced Whole Grain Cheese Pizza, with 38g of whole grains per serving. Made with organic ingredients such as whole-grain wheat flour and tomatoes, the product was all-natural, and the company claimed it was specially formulated for children and served as an “excellent” source of iron, zinc and six B vitamins. Oregon Tilth certified the product as 70% organic, as well.
Much of the information in this article was derived from the Mintel Global New Products Database, www.gnpd.com, 312-932-0400.

Going Global

The U.S. was not alone in seeing entries in larger sizes in efforts to appeal to larger male appetites. In the U.K., Heinz launched Spicy Bean Meals aimed at young men. The three varieties included: Beanz With Balls; Red Hot Balls; and Big Saucy Bangers. The country also saw ASDA launch Large Sausage Rolls, in a golden puff pastry free from colors, preservatives, artificial flavorings or hydrogenated fat.

Also in the U.K., Green Isle Foods sought to position its range of pizzas as adult with the Goodfella's La Bottega brand. The bigger, stone-baked ciabatta base featured more pronounced flavors, new toppings and signature sauces in varieties such as pepperoni classico; mozzarella & pesto; sweet chilli chicken; and speciale.

U.K. males were far from the only country's men targeted by manufacturers. In Australia, Nestle released a larger-size Chilli Con Carne With Rice. The spicy beef chili with a tomato and red bean sauce was served over rice, corn and capsicum, and it was 97% fat-free. In addition, the product also touted its healthiness by being an official partner of the Australian Institute of Sport and promoting "active, healthy lifestyles."

That said, the category also saw some interesting takes on upscale products around the world. Denmark consumers saw Queens Products launch Tiger Prawns Pad Thai Wok Meal, featuring three separate bags for the vegetables, prawns and sauce; the ensemble was described as "easy to be fried in a wok." Prawns were also a feature of a meal kit in Singapore: Ready-To-Cook Meal Kit For Prawn Mee from Prima Food Pte. was a noodle soup dish free from artificial colors and preservatives.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE MINTEL GNPD