Ready-to-eat meals, long since evolved from the TV dinners of yesteryear, today reflect the diversity of the consumer base and its demands. Frozen entrees, shelf-stable meals and meal kits meet a variety of expectations, from authentically ethnic cuisines to allergen-free formulations. However, nearly all require sauces, flavors, vegetables and – frequently -- proteins.
Make no mistake, when the subject is meals, the chief competition for manufacturers is the restaurant. There is a positive side for manufacturers and retailers, however.  An NPD Group study predicts that an increase in competition from prepared foods found in supermarkets, drug stores and other retail outlets “will continue to capture share of the meal/snacks market by stealing visits from restaurants.” 
Indeed, NPD’s recent foodservice forecast through 2022 predicts instances of prepared food purchased at retailers for at-home consumption will increase by 10% during the next decade. Commercial foodservice traffic, on the other hand, while still growing, is expected to increase by a relatively tame 4% during that same time period. 
Consumer expectations for meals differ, even if the prepared meal purchase frequency is consistent across age demographics. The NPD’s “A Look into the Future of Foodservice” finds adults 35 and older are more likely than 18-34-year-olds to look to prepared meals to meet their in-home supper needs. Seniors (those over the age of 65) are particularly interested in lunch-at-home options in prepared meals, while 18-24 set is more apt to turn to retail outlets for afternoon or evening snacks. 
Indeed, it is that precise demographic Nestlé targets with its Hot Pockets line—a range which has seen something of an ingredient upgrade in the past few months. Recent years have seen the manufacturer work with chefs, visit restaurants and conduct consumer surveys, particularly with young adult males, who comprise 60% of Hot Pockets’ consumers. As such, the line has seen fresher, healthier, higher-quality ingredients, including Angus beef, hickory ham, pepperoni, white meat chicken and “real cheese” in the snack, as well as two crust options: a buttery garlic or a croissant-like variety. 
“Hot Pockets is excited to grow with its fan base; and really, the dialogue with our fans has spurred these major changes,” explains Hot Pockets brand director Daniel Jhung. 
“Our fans, namely Millennial consumers, have high food IQs and high expectations. And, because they expect more, we gave it to them. In blind taste tests, three out of five consumers significantly preferred the new-and-improved Hot Pockets Pepperoni Pizza sandwiches over our prior recipes,” Jhung continued.
Nestlé has embarked upon something of a rebranding campaign for the 30-year-old Hot Pockets, touting not its age but its “premium cuts of meat,” “seasoned crusts” and that “real cheese.” Inherent in the entire Hot Pockets redux has been one key factor: Convenience is no longer enough. 
At one time, quick preparation was sufficient to serve as virtually the sole selling point of the line; now, however, Nestle has learned that most Millennials—including the young men who are at the heart of the Hot Pockets demographic—consider themselves “foodies” focused on food quality and health. Hot Pockets’ sales suggest Nestle need not have bothered with consumer surveys: According to Euromonitor International, U.S. sales of Hot Pockets fell $30 million between 2009-2010, to a still-healthy $614 million. But, a 5% drop is a 5% drop. Sales have rebounded to a degree since then, but the Hot Pockets revamp suggests manufacturers should be well aware that consumer interests are undergoing a transformation.

Options Most Often

As a whole, younger adults are more likely to turn to pizza, hot dogs and burgers for at-home consumption, while people over 50 are looking to purchase both fried and non-fried chicken. Chicken, specifically non-fried options, are also of interest to younger adults, who are in fact less likely to order fried chicken. Chicken—of all preparations—is among the home meal-replacement entrées purchased most frequently from retail outlets, along with pizza and macaroni-and-cheese.
“Capturing visits from direct competition, like prepared foods retailers, has been the primary source for a restaurant operator’s growth over the past 10 years, and this will continue to be the case,” says Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst. 
Any attempt to “pull consumers out of their homes and back into restaurants will require touting the benefits of eating out vs. staying at home and cooking; or eating meals offered by home meal-replacement retailers,” Riggs believes.
The trend toward more at-home dining reflects a number of factors: a desire for more family time together, for one. But, it could also be something of a desire to know more about what the family is consuming. A study out of Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute finds diners are consuming far more calories in their fast-food meals than they realize. Adults underestimated the calories in fast-food meals by 20%, the study finds, but young people—specifically teens—underestimated the calorie count by 34%. Parents of school-age children missed the mark by 23%. 
The study, conducted in 2010 and published in the May 2013 British Medical Journal, surveyed 3,400 adults, teens and parents of school-age children who visited 89 fast-food restaurants. A quarter of all participants underestimated the calories in their meals by at least 500 calories. If the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) had its way, more healthy items would be on children’s menus, at the very least. 
The CSPI finds the number of restaurants offering fruit and vegetables on children’s menus increased from 1% in 2008 to 3% in 2012 and, further, notes a March 2013 study which found 97% of the nearly 3,500 combinations available on children’s menus at 34 major restaurant chains failed to meet nutritional criteria for 4-to-8-year-olds, per recommendations in the USDA Dietary Guidelines. In fact, 91% of the meal options failed to meet the requirements for the National Restaurant Association’s voluntary Kids LiveWell program. 

Big Picture of TV Dinners

With even the often-reviled but just-as-often venerated Hot Pockets line embracing elements of the gourmet, what does this portend for the stalwarts of the prepared meals of years past? Is there a place for Hungry Man TV dinners and Hamburger Helper in the world of Angus beef and hummus? In fact, they do have a place, even if in the case of the Hungry Man meals, little has changed: The “man-sized” meals pack just as much into their portions. However, the line has added such flavors as Smokin’ Backyard Barbecue, available only for limited periods. 
With the emergence of “foodie” culture fueled by a plethora of cooking shows across the television landscape, many consumers are looking to add their own take on mealtime, even if that “interpretation” is simply adding an ingredient or two to a standard meal kit. Kraft, for instance, has a pair of entrants in this emerging segment. Its Velveeta Cheesy Skillets line includes such flavors as lasagna, chicken Alfredo and supreme nacho, which requires the consumer to add the meat and “whatever else they want.” Kraft’s Recipe Makers, meanwhile, features two sauces and a recipe; the consumer adds the meat and whatever vegetables they wish. Kraft contends the product addresses the “two parts of homemade cooking that often take the most time.” 
A similar goal is behind the Recipe Ready brand of pre-chopped vegetables from Bird’s Eye. This line of 20 different vegetables is intended to inspire such dishes as sofrito, Marsala and primavera, even including a variety of chopped vegetables ready to put on a pizza. Frozen pizza, for its part, is enjoying something of a healthy makeover, courtesy of Better For You Foods LLC’s Better4U Sprouted Grain Pizzas. Sprouted grains hold the promise of higher fiber, vitamin and mineral content, and the two Better4U varieties are Bruschetta and Old World Veggie, each with 39g of whole grains per serving. 
Pizza may be a staple on school lunch menus, but with a host of federal and state regulations demanding a healthier variety of options on those menus, manufacturers have had to rethink their offerings. Sara Lee Foodservice has launched an enhanced portfolio for the kindergarten-12th grade education sector, featuring items based on turkey for breakfast and lunch. Among the products, all bearing the Briar Street Market brand, are turkey chili, turkey with gravy, turkey sloppy joe meat, turkey spaghetti sauce, turkey taco filling and diced turkey breast meat. These join a range of products for K-12 that includes lower-sodium and whole-grain options. 

Beyond Breakfast

A brand that made its name in the breakfast daypart has expanded into other mealtimes. Kashi has added Steam Meals and introduced Kashi Three Cheese Ravioli and Kashi Mushroom and Asparagus Risotto. Each is made with Kashi’s signature seven-whole-grain blend and offers two servings per bag. The Three Cheese Ravioli variety blends ricotta, Asiago and mozzarella cheeses, combined with spinach, basil and red peppers, as well as a chickpea purée, and topped with a garlic basil Mediterranean tomato sauce, to deliver 23g of whole grains, 13g of protein and 5g of fiber per serving. The Mushroom and Asparagus Risotto features whole grains and sesame pilaf tossed in a Parmesan cream sauce, to provide 45g of whole grains, 12g of protein and 7g of fiber per serving. 
Hormel Foods has likewise expanded a successful meals line and introduced a host of new Compleats microwave meal options. The shelf-stable line now includes such options as Smoky Bacon Parmesan Rigatoni, Creamy Cheese and Basil Tortellini, and Italian Herb and Cheese Rigatoni. 
The introductions join an increasingly crowded market for meals and meal kits, one set for even more competition, considering General Mills’ plans to add some 200 new products this summer and in the fall. Admittedly, not all of those will be meals (indeed, the company is adding several new Fiber One bars and Go-Gurt Protein yogurt), but it does include a significant overhaul of the Hamburger Helper brand. In fact, the term “hamburger” is downplayed, as chicken has proven at least as popular, with new chicken options to include Crispy Cheddar Bacon Chicken and Crispy Ranch Chicken. In addition, Ultimate Helper mixes will include a sauce pouch, a first for the brand, in such flavors as Three Cheese Marinara and Cheddar Broccoli. 
Manufacturers, it is clear, have realized that variety is not only the spice of life but virtually essential to modern-day meal success.