A Noodles & Company survey, its “2013 National Noodles Poll,” found some 59% of U.S. adults eat noodles or a pasta dish at least once a week. The shape of the favored noodle also proved interesting, with spaghetti leading the way with 68%--but a near-tie for second place between fettuccine (42%), penne (41%) and elbows (40%). Some 78% of noodle or pasta eaters prefer a meat, such as meatballs, to top their noodle dish, while 74% put marinara/tomato sauce at the top of their noodle-topping list.

Of those who consume noodles or pasta overall, 68% prefer spaghetti, while 79% chose Italian as their favorite noodle dish option. Registering a strong second to spaghetti was macaroni-and-cheese, which garnered 52% of the vote. And, while it may seem like an utterly mature segment, macaroni has seen some noteworthy adjustments of late.

Heading into 2014, Kraft Foods has augmented some of its signature products, announcing new versions of its character-shaped pastas in its Mac & Cheese line. The revamped varieties feature an additional 6g of whole grains: and promise to be lower in sodium and saturated fat, but may have gotten the most attention for their coloring. The company is removing yellow number 5 and yellow number 6 from boxes containing pasta shaped like SpongeBob SquarePants, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and How to Train Your Dragon 2 characters, and those with Halloween and winter shapes. The company has opted to use spices instead of artificial food dyes to achieve the dish’s iconic yellow-orange color.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest hailed the move, but leaders there have questioned why the company would not make the adjustment to its entire line of Mac & Cheese.

Kraft spokesperson Lynne Galia explained, “Making ingredient changes isn’t as simple as it would seem. All of the ingredients must work together to deliver the distinctive taste, appearance and texture consumers expect and love from Original Kraft Mac & Cheese. Our fans have made it clear they won’t settle for anything less.”

In Europe, foods with yellow number 5 must include a warning label indicating “This product may have adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Instead of adding the warning, Kraft chose to remove those artificial dyes from its European line and, instead, uses paprika and beta-carotene to add color.

In 2013, Kraft’s Mac & Cheese saw a new competitor emerge, one bearing a strong brand awareness. The Pepperidge Farm brand Goldfish, long famous as a cracker, made its way into side dishes, with Goldfish-shaped pasta. Goldfish Mac & Cheese is exclusive to Wal-Mart, where the line can be found in four varieties: Cheddar, Nacho Cheese, Cheesy Pizza and Butter Parmesan. The company notes the products are all made with real cheese sauce and contain no preservatives.

Pacific Foods added its own take on ready-to-eat (RTE) pasta and macaroni-and-cheese, one geared more toward the natural consumer. The company describes the “modern twist on nostalgic favorites” as “market firsts for their category,” and noted the pair features no added colors, flavors or preservatives. The All Natural Pasta O’s are touted as the first RTE pasta meals on the market, with two full servings of vegetables -- featuring beets, carrots, celery and spinach combined in a tomato sauce. Pacific’s All Natural Mac & Cheese, meanwhile, was touted as the first shelf-stable macaroni-and-cheese prepared with real Cheddar cheese, butter and cream, with no powders. Also setting these products apart was the packaging: a BPA-free, Tetra Recart easy-open carton.

Annie’s Inc. took macaroni-and-cheese into a new pizza for its Rising Crust Macaroni & Cheese Pizza, a product promising organic flour, whole grains and 100% real, rBST-free cheese. Blount Fine Foods took a more traditional approach when it ventured into macaroni-and-cheese territory in 2013, launching 10oz and 16oz cups of heat ‘n go Mac & Cheese under the Panera Bread brand. Production began in September, with product shipping and on the shelves in grocery and specialty stores around the country a few days later.

Macaroni-and-cheese was also among the options added to Hormel Foods’ Compleats line. The microwavable meals expanded in 2013 to add six new, cheesy pasta varieties, all promising to be made with real cheese. While many macaroni-and-cheese varieties unequivocally target younger consumers, the Compleats line aims for an older demographic. In promoting the line, Hormel cited a survey indicating 65% of workers eat lunch at their desks or take no break at all.

“These new products are designed for today’s busy, on-the-go consumers who are looking for convenient foods to power them through the day,” the company notes. The six new options (Mac and Cheese; Italian Herb and Cheese Rigatoni; Three Cheese Chicken Pasta; Cheesy Ravioli; Creamy Cheese and Basil Tortellini; and Smoky Bacon Parmesan Rigatoni) all promise to be protein-rich (the line features 10-21g of protein, depending on the variety) and to be ready in 60 seconds.

The Compleats brand has also expanded into the morning meal with Compleats Good Mornings, a four-item line including Bacon Breakfast Scramble, Sausage Breakfast Scramble, Sausage Gravy & Roasted Potatoes and Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal. Each is ready in approximately 60 seconds and, aside from the oatmeal option, promises at least 10g of protein.

Kellogg Co. also delved further into RTE breakfast territory. Though its options are firmly in the freezer case, they put the focus on unique and bold flavors with an ethnic touch and convenience at their heart. Bite-sized Eggo Bites Waffles and French Toast are single-serving, microwaveable pouches suitable for eating on-the-go; the waffles features a maple flavor, while the French toast option boasts vanilla and cinnamon varieties. The company also leveraged its powerhouse Special K brand into breakfast sandwiches to launch the Special K Bacon Egg and Cheese Flatbread, merging multigrain flatbread, real eggs and bacon into a morning meal option with 220 calories, 11g of protein and 3g of fiber.


Healthy-oriented Meals

Kellogg leveraged the healthy aura surrounding its Kashi brand to introduce a pair of single-serving pizzas, though these pizzas expanded well beyond their Italian roots. Greek Tzatziki and Indian Tikka Masala pizzas feature a crust made with Kashi’s seven whole-grain blend, sesame and flax seed. The Kashi Greek Tzatziki Single-Serve Pizzas boast a stone-fired crust made with Kashi Seven Whole Grains, flax and sesame, and are topped with spinach, artichokes, tomatoes, feta, mozzarella and a sauce of Greek Tzatziki yogurt, cucumber, dill and garlic. The vegetarian dish provides 6g of fiber, 17g of protein and 23g of whole grains per serving.

Kashi’s Indian Tikka Masala Single-Serve Pizzas also are on a traditional, stone-fired crust made with Kashi Seven Whole Grains, flax and sesame, but are topped with mozzarella, fire-roasted eggplant, spinach, tomatoes, crushed red pepper and a spicy Tikka Masala sauce. The vegetarian dish provides 7g of fiber, 18g of protein and 24g of whole grains per serving.

The Kashi brand also added a pair of new Steam Meal options: Kashi Three Cheese Ravioli and Kashi Mushroom and Asparagus Risotto, both made with the signature Kashi Seven Whole Grain blend. The vegetarian Steam Meals offer two servings per bag; Kashi Three Cheese Ravioli Steam Meal features a creamy blend of ricotta, Asiago and mozzarella cheeses, combined with spinach, basil and red peppers, as well as a chickpea purée, and topped with a zesty, garlic-basil Mediterranean tomato sauce. Adding a nutritious spin to a classic dish, this meal delivers 23g of whole grains, 13g of protein and 5g of fiber per serving. Kashi Mushroom and Asparagus Risotto Steam Meal combines rich Crimini mushrooms and crisp asparagus with Kashi Seven Whole Grains & Sesame pilaf and is tossed in a Parmesan cream sauce. It promises nearly a day’s worth of recommended whole grains in one serving with 45g, plus 12g of protein and 7g of fiber per serving.

The Kashi launches were by no means an exception; new meal offerings over the course of 2013 paid a strong degree of attention to consumers’ health demands and expectations. Lean Cuisine, Nestlé’s admittedly healthy-leaning brand of frozen meals, added an entire new sub-line of entrees under the Honestly Good brand, promising they are “made with a combination of thoughtfully selected, quality ingredients that are 100% all-natural and contain no preservatives.” All six varieties boast lean proteins, like whole white-meat chicken breasts and North Pacific wild-caught fish filets, whole grains and farm-selected vegetables with a flavor-packed sauce.

Mike Niethammer, Lean Cuisine’s director of marketing, notes, “We recognize that today’s frozen consumer wants more.  She’s seeking great-tasting, whole ingredients that she can feel good about, like wild-caught salmon from sustainable sources and whole-grain pilaf.”

The six varieties include Pomegranate Chicken (with whole, grilled chicken breast filet; a pomegranate glaze in separate pouch;  green beans, yellow beans, ribbon cut carrots; and whole-grain pilaf with currants); Lemongrass Salmon (whole coconut-crusted North Pacific wild-caught salmon filet; ginger lemongrass sauce in separate pouch; snap peas, orange & yellow carrots, edamame; and brown rice with wheatberries); Roasted Red Pepper Chicken (whole, grilled chicken breast filet; roasted red pepper sauce in separate pouch; sea salt and lemon-seasoned broccoli florets; and whole-grain cavatappi pasta); Plum Ginger Grain-Crusted Fish (grain-crusted North Pacific wild-caught white fish filet; plum ginger sauce in separate pouch; snap peas, wax beans, carrots; and brown rice with edamame); Pineapple Black Pepper Beef (tender, prime rib beef; pineapple black-pepper sauce in separate pouch; green & wax beans, orange & yellow carrots; and brown & wild rice with pineapple and slivered almonds); and Honey Citrus Chicken (whole, grilled chicken breast filet; honey-citrus glaze in a separate pouch; broccoli florets, yellow zucchini; and whole grain radiatore pasta with spinach, slivered almonds and sun-dried tomatoes).


Evolving Ethnic

The frozen food market is expected to grow, reaching $261.5 billion in annual sales in 2015, per the Markets and Markets report “Global Frozen Food Market Analysis,” which forecasts a 3.7% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the segment. As might be expected, driving the growth will be convenience, as time-stressed consumers seek a variety of food options -- but with minimal preparation time. The U.S. is expected to see a CAGR of 4% through 2015, and, while frozen pizza is the fastest growing segment of the category (with a CAGR of 4%), ready-meals account for the largest market share overall (40%).

Standing out from the increasingly crowded meal marketplace can be a daunting challenge, but authentically ethnic offerings have managed to allow several products a foothold. Ramar Foods, for instance, embraced its owners’ Filipino culinary heritage to introduce 10 items, ranging from Filipino-style sausage dishes to Asian desserts.

“Many of our recipes have been passed down for generations and are authentic down to the smallest detail. Cooking is taken to heart from a very young age in the Philippines, and we want to share the sense of passion and joy that comes from these culinary traditions with the rest of the world,” says Primo Quesada, president of Ramar Foods. “We don’t want people to have to travel all the way to the Philippines to get a taste of what the region has to offer. We want to make it easy to enjoy the diverse flavors that have shaped a rich heritage of delicious foods.”

Ramar Foods’ Kusina line offers a tailored array of chicken, pork and vegetable meals. Its zesty and spiced Adobo (available in chicken or pork) has a long history as the national dish of the Philippines and blends vinegar and garlic with hints of soy sauce and black pepper to create a tangy marinade.

Evol Foods may offer more familiar cuisine to American consumers, but the maker of frozen meals, burritos and snacks is not resting on its laurels at all. The company, in fact, has launched a pair of new product lines: MultiServe Skillet Meals and Lean & Fit single-serve meals, with the former line the company’s first foray beyond the single-serve market. Evol’s single-serve Lean & Fit meals are all 300 calories and low in fat, and include such options as Teriyaki Chicken, Lemongrass Chicken, Chicken Tandoori and Chicken Penne Pomodoro. The MultiServe Skillet Meals are frozen entreés meant for two and can be found in six varieties: Uncured Bacon Mac & Cheese, Thai Style Curry Chicken, Grilled Chicken Parmesan, Butternut Squash and Sage Ravioli, Teriyaki Chicken and Chicken Tikka Masala, with the latter two both being gluten-free.

Gluten-free offerings likewise came from Burrito Kitchens, whose four-item, Gluten Free Burritos line promises “ultra-clean ingredients, such as cage-free eggs, free-range chicken and locally grown vegetables,” all within a certified gluten- and wheat-free tortilla consisting of potato and tapioca flour.

Whatever the hook, this appears to be the right time for prepared meal marketers. Millennials are the largest generational group next to Boomers and source more than two-thirds of their dinner meals from home, making them the apple of food marketers’ eyes, finds The NPD Group.

Although certainly not a homogenous group, NPD says there are similarities among Millennials in what motivates them to make in-home dinner meal choices. Key among these motivators are satisfying and tasty, quick and convenient, and economical. Additionally, their significant cutback in restaurant visits -- 49 visits less per Millennial in 2013 than in 2009 -- make them long for an in-home dinner meal that looks and tastes like a restaurant meal, according to NPD food and beverage market research.

After satisfying and tasty, the need for speed is a key driver for Millennials’ dinner choices, finds NPD.  Millennials are not willing to invest more than 15 minutes of time preparing dinner main dishes; clean up time is about half of preparation and cook time. Their cooking appliances of choice are heating in the oven and stove top, according to NPD’s Dinnertime MealScape. Regardless of their reluctance to spend much time in meal prep and cook time, Millennials still consider themselves as good a cook as the average American with 57% rating themselves as a very good cook, finds NPD’s Kitchen Audit.  

Although Millennials’ dinner choices are motivated by many of the same drivers, there are differences between how Millennials without kids and Millennials with kids approach dinner. For example, Millennials without kids require more spontaneity in dinner planning than Millennials with families.  Millennials without kids plan 35% of their in-home dinners within 30 minutes of eating and 48% of Millennial with kids’ dinners are planned the same day more than 30 minutes in advance, finds NPD.  Millennials without families use more recipes from a variety of sources than Millennials with kids do.

 “Millennials with or without kids have distinct dinner behaviors and food marketers need to understand these behaviors in order to flesh out innovation opportunities for this generation,” says Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst. “Convenience is an expectation for Millennials so provide dinnertime value while creating excitement and new experiences, and you’ll catch their attention.”