Remember the Rubik’s Cube? It’s a 3-D puzzle toy with three or four layers, and then various colors in individual squares of each layer. The objective is to twist and turn layers until all the colors match on each side of the cube.

In the end, the user needs just the right combination of maneuvers to make everything align. Interestingly enough, that’s also the secret to success in the prepared meal and entrée categories.

Last summer brought Prepared Foods to the grand opening of a new global refrigerated and frozen food R&D center for Nestlé, the parent to Stouffer’s, Lean Cuisine frozen entrees as well as Buitoni refrigerated pastas. Among those at the Solon, Ohio, event was Nestlé Prepared Foods President Jeff Hamilton.

“The reality is that during the past five years or more, what’s been available to consumers in frozen hasn’t been on-trend with how eating habits have changed,” he said. “Newer brands are addressing that while larger, long-established brands have not been in-step with trends and food culture. We’ve had the right intentions but our efforts did not go far enough.”

“Frozen is truly convenient and sales results aren’t a knock on a category—rather a lack of relevance of products in the category,” he added. “Food culture is very dynamic and always changing. Trends come quickly and we have to be able to identify and address them in real time. That applies for every brand in the category. We now have R&D on site—on this campus—and right across from our marketing people. We believe this combination will translate to real-time consumer insights and product advances.”

Mintel Group addressed the same topic in its November 2015 report titled, “Prepared Meals and Sides-US.” Analysts say “sales of prepared meals and side dishes hover around the $9.9 billion mark in current prices, but category growth has been almost nonexistent, aside from a surge in consumer interest in frozen side dishes in 2015, which appears largely to have cannibalized sales of other prepared meal and side dish options.”

Interestingly, Mintel added, “Prepared meals and side dishes may suffer from a relatively negative reputation in terms of nutrition, but consumers continue to embrace the convenience and variety of options available – to a point. Some 73% of consumers are eating either the same amount (47%) or more (26%) of the products than they did a year ago. With 88% of consumers eating frozen/refrigerated meals or side dishes of some sort, brands have an opportunity to capitalize on the demand for convenience by augmenting their offerings with more nutritious varieties to lure consumers seeking healthier options for themselves and their families.”

Those certainly have been goals at Nestlé Prepared Foods, which has redirected Lean Cuisine away from the brand’s “diet” roots to embrace consumers’ new definition of wellness with creative new on-trend ingredients. Meanwhile, Nestlé has refocused the Stouffer’s line and messaging around wholesome, healthy, quality ingredients.

Speaking first of Lean Cuisine, Hamilton noted, “There’s steadily increasing interest in dieting but the way consumers are thinking about has really changed. It used to only be about lower fat or lower calories. Now what defines ‘healthy’ involves a whole list of new benefits: organic, high protein, non-GMO. Moreover, every consumer has their own sense of how they like to eat healthy.”

Last July saw Lean Cuisine recast its entire line and introduce 10 new Marketplace entrees that combine chef-inspired recipes, premium ingredients and on-trend health notes (non-GMO, organic, high protein, etc.). Stouffer’s drive has been to attack the image of “processed food.” The brand promotes its use of real ingredients—such as cheese and beef and pasta—while it eliminates artificial colors, artificial flavors and preservatives.  Stouffer’s officials also launched an entirely new line, Fit Kitchen, last June.

“Although Fit Kitchen recipes are a little less adventurous than Lean Cuisine, it’s still about high quality ingredients, bolder flavors and high protein (25g to 27g),” Hamilton said. “These are healthy, hearty meals with reasonable calories levels. We’re reaching out to a group of underserviced consumers—men—who have very few options that resonate with them.”

Other large category players include Pinnacle Foods, parent to the Hungry-Man, Birds Eye and Gardein brands; and ConAgra Foods, maker of the Healthy Choice, Marie Callender’s, P.F. Chang’s, Bertolli, Kid Cuisine and Banquet brands. Both companies used 2015 acquisitions to add more on-trend, healthy products.

Pinnacle purchased Boulder Brands Inc., Boulder, Colo., whose healthy refrigerated and frozen food portfolio includes EVOL Foods and Udi’s Gluten Free. Last year saw EVOL introduce a new line of on-the-go CUPS for Target’s Made to Matter program. There are three sub-lines: Scamble CUPs, Fajita CUPS and Veggie CUPS and offerings contain between only 120 to 210 calories per serving.

Officials said new Fajita CUPS make it easier to enjoy fajita meals on the go. Varieties include Sriracha Quesos Grilled Chicken, Pork and Poblano Pesto with Rice, Bell Peppers and Cheese, Grilled White Chicken with Rice, Beans, Veggies and Cheddar and Southwest Veggie, Rice, Bean and Cheddar.

For its part, ConAgra acquired Blake’s All Natural Foods, a Concord, N.H., producer of natural and organic frozen pot pies, casseroles, pasta dishes and other entrees. Officials noted that Blake’s has been one of the fastest growing natural and organic frozen food brands. According to IRI data, the natural and organic frozen single-serve meals category grew by more than 33% between 2011 and 2015.

Back in Omaha, Neb., ConAgra food formulators created Healthy Choice Simply Café Steamers, a line of eight new meals (four classic varieties, four low-carb options) all with less than 310 calories and more than 18g of 100% natural protein.

“Our consumers are always looking for healthy yet delicious meal options and they’re showing a growing interest in foods with real, simpler ingredients,” said Kat Hrabovsky, senior brand manager. “Simply Café Steamers deliver the taste, texture and flavor benefits of steaming, but with 100% natural protein, and absolutely no artificial ingredients.”

In other news, ConAgra completed a major restage of its value Banquet brand. It included adding 20% more chicken to pot pies, real cream and margarine to the mashed potatoes, real cheese to the mac and cheese, and replacing dark meat chicken with 100% natural chicken breast.

Healthy Options

Of course there are many more interesting entrée options nestled in and amongst the large companies’ brands.

Last year saw Grainful, Ithaca, N.Y., expand its Steel Cut Meals frozen entrée line with three new varieties: Tuscan Bean & Kale, Thai Curry and Cheddar Broccoli. All entrées feature 100% whole grain steel cut oats and certified gluten-free, non-GMO ingredients. They debuted nationwide last November at a suggested retail price of $4.99. All meals are prepared in individual kettle batches, and contain one to two whole grain servings with the Whole Grain Council’s stamp.

“So many times, convenient frozen dinners are packed with preservatives and the same old flavors and taste combinations. Steel Cut Meals provide a delicious entrée with better ingredients,” said Chef Jeannine Sacco, Grainful co-founder and chief recipe developer. “Enjoying Steel Cut Meals is a great way to get a protein-filled meal without sacrificing taste.”

Another active marketer has been Feel Good Foods, the Brooklyn, N.Y., team of Vanessa Phillips (diagnosed with Celiac Disease) and her husband, Chef Tryg Siverson. The pair first supplied frozen gluten free dumplings to Whole Foods. More recently, the company has has expanded to gluten-free egg rolls as well as complete Asian inspired meals, such as General Tso’s Chicken, Mongolian Beef and Mu Shu Chicken and Broad Noodles. All products feature all-natural, non-GMO ingredients, no preservatives, MSG or artificial flavors. As an added bonus, for vegans, the dumplings and egg rolls also are dairy free.

Still more names are quite familiar. Amy’s Kitchen, Petaluma, Calif., developed three new offerings of interest gluten-free and vegan consumers: a Thai Green Curry, Chinese Noodles in a Cashew Cream Sauce and a Black Bean & Quinoa Burrito.

Bowling for dollars was Kellogg’s MorningStar Farms brand. Its 2015 vegetarian-friendly launches included a new Thai Yellow Curry Veggie Bowl, Mushroom & Asparagus Orzo Veggie Bowl , Tuscan Greens and Beans Veggie Bowl, and a Spicy Black Bean Enchilada Veggie Bowl. All offerings deliver 9g to 15g of plant-based protein.


Originally appeared in the March, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Solve the Puzzle.