“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Of course, that’s the beginning to Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Oddly enough, it’s also a way to start describing life in the retail prepared meal, entrée and side dish categories.

The best news is that more consumers are opting for at-home eating. In its 2017 projections, The NPD Group notes, “Watch for the continued development of the ‘blended meal.’ Consumers are dining at home more, and they value fresh and authentic foods, but convenience remains an important part of the equation. People don’t always source meals entirely at home or away. Look for various components of ‘homemade’ meals to be sourced from items fully or partially prepared.”

Similarly, in its 2017 Food and Beverage Outlook, Mintel predicts that the time investments required for products and meals will become as influential as nutrition or ingredient claims. 

“Time is an increasingly precious resource and our multitasking lifestyles are propelling a need for shortcut solutions that are still fresh, nutritious and customizable and already we have seen so-called “biohacking” food and drink that offers complete nutrition in convenient formats,” says Mintel. “In 2017, the time spent on – or saved by – a food or drink product will become a clear selling point, inspiring more products to directly communicate how long they will take to receive, prepare or consume.”

Perhaps the worst news is that—compared to years ago—CPG entrée manufacturers now compete for share of stomach with a much wider set at-home meal providers.

In a separate report, Mintel observes, “It appears the convenience of food delivery service is catching on as a hassle-free option with new research … revealing that 87% of Americans who use third-party food delivery services agree that it makes their lives easier, and nearly one third (31%) say they use these services at least twice a week.”

Entrée Activity

In its May 2016 report, “Prepared Meals-US,” Mintel says sales of prepared meals turned slightly positive in 2015 after three consecutive years of declines, notching an increase of a little less than 1% on gains for both frozen and refrigerated side dishes. Category sales, however, remain below their 2010 level, reflecting more substantial sales declines for single-serve and multi-serve frozen meals, by far the category’s largest segments.

For the record, Mintel pegs prepared meal and side dish sales at just over $10 billion in 2015. Its projection for category sales in 2020 is only $10.1 billion.

Mintel adds, “While usage of frozen and refrigerated meals is high and relatively steady, consumers who say that they are eating fewer of these meals than a year ago outnumber those who report eating more. This downward bias in usage is consistent with weakening category sales in recent years and may reflect consumer sentiment that prepared meals are often overly processed or lacking in nutrition, perceptions that leading competitors are working to counter.”

Mintel is right in saying that leading competitors are stepping up their actions. After launching a host of new items in 2015, category leader Nestlé Prepared Foods came back last year with upgraded ingredient measures. Those moves included a shift to non-GMO verified ingredients for all Buitoni refrigerated pastas and sauces. Nestlé also announced its multi-year “Kitchen Cupboard” commitment for Stouffer’s, which means eliminating artificial flavors, colors and preservatives in favor of fewer ingredient and only those that consumers trust and recognize. The effort kicked off with a reformulated Stouffer’s mainstay item: Lasagna with Meat Sauce. 

Separately, Nestlé refreshed its Lean Cuisine line with some fun ethnic and regional items emphasizing high protein, gluten free and organic ingredients. New, limited-time varieties included a Southwest-Style Potato Bake, Chicken Tikka Masala, Cheese & Fire-Roasted Chile Tamale and Thai-Style Ginger Beef.

ConAgra Brands is following similar trend lines. It emphasized ethnic flavors with a new line of P.F. Chang’s Home Menu Asian-inspired appetizers and family-size skillet meals. New offerings include Pork & Chicken Dumplings (with made-from-scratch sauces) as well as Chicken Fried Rice and Orange Chicken skillet meals available in larger family size packs. 

ConAgra also announced several brand-building moves for Bertolli and Healthy Choice frozen meals and entrées. The company introduced four Healthy Choice Simply Café Steamers with certified organic ingredients and all meals are 270 calories or less. Varieties include an Unwrapped Burrito Bowl, Sweet & Spicy Asian-Style Noodle Bowl, Three Cheese Tortellini and Creamy Spinach & Tomato Linguini. Speaking of pasta, ConAgra also reformulated and repackaged Bertolli so consumers find simpler, clean label ingredients and can actually see those ingredients through a transparent window in the bag. 

Also emphasizing transparency is Better Homes & Gardens publisher Meredith Corporation, which partnered with Bellisio Foods to develop and introduce EatingWell, an eight-item line of better-for-you meals, each with 13 or more grams of protein, antibiotic-free chicken, beef or pork; and whole grains. All items also are free of artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, MSG, and hydrogenated oils. Unique to the EatingWell line is its Fresh-Seal packaging. A cut-away carton provides a clear view of the enclosed meal, which is hand-placed on a black plate and vacuum-sealed in a self-venting film to maintain freshness, reduce freezer burn, and improve shelf life.

Bellisio was equally busy with its own new EAT! line of frozen entrees, which come in three flavors groupings: EAT! BimBap (taste of Asia), EAT! LaVida (Latin American cuisine), and EAT! 2.0 (updates classic American flavors).  Eight new varieties include Chicken and Potato Curry, Korean Inspired Chicken, Orange Chicken, Mexican Style Mac & Cheese with Uncured Bacon, Tomatillo Chicken, Chicken Penne Primavera, Honey Balsamic Chicken, and Lemon Herb Chicken.  Most entrées include one-half cup of vegetables, 100% natural white meat chicken (minimally processed and with no artificial ingredients), and whole grains. All carry responsible nutritional values, including no more than 700mg of sodium or 13g of fat with no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.

Another entirely new brand with similarly short name is Devour, a 12-item frozen meal line from The Kraft-Heinz Food Company, the Pittsburgh, Pa., maker of Smart Ones. 

“For years there has been an unmet need in the frozen meal category for food that’s not just dependable but also something you look forward to eating,” says Brand Manager Molly White. “Finally, there’s a product that gives people what they really want: real taste to fulfill real cravings.”

Those consumers wanting a little more hands-on involvement can find it with two shelf-stable meal prep kits. In one instance, General Mills extended its line called, The Good Table, with four new Freezer to Plate kits. Freezer to Plate pairs one of four new restaurant-inspired sauce varieties with rice or pasta for a simple, one-decision meal that eases the pressure of dinner planning. Requiring less than five minutes of prep time, Freezer to Plate lets consumers combine rice or pasta with water, and add chicken straight from a freezer along with one of four sauce varieties: Lemon Garlic Herb, Marsala, Southwestern or Teriyaki. Items then bake for 45 minutes.

More recently, Revolution Foods, Oakland, Calif., introduced its Dinner Hero and Breakfast Hero speed-scratch meal solutions. The Dinner Hero kit includes whole grains, custom spice blends and sauces with easy-to-follow recipes. Consumers just add protein for a complete meal in 30 minutes. The unique, cookbook-style packaging enhances the experience of cooking for busy parents. Dinner Hero delivers 42g to 49g of whole grains per serving (brown rice and quinoa blend or brown rice and bamboo rice) with no artificial colors or flavors. Chef-created varieties include Coconut Curry, Sesame Garlic, Smoky Tomato Sausage and Fiesta Taco.

Pizza’s Progress

While annual growth in the pizza category has fluctuated over the last several years, the pace picked up modestly in 2015 and 2016 to about 2%, buoyed by growing interest in more premium pizzas. Mintel’s forecast calls for continued modest growth of 11% between 2016 and 2021 to $5.7 billion.

Retail pizza’s continued move to higher quality and greater variety appears to be helping the category increase dollar sales in spite of flat consumption and volume. It also aligns with consumer attitudes. Mintel says three-quarters of category consumers agree that they would spend more on better quality frozen pizza, and more than seven in 10 say they like to try new varieties of frozen pizza. These sentiments point to opportunities for frozen and refrigerated pizza marketers to break frozen pizza shoppers out of shopping routines that result in the same variety or brand being purchased most of the time.

Among those targeting the premium sector is Schwan’s Consumer Brands, Inc., Minneapolis, which last year introduced Freschetta Artisan Crust Pizzas. Varieties include Four Cheese, Pepperoni, Margherita and Chicken & Fire Roasted Vegetable. All feature a 51% multigrain crust made with a unique blend of three whole grains—whole wheat, brown rice and oat flour—kneaded into the dough for a slightly sweet, hearty texture and 21g of whole-grain goodness per serving. The items carry a suggest retail price of $7.49.

For its part, category leader Nestlé targeted several trends. On the crust front, it extended its DiGiorno pizzeria! thin line with two new upscale flavors:  Spicy Sausage Italiano & Provolone and Chicken Parmigiana. Meanwhile, the Tombstone brand loaded up on toppings with a new Roadhouse line promising two layers of 100% real cheese and large cuts of premium meats and vegetables. 

Perhaps most interestingly, Nestlé goes after the snacking occasion with new DiGiorno Artisan Melts. Artisan Style Melts are made with focaccia bread and can be prepared in the microwave or oven (for soft or crispier texture). A 8.3oz box contains two 118g servings. Varieties include Spicy Sausage Pomodoro, Quattro Formaggi, Pepperoni Speciale and Chicken Bruschetta.

Side Show

Side dishes are not about to side tracked when it comes to new product development. Larger companies such as ConAgra and The Schwan’s Food Company have been active to address consumer interest in clean label and certified ingredients.

ConAgra’s Alexia Foods potato brand planned to be non-GMO by the end of 2016 and Non-GMO Project Verified by May 2017. Meanwhile, the brand introduced two new organic offerings: Organic Savory Spice Sweet Potato Fries and Alexia Truffle Fries. 

Schwan’s Consumer Brands renovated its Pagoda egg roll product line in 2015 as a part of a company commitment to simplify ingredients. Last year saw Schwan’s come back with reformulated Pagoda and Crab Rangoon offerings too. 

All Pagoda snacks contain zero preservatives as well as no certified artificial food colors, high-fructose corn syrup and MSG. The brand’s potstickers now contain 60% less sodium; a bold new Lime Ponzu sauce, and a reformulated dough, which officials say is optimized for an authentic steamed experience from the microwave. Additionally, Pagoda Crab Rangoons now contain 100% real crab meat; 25% more meat and the brand’s signature Sweet Chili sauce.

In February 2017, Schwan’s also added two new wonton flavors, Honey Sesame Chicken wontons and Korean BBQ Style Beef Wontons.

Still more new sides promise full flavor, convenience and healthy options.  Keystone Bar & Grill Foods LLC, Cincinnati, partnered with Kroger to distribute and market two of the restaurant’s signature macaroni and cheese offerings—Buffalo Bleu and BBQ & Bacon—in more than 200 Midwest Kroger stores. The 16oz frozen items carry a suggested retail of $8.99. Another interesting new mac and cheese product is actually a refrigerated kit from Three Bridges, Benicia, Calif. Consumers simply add and heat their own milk before mixing in shredded cheddar cheese and pre-cooked macaroni. 

“In our generation of fresher, cleaner eating, we questioned why it’s still appropriate to make cheese sauce from a processed cheese powder, even if it’s for something as iconic American as mac and cheese,” says Ryan Tu, Three Bridges president and CEO. 

Three Bridges Creamy Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese Kit has low sodium levels per serving and contains zero preservatives, artificial flavors or colors. No added fillers are included, and the product contains fresh rBST-free cheddar cheese and premium freshly cooked elbow macaroni. The new Creamy Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese Meal Kit (SRP: $5.49) joins Three Bridges’ existing line of refrigerated pastas and sauces.

In another new kit example, Walmart partnered with Chef Robert Irvine and Robert Irvine Foods to create Signature Sidekicks side dishes. 

Signature Sidekicks cook in less than 10 minutes and can only be found at Walmarts nationwide in the fresh produce section. There are four varieties available for less than $7, including Garlic Balsamic Broccoli, Sesame Ginger Stir Fry, Provençal Ratatouille and Braised Collard Greens.   

Originally appeared in the March, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as Mealtime Maneuvers.

2017 Retail New Products Annual