It’s 4:30 p.m. on a weekday. Although today’s adventuresome consumers still might not know what they want to eat, many do know where they want to eat—and that’s at home according to studies from Packaged Facts and The NPD Group. 

More than half of US adults claim they really enjoy cooking (53%) and more than one-third consider the kitchen to be the most important room in the home (35%), according to Packaged Facts’ report, “Eating Trends: Cooking & Food Shopping” Officials note these percentages have risen compared to a decade ago.

For its part, NPD Group finds that after years of being in the shadows of the health-focused “fresh” movement, more consumers are returning to the grocery freezercase. In 2018, frozen foods were included in 9.8 billion eating occasions in home, up 2% from a decade ago, an increase that represents billions of meals, according to NPD’s daily tracking of US consumers’ eating behaviors.

 “Demographic shifts, like Millennials moving into the busiest times of their lives juggling spouses, kids, and a career, are fueling a greater need for the convenience that frozen foods offer,” says David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America. “Manufacturers are also doing their part in increasing interest in frozen foods by innovating around contemporary food values and emerging flavor trends to provide convenience.” 

 Another growth driver for the frozen foods category is that more than 80% of meals and other eating occasions occur at home. US consumers are primarily turning to frozen foods as a main meal heat-and-eat solution. Dinner is the prime meal where frozen foods come into play to save time. Frozen vegetables and chicken are among the top frozen foods used in dinner meals. 

Overall, frozen entrees at dinner are forecast to continue to grow during the next four years, according to NPD’s “Future of Dinner” study.  Breakfast is another area where frozen foods are growing with frozen waffles, breakfast sandwiches, and fruit being among the most popular.

 “Consumers have always realized that frozen foods offer convenience and a time savings,” said Portalatin. “Now they also realize that frozen food is nutritional and offers the same kind of health benefits fresh food does.”

With increased consumer interest for at-home eating, it falls to product developers to find the right combinations of form, function and flavor with new meal and entrée offerings.

Meal Makers
There’s no denying manufacturers have more at-home competition from meal kit delivery companies, fast-food delivery and even private retail label meal kits. Even so, processors are stepping up to the plate and competing to serve the entire family. 

Tyson Foods, Springdale, Ark., collaborated with Instant Brands Inc.—creator of the Instant Pot multicooker—for a new line of Tyson Instant Pot Kits. Designed to cook in 20 minutes, the fully prepped kits include Tyson 100% all natural, antibiotic-free, as well as premium long-grain rice and bold sauces. Varieties include Hatch Green Chile Chicken Casserole Cajun Style Chicken and Rice and Teriyaki Chicken and Rice. The kits roll-out nationwide this spring in the refrigerated section of the store. Each delivers three to four servings. 

Electric pressure cookers are the target for new meal kits from Tiller & Hatch Supply Co. Walmart carries the frozen, eight-item line, which is backed by superstar Jennifer Lopez and Major League Baseball great Alex Rodriguez. The initial line has eight dishes created by Bruce Hecker of Bruce’s Catering &Events, a Panorama City, Calif., firm known for serving LA’s entertainment industry. Meals include artisanal pastas, hearty stews and flavorful soups—all with no artificial flavors, colors or added MSG. Starting at less than $3 per serving, Tiller & Hatch meals can feed a family of four for less than $12, officials say.

Also new to the freezercase are O, That’s Good! frozen skillet meals, developed by Kraft-Heinz and Oprah Winfrey. Meals carry a suggested retail price of $6.99 and are sold nationwide in six varieties: Chicken Alfredo, Chicken Margherita, Southwest Style Chicken & Penne, Italian Sausage & Rigatoni, Garlic Chicken & Potatoes and vegetarian-friendly Three Cheese Tortellini. All are ready to eat in just 10 minutes and feature antibiotic-free chicken and natural sausage with no artificial flavors, preservatives or dyes.

More interesting iterations include Beetnik Foods’ Fire Roasted Pepper Steak family- style meals. Developed for Costco, the certified USDA-organic and gluten-free line is available in the Southwest region with a suggested retail price of $13.49 for a 32oz family-size meal. Elsewhere, Goya Foods introduced a Goya Paella rice kit, available in 8oz and 19oz boxes for $3.99 and $6.79 respectively.

Bowled Over
Eating just for one? Protein bowls remain one of the most popular formats (carrying over from 2018) and they’ve taken a healthful turn during the past eight to 12 months. 

 Conagra Brands, Chicago, introduced Healthy Choice Grain-Free Power Bowls to deliver 18-20g of protein and 5-7g of fiber per bowl. Each variety is grain-free, gluten-free, fits a low-carb lifestyle and provides a nutrient-dense combination of leafy greens, vegetables lean proteins and riced cauliflower. A range of new frozen entrees from Happi Foodi, Nutley, N.J., includes Keto bowls in flavors such as Chicken Alfredo, Southwest Style Chicken, Cheddar Parm Chicken and Coconut Sauced Chicken. 

Better-for-you options also include six new Green Giant Fresh Veggie Bowls from Growers Express and B&G Foods; Birds Eye Veggie Made Meals for One bowls from Conagra Brands; and four varieties of Bonduelle Heat & Eat Harvest Bowls from Bonduelle Fresh Americas.

Still more new bowls offerings target everything from family style to gourmet flavors—and all promote protein content. Blount Fine Foods, Fall River, Mass., developed a line of 12oz refrigerated bowl entrees under the Blount’s Family Kitchen brand. Varieties include Chicken & Broccoli Alfredo with Penne, Chicken with Noodles in Marsala Wine Sauce, Macaroni and Beef in Tomato Sauce, and Beef Stroganoff with Noodles. Elsewhere, Nestlé USA, Arlington, Va., extended its Stouffer’s brand with six Bowl-FULLS entrees. The line’s “restaurant-inspired recipes” include Fried Chicken & Mashed Potatoes and Chicken Bacon Ranch Pasta. Michael Angelo’s, Austin, Texas, also launched a line of Gourmet Bowls with premium pastas, vegetables and meat proteins. 

This activity isn’t lost on retailers. Last year saw Albertsons Cos., Boise, Idaho, revamp its private label entrées line with as many as 55 new items, from organic plant-based meals for the “flexitarian” to premium high-protein power bowls. In partnership with the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), San Francisco, Albertsons introduced new plant-based frozen bowls and plant-based meatless proteins, all of which are certified USDA-certified organic and contain the PBFA “Certified Plant Based” seal.

“We’re in a new age for frozen meals,” admitted Chad Coester, senior vice president of Own Brands. “Shoppers deserve premium meals that deliver on dietary needs and indulgence. We’ve reimagined our frozen meal lineup with new formats to deliver on quality first.”

Albertsons also went big for breakfast with as many as six new Signature SELECT breakfast sandwiches and four new O Organics breakfast bowls. New O Organics bowls include Chicken Sausage with Bell Peppers Scramble; Eggs, Chicken Sausage, and Ham Scramble; Egg Whites, Spinach, and Chicken Sausage Scramble; and a Huevos Rancheros, Beans, and Egg Scramble.

Quick Eats: Breakfast & Hand-Held
Last year Americans consumed nearly 102 billion breakfasts, with another 50 billion morning snack occasions rounding out the average morning, reports The NPD Group. And, the future of breakfast looks rosy too with forecast growth of breakfast foods that meet consumers’ primary needs of function, convenience, and enjoyment, according to NPD’s recently released “Future of Morning” study (January 2020), which illustrates how morning foods are changing today and into the future.

“While breakfast as an institution is deeply rooted, the what, how, and why surrounding our food and beverage choices and where we get them is changing,” says Portalatin.  “Busy schedules mixed with good intentions and the need for fuel, shape what we eat and drink in the morning.”

Frozen category leader Tyson Foods understandably invests behind its the Jimmy Dean brand. Now associated for much more than plain sausage, the brand’s latest offerings include Jimmy Dean Morning Combos and Jimmy Dean Biscuit Roll-Ups. Morning Combos are mini, portable on-the-go options. Varieties include Mini Maple Pancakes paired with Maple Sausage Bites; and Blueberry Muffin paired with Sausage Bites. The microwaveable Biscuit Roll-Ups feature biscuits, real eggs and cheese and come in three flavors. They deliver 10g of protein per serving (two Roll-Ups) and are ready in less than 2 minutes.

Another industry giant, Kraft-Heinz, collaborated with food blogger and cookbook author Ree Drummond, known as “The Pioneer Woman.” After teaming up earlier last year on a line of sauces and dressings, the two sides developed The Pioneer Woman branded frozen breakfasts, sides and appetizers. Offerings carry a suggested retail of $5.99 and breakfasts include poppable Chorizo Egg Bites, Roasted Vegetable Egg Bites and Cowgirl Quiche.

 More new category offerings include Three Bridges Egg Bites from Valley Fine Foods, Benicia, Calif.; two new plant-based Breakfast Burritos from Alpha Foods, Glendale, Calif.; and new Veggies Made Great Frittatas from Garden Lites, Rahway, N.J. The latest varieties are Broccoli Cheddar and a Mushroom & 3 Cheese Egg White.

In the hand-held realm, new products emphasize full flavor, greater convenience and new better-for-you options.

Conagra Brands targeted adult tastes with its Banquet Mega collection of extra-large hand-held entrees, inspired by consumers’ favorite fast-food restaurant flavors. Varieties include Pepperoni Stuffed Pizza, Meatballs & Mozzarella, Steak & Cheddar and Smoky BBQ Seasoned Pork. Elsewhere, Kraft-Heinz took a kid-friendly approach with its four-item LaunchBox line of frozen, lunchbag friendly thaw-and-serve sandwiches. They feature real cheese, nitrate-free meats and crustless whole wheat bread. Varieties range from Slammin’ Ham & Colby Jack to Kickin’ Chicken & Cheddar—each with 8g of protein and less than 2g of added sugar.

New better-for-you options include three frozen Cool Beans plant-based wraps from Chicago’s C.B. Food Company. Varieties include Moroccan Gold, Spicy Chipotle and Tikka Masala. Luvo Inc., Vancouver, B.C. introduced four 6oz single- serve burritos—each made with 70% organic ingredients and a quarter cup of vegetables. Each delivers at least 10g of protein 5g of fiber. Flavors include vegetarian Poblano Bean & Avocado, vegan Great Karma Coconut Curry, vegan Southern Smokey Greens, and Chicken Poblano. Another processor, Mikey’s LLC, Bethlehem, Pa., introduced two pocket sandwiches—a Buffalo-Style Chicken and Cauliflower & Broccoli Cheddar—each free from gluten, dairy, grain or soy.

Slice of Life
Pizza makers also are carving out a slice of the better-for-you entrée market. 

One interesting move saw category leader Nestlé USA introduce DIGIORNO Rising Crust Meatless Supreme with SWEET EARTH Awesome Grounds. Acquired by Nestlé in 2017, Sweet Earth is the creator of dozens of plant-based offerings, including the Awesome Burger and Awesome Grounds, which both launched in supermarkets last October. Awesome Grounds are made from textured yellow pea protein, wheat gluten, canola oil coconut oil, and other fine ingredients and contains 16g of protein and 4g of fiber per serving.

Last year saw Cappello’s LLC, Denver, introduce what it said was the first almond flour-based pizza. Four gluten- and grain-free varieties include Naked (which consumers can top), Whole Milk Mozzarella Cheese, Uncured Pepperoni, Italian Sausage and Roasted Red Peppers. The frozen pizzas range in size from 6oz to 12oz.

In other moves, Cali’flour Foods, Chico, Calif., went gluten- and grain free with three hand-crafted cauliflower crust pizzas. Varieties include Supreme Veggie, Classic Cheese and Artisan Margherita Pizza. Each pizza offers at least 12g of protein per serving and they carry a suggested retail of $9.99.

Among those setting a course for full flavor was Palermo Villa Inc., Milwaukee, Wis., which launched three entirely new sub-lines within its portfolio. New multi-item lines include the Screamin’ Sicilian ‘ZaBrewski pizzas with a beer-infused crust with premium beer-flavored ingredients; Connie’s Deep Dish, a nod to a well-known Chicago restaurant chain; and Palermo’s Neighborhood Pizzeria. The last style features a medium thickness crust. 

Healthy Choices
There many more new entrées for consumers wanting better-for-you options. Again, one switch from Nestlé was Stouffer’s Meatless Lasagna featuring SWEET EARTH Awesome Grounds (plant-based meat crumbles). Similar to the original offerings with real meat, the new recipe has the same high product quality, taste and texture, the company says. 

 “There’s no denying the current modern food movement is revolutionizing the plant-based space,” says John Carmichael, president of the foods division at Nestlé. “By adding Sweet Earth Awesome Grounds to Stouffer’s and DiGiorno offerings, we’re able to offer our customers the chance to incorporate plant-based meals into their diets while still enjoying the same convenience and delicious flavor of brands they know and trust.”

In another move, Nestlé expanded its Lean Cuisine line with eight items simply billed as having “MORE” in a reference to 20% more protein and vegetables.

Another company touting its nutritional difference has been Real Good Foods, which introduced frozen Stuffed Chicken entrees with 28g+ of protein and only 3-4g of carbs. The antibiotic-free and grain-free entrees come in four varieties: Broccoli & Cheese, Spinach & Artichoke, Cordon Bleu, and Poblano Chili.

Still more entrée competition comes from outside the freezercase. Last fall saw Bonduelle Fresh Americas partner with produce managers to offer Bonduelle Fresh Picked Gourmet Entrée Salads. Each of five varieties comes ready-to-eat (and customizable) with toppings separated for optimum freshness, crunch and taste with a bed of fresh greens, such as baby greens, romaine or arugula. Varieties include Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken Strips, Spanish Inspired Chef Salad with Smoked Ham, Sonora Inspired Salad with Seasoned Grilled Chicken, Steak & Bleu Chopped Salad and Apple Walnut Baby Greens Salad with Quinoa.

Passport to Adventure
Last but not least, prepared entrees can provide a quick culinary trip to another country. One new entry in the freezercase is Cadence Kitchen, a Corona, Calif., firm specializing in gourmet entrees and sides that are flash frozen with liquid nitrogen. The company debuted last fall with 27 items including such ethnic options as BBQ Pork Fried Rice, Japanese Style Curry Chicken, Mexican Style Pulled Pork, Island Beef, Paella Valenciana and Chicken Tikka Masala.

Saffron Road, Stamford, Conn., launched a new globally-inspired frozen entrée product line featuring chicken raised without antibiotics and sustainable plant-based proteins like chickpeas and cashews. This new line features Vegetable Biryani, Coconut Curry Chicken with Basmati Rice, Madras Curry & Chicken Meatballs with Basmati Rice and a Thai Style Green Curry with Chicken. 

“The spirit for flavor adventure and exploration only continues to grow with the rising spending power of younger shoppers – especially Millennials,” says Adnan Durrani, founder and CEO.

This March saw Saffron Road use Natural Products Expo West to introduce two ambient vegan meal pouches. Both meals are Non-GMO Project Verified, Certified Gluten-Free, and dually certified halal and kosher. Varieties are Chickpea Masala and Delhi Potatoes. Both meals are microwave-ready and prepared in just 60 seconds—and, unlike many current brands, never, ever contain any highly processed protein isolates,
the company says.