What’s life like for prepared meal and entrée processors? Imagine a supermarket freezercase aisle with walls of closed-door, upright cases. Today’s energy-efficient displays are dark until motion detectors register a shopper’s movement. Then voila! That instantly triggers internal lighting to pop on and illuminate the shelves. And there’s the analogy. Today’s at-home meal solutions are front and center, right in the spotlight.

“With mandated shelter-at-home and restaurant dine-in restrictions across most of the country during the pandemic, we have had few options other than to prepare most of our meals at home,” says David Portalatin, author of Eating Patterns in America and a food industry advisor to The NPD Group Inc., Port Washington, N.Y. “Working from home, schooling at home, and preparing more meals means more of our meal times are a departure from the norm, with most consumers describing their meals as atypical.”

NPD consumer insights data show that for several years approximately 80% of meals were sourced (prepared) from home while the remaining 20% was sourced from restaurants and other foodservice outlets. During the pandemic, that gap has widened to as much as 87% of meals sourced from home.

Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md., assembled its own report titled, “U.S. Food Market Outlook 2020: Home Cooking, Grocery Shopping, & Food Trends in the Age of Coronavirus.”

It observes, “While manufacturers of center store products have done much to improve the quality and health/nutrition profile of their products, the current crisis is likely to offer up some opportunities. For example, many consumers are being introduced or reintroduced to shelf-stable and frozen foods they may have shunned previously. This may spur future sales of products—such as frozen pizza and meals and natural, organic soups—that have made noticeable quality improvements over the last several years.”

Pardon the play on words but meal and entrée processors are stepping up to the plate with new product ideas. These include traditional lunch and dinnertime meals and entrées to suit all tastes—including meatless options, ethnic items and clean label concerns. There’s still more activity refreshing the breakfast and pizza categories. Last but not least, more finished food processors are promoting direct-to-consumer solutions.


Something for Everyone

With more consumers scrutinizing prepared foods, freezercase leaders such as Nestlé USA, Conagra Brands, and others have been active generating “new” news. 

Nestlé’s, Solon, Ohio, prepared foods unit launched a 15-item Life Cuisine sub line (pictured) to address clean label interests and four consumer dieting preferences: low carb lifestyle, high protein, meatless and gluten free. Offerings include layered bowls, cauliflower-crust pizzas and sous vide egg bites

“Eating well is no longer ‘one-size-fits-all,’ so our offerings can’t be either,” said John Carmichael, President, Nestlé Foods Division. “As needs evolve and expand, our team of culinary experts and nutritionists works in lockstep to deliver contemporary meals made for these emerging food lifestyles, from gluten free to meatless and beyond.”

Separately, Nestlé said it reformulated more than half of its Lean Cuisine portfolio so that all offerings contain fewer than calories with 10g of fat or less. Central to the effort are new Lean Cuisine Bowls, a line of 18 dishes that feature 13 updated best-selling recipes with 20% more ounces of food compared to similar previous offerings in the tray format.

Conagra also was busy developing more plant-based options across all its lines including Birds Eye, Gardein, Healthy Choice and Marie Callender's. Last year saw it introduce Birds Eye Meatless Lasagna with Gardein Plant-Based Protein, Birds Eye Skillets with Gardein Plant-Based Protein, Healthy Choice Power Bowls with Gardein Plant-Based Protein and Marie Callender's Pot Pies with Gardein Plant-Based Protein. Addressing dietary preferences, it also launched Blake's Gluten Free Mac and Cheese; keto-friendly EVOL Pizza; EVOL Modern Lifestyle Bowls with Paleo-friendly options; and Healthy Choice Power Bowls Whole EARTH BOWLS, in Green Goddess (vegan) and Buddha Bowl (vegetarian) varieties.

Among others targeting category opportunities is Del Monte Foods Inc., Walnut Creek, Calif., Already known for vegetables, it launched a four-item frozen line of  Veggieful Pocket Pies. Each has one full serving of vegetables baked in a crust made with cauliflower and wheat flour. Varieties include Broccoli Potato Cheddar, Spinach Artichoke Parmesan, Plant-Based Philly Cheesesteak, and Rosemary Garlic Plant-Based Chicken. 

More brands and businesses hope to attract curious flexitarians, vegans, vegetarians and. Last year saw Nestlé’s Sweet Earth Foods, Moss Landing, Calif., introduce two new plant-based frozen burritos and six new plant-based entrée bowls. Back east, Skinny Butcher, Taylor, Mich., introduced four refrigerated plant-based entrees produced using high-pressure processing for a 75-day shelf life. Meals include Beefy Bolognese Over Pasta, Buffalo Chick’n Mac & Cheese, Chick’n Pad Thai with Authentic Rice Noodles, and Beefy Stroganoff Over Egg Noodles.

How about meals for more people?  After debuting in December 2019 with its namesake line pressure cooker meals, Tiller & Hatch, Los Angeles, came back in June 2020 with four additional frozen, multi-serve varieties. They include Chili Mac, Italian Chicken Gnocchi, BBQ Beef Chili and Chicken Tikka Masala. Each cooks in less than 12 minutes and comes in 20oz or 40oz packages to feed between two and four people for about $12 or less. Also offering multi-serve meal solutions was Albertsons Companies, Boise, Idaho. This retailer’s private brands group developed as many as 12 nitro flash-frozen Open Nature Savory Skillet Meals. Products feature sauce enrobed around the ingredients and that sauce dispenses as it cooks. With no defrosting is needed, meals go straight from the freezer to the dinner table in as little as 10 minutes, officials say.

Those consumers missing authentic ethnic adventure are finding more pre-packaged options. Cafe Spice GCT Inc., New Windsor, N.Y., began nationwide shipping of its refrigerated meals (mostly Indian and Thai) through Amazon Fresh. Prices start at $5.50 and portions range from 5.25oz to 16oz. Varieties include Chicken Tikka Masala with Saffron Rice, Potato Samosas with Chutneys, Chicken Vindaloo with Lemon Rice, Red Chicken Curry with Thai Fried Rice and a Yellow Tofu Curry with Thai Fried Rice.

Others targeting the supermarket shelf include the American Halal Company Inc., Stamford, Conn., and Lee Kum Kee, City of Industry, Calif. American Halal expanded its Saffron Road frozen entrée line with two new restaurant-style offerings: Thai Basil Noodles, and Thai Red Curry Chicken. Already known for its Asian sauces and condiments, Lee Kum Kee entered entrée category with eight new “globally inspired, street-style” gourmet Rice and Noodle Bowls. Varieties include Chinese Style Dan Dan Noodles; Asian Style Soy Garlic Noodles; Hong-KoManufacturers want to capture more dollars previously allocated to the normal morning breakfast commute. Now more consumers work from home and need to replace that on-the-go, quick tasty meals with something from their own refrigerator, freezer or pantry shelf.ng Style Chow Mein; Peruvian Style Fried Rice; and Spicy Fried Rice, with chili and Sichuan pepper powder. Available in select stores in Northern California, Seattle and Colorado, the Rice and Noodle Bowls ($4.49 MSRP) roll out nationwide in early 2021.

"Manufacturers want to capture more dollars previously allocated to the normal morning breakfast commute. Now more consumers work from home and need to replace that on-the-go, quick tasty meals with something from their own refrigerator, freezer or pantry shelf."

AYO Foods, Chicago, partnered with Whole Foods to introduce three West-African inspired frozen entrees—Cassava Leaf Soup, Jollof Rice, and Egusi Seed Soup—which carry a suggested retail price of $5.99. Another interesting iteration involves Jafflz, a Park City, Utah, firm using the South African Jaffle, a retro pocket sandwich, for its single-serve line. Created by South African native and chef Meryl van der Merwe, the line fuses its South African style toasted pocket sandwich with popular US taste profiles such as Ham, Egg & Cheese and Cheese Pizza. Its most ethnic offering is an Indian Curry Toasted Pocket.


Rise & Dine

It’s no secret manufacturers want to capture more dollars previously allocated to the normal morning breakfast commute. Now more consumers work from home and need to replace that on-the-go, quick, tasty meal with something from their own refrigerator, freezer or pantry shelf.

"Breakfast plays a comforting role in people's lives and daily routines, especially as many of us continue to navigate new and changing schedules," says Scott Glenn, senior director of marketing for Tyson Foods’ Jimmy Dean brand. "We're proud to continue to provide quality products that meet the evolving needs of individuals and families."

Jimmy Dean has pushed innovation across all fronts. It kicked off 2021 with a Jimmy Dean Plant-Based Patty, Egg & Cheese Croissant Sandwich and a Jimmy Dean Delights Plant-Based Patty & Frittata Sandwich. Last fall also saw the brand introduce three varieties of Frozen Breakfast Casserole Bites and another three varieties of JD Delights Breakfast Wraps. Casserole Bites are handheld, poppable bites ready in under a minute from the microwave. Officials say the protein-packed wraps feature real veggies, all-natural turkey sausage or bacon, white cheddar cheese and whole scrambled eggs, all wrapped up into a whole wheat tortilla. Each wrap delivers 13-14g of protein and 17g of whole grains. Three varieties are Spinach & Bacon, Turkey Sausage & Veggie and Southwest Style.

Other meat processors targeting the category include Hormel Foods, Austin, Minn., and Smithfield Foods, Smithfield, Va. New Smithfield Power Bites heat for 45 seconds in the microwave and are ready to eat right out of the container. Each 4oz package offers 17g to 19g per serving and varieties include Homestyle, Western Style and Meat Lovers. 

Hormel introduced three varieties of Black Label Oven-Baked Egg Bites and two new Hormel Black Label Breakfast Combos. Available in a 4.2oz microwaveable tray, each tray contains two egg bites and warms in the microwave in 90 seconds. Hormel Black Label Breakfast Combos Sausage with Pancakes & Syrup breakfast item is another option for consumers who don’t want eggs—but still want a breakfast with protein. It comes with four mini pancakes, two Hormel Black Label sausage patties and a cup of maple syrup for pouring or dipping. At 2.83oz  for the bacon variety and 4.33oz for the sausage variety, Hormel Black Label Breakfast Combos breakfast items come in a plastic tray that goes from the microwave to table in 90 seconds.

Still others are excited by new breakfast opportunities. Cinnabon, part of FOCUS Brands, developed a six-item Cinnabon Frozen Breakfast Creations line. Three savory entrée items include CinnaBiscuit Chicken Sandwich, Jalapeno Cheddar Sausage Bites and a CheddarRoll Sausage & Egg Sandwich. Elsewhere, Organic Valley, La Farge, Wis., introduced three varieties of refrigerated Egg Bites. Mosaic Foods, Brooklyn, N.Y., also introduced six frozen Oat Bowls all with steel cut oats and quinoa—and at least 10g of protein per serving. Varieties are Golden Milk & Blackberry with Pistachios; Peanut Butter, Banana and Cacao; Cranberry Cinnamon; Veggie Sausage and Gouda; Shiitake Ginger; Sundried Tomato and an “Everything” offering.


Slice of Comfort

Pizza—particularly frozen pizza—addresses consumer at-home interests both comfort, cravings and a convenient meal. Accordingly, there are many new offerings from category leaders Nestlé USA (DiGiorno, Tombstone, Jack’s, California Pizza Kitchen) and Schwan’s Consumer Brands, Inc. (Red Baron, Freschetta, Tony’s). 

Nestlé supported its largest line, DiGiorno, with three new Croissant Crust Pizza varieties. In a separate move, the company introduced a new Life Cuisine subline that includes a gluten-free Pepperoni Cauliflower Crust Pizza with 18g of protein. Separately, Schwan’s extended its Red Baron line with three new Stuffed Crust Pizza varieties and three Pizza Melts, which deliver the “taste of pizza sandwiched between two slices of crispy toast.” Also new is Freschetta Thin Crust Pizza in Premium Pepperoni, Five Cheese and Garden Veggie varieties. 

Also looking for a larger slice of the market is Palermo Villa, Inc. Last year saw this Milwaukee, Wis., company introduce nine new varieties of Palermo’s Rising Crust and another four varieties of Palermo’s Screamin’ Sicilian ‘Za Brewski beer-infused crust pizzas (developed with Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co.) Palermo’s Urban Pie Pizza Co. brand also introduced four frozen artisan style pizzas with hemp seed-infused crusts.
Hemp seeds contain omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids and are a good source of plant-based protein. 

Others targeting the frozen food pizza space include American Flatbread, Pittsfield, N.H.; dairy alternatives maker GOOD PLANeT Foods, Bellevue, Wash.; Ittella International, LLC (Tattooed Chef), Paramount, Calif.; pasta maker Banza LLC, Detroit; and even poultry giant, Foster Farms, Livingston, Calif. 

Citing consumer trend towards flexitarianism (semi-vegetarianism), American Flatbread introduced Meatless Evolution, a four-item line of plant-based, flash-frozen 10-inch pizzas with a SRP of $8.99. GOOD PLANeT Foods also launched its own Plant-Based Frozen Pizza (SRP $9.99) that features co-branded toppings from Beyond Meat. 

Others focusing on new crusts were Banza, which developed three frozen pizzas (SRP $8.99) made with a chickpea crust. Meanwhile, Tattooed Chef Sarah Galletti introduced a frozen 17.1oz gluten-free Cauliflower Crust Cheese Pizza; and Foster Farms, another California company, introduced a three-item Smart Crust frozen pizza line. It features Foster Farms chicken breast, egg whites and cheese instead of flour. Officials say each Smart Crust pizza cuts carbs down to 4g per serving while providing 25g of protein. Smart Crust pizza also is gluten-free, grain free and Keto-certified. Smart Crust cooks in 15 minutes and carries a suggested retail price of $5.99 per 8-8.5oz package.


New Options

Of course consumers don’t need to scan supermarket shelves. Moreover, if at-home eaters aren’t interested in self-assemble meal kits or restaurant delivery, there are even more options. 

It was four years ago (2017) when Nestlé purchased an approximate 16% stake in Freshly Inc., a New York, N.Y., producer and shipper of fresh-prepared, finished entrees. Nestlé then came back last October to acquire Freshly in a deal valued at $950 million. Growing year-over-year since launching in 2015, Freshly now ships more than one million meals per week to customers in 48 states and officials said its 2020 forecasted sales were $430 million. Most recently, Freshly introduced FreshlyFit, a line of more than 25 single-serve entrée offerings with an average of just 14g of net carbs, more than 30g of protein, and 550 calories or less. More than one-third of the meals contain zero added sugars.

It’s not surprising that such a competitive, fast-growing market captured the attention of another competitor: six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady. His Foxboro, Mass., company, TB12 Inc., partnered with The Good Kitchen to start delivering TB12 Performance Meals. Officials say the meals reflect the TB12 “lifestyle and nutrition regimen” and include a variety of protein and vegetarian options. The line includes Herb Roasted Chicken and Vegetables, Roasted Cod with Succotash and Chermoula Sauce, a Shredded Beef and Rice Bowl, and Quinoa and Chickpea Pilaf with Spiced Cauliflower. They ship nationally and are priced at $12.99 for subscription meals and $14.76 a la carte. 

What about what the kids will eat? Little Spoon Inc., New York, N.Y., already has been active shipping direct-to-consumer baby foods. Given that more consumers face remote work alongside virtual-schooling and continued lack of childcare, Little Spoon created Little Spoon Plates. The new line has as many as 15 meals starting at under just $5 per meal. The offerings target kids 1- to 10-years old and are free of preservatives, artificial sugars, GMO’s and heavily processed ingredients, the company says. They also comes in trays that are completely reusable, recyclable, top-rack dishwasher safe, and BPA/BPS-free.