Serving Up Convenience MARY ELLEN KUHN | February 2011, Volume 65, No.2

New formulation, processing, and packaging strategies allow product developers to deliver innovative mealtime solutions for consumers eager to solve the daily dinnertime dilemma.

Millions of Americans ask the question every day: What’s for dinner? Among those who must respond to the query and put a meal on the table, a growing number want it to involve something quick and easy to prepare. After all, 30 years ago, nearly three-quarters (72%) of main courses served at dinner were homemade, but by 2010, that total had declined to 59%, according to the NPD Group, which tracks consumer consumption patterns (NPD Group, 2010).

Annie Chun’s all natural, shelf-stable Asian meal kits are made from high quality organic ingredients and contain no preservatives, trans fats, or MSG.Americans’ hectic lifestyles mean that convenience is a key driver when it comes to meal preparation, says Harry Balzer, Vice President of the NPD Group. “For the most part, it’s been about convenience—almost convenience at any cost,” says Balzer, although he notes that since the recession hit a couple of years ago, consumers have become thriftier, and price/value has assumed more importance to meal preparers.

Certainly, the impact of the recession has kept more people at home for mealtime. More than half (55%) of shoppers polled last year for a Food Marketing Institute (FMI) research project said they were preparing more meals at home than they had the prior year (FMI, 2010). On average, according to FMI data, consumers were making home-cooked meals 5.1 times a week, with dining behavior on the other two nights split almost equally between eating out and takeout/ordering in/drive-through (FMI, 2010).

“Just because you’re eating at home more doesn’t mean you can cook,” observes Bill Patterson, Senior Analyst for market research company Mintel International. Thus, according to Patterson and other industry watchers, the recession and the budget-consciousness it has engendered among consumers provide clear-cut opportunities for packaged foods developers to woo shoppers with convenient meal solutions that they can enjoy at home. Here’s a look at how they’re doing and what may be on the horizon in three product categories: frozen, shelf-stable, and refrigerated.

Convenient Options From the Freezer Case
A quest for convenience is precisely what drives consumers to the frozen food aisle, but marketers of products in this mature category may be losing ground as meal preparers opt for trendier alternatives ranging from pre-seasoned cuts of meat to shelf-stable meal kits, says Mintel Senior Analyst David Browne, author of the company’s recently published report on frozen foods. “There are so many more [packaged foods] options that have come up in the past 10 years,” says Browne. Inexpensive fast-food meals also compete with frozen dinners and entrees, he adds.

Sales of frozen dinners/entrees in food, drug, and mass merchandise outlets, excluding Wal-mart (FDMx), declined by nearly 2.4% to $6.2 billion for the 52-week period ending Nov. 28, 2010, according to data from Chicago-based market research firm SymphonyIRI Group. Meanwhile, product innovation has slipped as well as companies have rolled out fewer frozen meals. New product introductions declined from 400+ in both 2006 and 2007 to 330 in 2009 and just 160 for the first half of 2010, Browne reports.

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