Top 10 Food Trends A. Elizabeth Sloan | April 2017, Volume 71, No.4

A dramatic shift in food preparation practices, a Millennial baby boom, and a strong focus on healthful, natural, and nutritional offerings are resetting priorities for food and beverage marketers.

Millennial cooks are looking for new ways to add excitement to meal preparation.
Despite the recent media preoccupation with clean labels and free-from foods, the food industry remains driven by convenience. Ready-to-drink tea and coffee—up 19.5% and 14.6%, respectively, in dollar sales for the year ended (Y/E) Oct. 1, 2016—were among the top 10 fastest-growing grocery categories last year. Sales of lunch combinations (e.g., premade sandwiches, snacks, and cheese/cracker kits) grew 14.4% (Figure 1, Nielsen 2016).

Figure 1. Top 10 Grocery Growth Categories (annual dollar sales > $500 million). From Nielsen 2016
Figure 1. Top 10 Grocery Growth Categories (annual dollar sales > $500 million). From Nielsen 2016

In the fresh aisles, strong performers included value-added fruit and vegetables, side dishes, food trays, and prepared meats (Nielsen 2016). Sales of specialty gourmet foods topped $94 billion at retail in 2015, up 19.4% versus 2013 (SFA 2016a).

Nearly six in 10 consumers enjoy cooking; two-thirds of Millennials feel that way (Harris 2016). Forty-eight percent of adults describe themselves as a foodie (Packaged Facts 2016a). Deli sushi, with sales up 16.4%, and vinegar/cooking wine, up 11.9%, were also among the top 10 best-selling foods last year (Nielsen 2016).

In 2016, 82% of U.S. households prepared their main evening meal at home five or more nights a week; 38% did so more often than the year before (FMI 2016a). Brown-bagging is back. In 2016, 39% prepared lunch at home but ate it at work or on the go (FMI 2016a). Forty-nine percent of all eating occasions are snacks; afternoon remains the largest traditional snack daypart (Hartman 2016a).

Four of every five shoppers are concerned about the nutritional content of their food, consistent across all generations (FMI 2016a). One-third (32%) switched to a healthier yogurt in the past year; for milk, the percentage of those switching to healthier is 27%; for bread, 26%; cold cereal and oil, 22%; and pasta and eggs, 21% (FMI 2016b).

Two-thirds of Millennials are familiar with “minimally processed foods” and “eating clean”; for the population overall, the figures are 51% and 41%, respectively (FMI 2016b). Clean menus/natural ingredients are the second-hottest culinary concept for 2017, right after hyperlocal sourcing (NRA 2016).

In 2016, 15% of consumers shopped for groceries online occasionally; 5% did so fairly often (FMI 2016a). Marketdata Enterprises estimates the home meal delivery market at $3.8 billion in 2016; prepared meals/kits at $1.5 billion; diet prepared foods, $910 million; and premium meats, appetizers, and desserts via mail order, $1.4 billion.

Here’s a look at the top 10 trends shaping today’s food and beverage marketplace.

1. Prep It
Semi-prepared foods now dominate home dinner preparation. In 2016, 53% of shoppers used some partially prepared items versus 35% who cooked mostly from scratch (Figure 2, FMI 2016c).

Figure 2. Approaches to Meal Preparation (% who choose each option). From FMI 2016
Figure 2. Approaches to Meal Preparation (% who choose each option). From FMI 2016

Nearly half (45%) of shoppers buy heat-and-eat meat/poultry at least once a week; 40% buy precooked, ready-to-eat products (FMI 2017). Forty-two percent of grocery meat managers reported an increasing demand for value-added fresh meats/poultry (e.g., premarinated cuts or kabobs) in 2016 (Horovitz 2016a).

Nearly four in 10 Millennials use prepared side dishes often or very often, double any other age group (Harris 2016). One in three consumers under age 45 uses packaged meals or frozen stir-fry kits; one in five uses refrigerated heat-and eat potatoes/pasta (MSI 2016). With nearly half of all users doctoring these products by adding seasonings or ingredients, it’s clear the convenience category needs a culinary upgrade (MSI 2016).

Just over half (56%) of adults bought deli prepared meal items last year (FMI 2016c). Meatloaf, guacamole, barbecue chicken, pulled pork, pasta, breakfast items, Mexican entrées, and appetizers posted double-digit sales growth (IRI 2016a).

Four in 10 U.S. households use frozen meals/entrees; nearly half keep them on hand (Packaged Facts 2016b). Sales of single-serve meals grew 2.3% for the 12 weeks ended Dec. 25, 2016; multi-serve meal sales were up 1.5%, per Nielsen (Leathers 2017a).

Sales of clean/preservative-free frozen meals reached $2.3 billion, +5.7%, for Y/E Oct. 2, 2016; sales of all-natural frozen meals were $1.3 billion, +11.6%; gluten-free, $797 million, +33.4%; organic, $337 million, +30.7%; and non-GM, $350 million, +39.8% (Hale 2016a,b,c,d,e).

Frozen Asian meal/entree sales rose 3.1%, Italian meals were up 3.2%, and Mexican meals were up 6.4% for Y/E Sept. 9, 2016. Asian side dish sales jumped 23%; frozen side dishes overall grew 12% (Blank 2017).

Kahiki’s Asian frozen Savory Sidekicks side dishes made with “100% natural ingredients” are right on target. The demand for more Asian and Mexican family-sized frozen meals is also on the rise. P.F. Chang’s added a much larger package to its Home Menu Skillet line.

One-third of shoppers are very interested in fresh food kits (FMI 2016c). With four in 10 Millennials having prepared pizza from scratch or from store-bought dough last year, pizza kits are a big idea (Mintel 2016a).

With Millennial households most likely to be home to a blender, panini press, soda maker, pizza oven, or electric rice cooker, products that use these appliances should find a welcome market (NPD 2015). One in 10 meal preparers uses a crock-pot often or very often (Harris 2016). Eight in 10 food shoppers feel knowledgeable about crock-pot cooking, more than grilling or barbecue (FMI 2016a).

With consumers using the microwave more frequently for cooking dinner, microwave instructions are more important than ever. Those aged 70-plus are the most likely to do so, followed by Millennials (Harris 2016).

Three-quarters of homes own a grill, and the majority now grill eight months per year (HBPA 2015). Millennials are by far the most likely to grill (Harris 2016).

Lastly, one of the most innovative trends is to suggest unique preparation instructions for traditional products. Evol brand marketers suggest preparing their gourmet frozen burritos on a panini press or on a grill. Outdoor breakfast grilling is another hot trend (HBPA 2016).

Smart Flour Foods Snack Bites2. Lifestyle Foods
With Americans eating alone on 46% of all eating occasions and 28% of U.S. households now comprised of an adult living alone, it’s not surprising that single-serve packaging and individually portioned multi-packs are increasingly in demand. On average, 53% of the population eats breakfast alone; 45% dine alone at lunch; and 24% do so at dinner (Hartman 2016a).

Single-serve packaging was the No. 1 unmet need in the fresh meat case in 2016 (Horovitz 2016a.) Sales of single-serve indulgent bakery items jumped 18%, and single-serve fresh fruit sales increased by 9.9% in 2015 (IRI 2016b).

At the same time, there is a demand for family-sized meals and packages of individually portioned items. House-holds with three or more children are the most likely to use frozen snacks, breakfast foods, and family meal entrees (Mintel 2016b,c).

Sales of frozen handheld entrees/meals reached $2.5 billion for Y/E Oct. 2, 2016 (Leathers 2017a). In 2016, 52% of consumers ate a frozen breakfast sandwich, 38% had a frozen handheld pocket meal, 38% ate a frozen burrito, and 36% consumed a frozen sandwich.

Four in 10 consumers would buy more frozen handhelds/bite-size appetizers/snacks if they had internationally inspired flavors, 36% would go for gourmet options, 32% seek single-serve packaging, and 29% are interested in restaurant quality (Mintel 2016b). Handheld Aussie Pies and evol frozen breakfast Scramble Cups are highly innovative market entries.

Ethnic breakfast foods are a missed opportunity and rank eighth overall among the hot culinary trends for 2017 (NRA 2016). With condiments/spreads important to three-quarters of breakfast handheld users, marketers should consider including signature sauces in the package (Technomic 2015).

Half of adults ate frozen appetizers/snacks as a meal replacement in 2016; 47% for lunch, 46% as part of a meal, 45% for dinner, and 30% for breakfast (Mintel 2016b). Hispanics and households with kids are the most likely to substitute frozen snacks for meals (Mintel 2016b).

With 74% agreeing that frozen handhelds/snacks are a convenient snack at work, single-serve, on-the-go packaging could send sales of frozen snacks soaring. Half (47%) of shoppers buy snacks to take to work/school (Acosta 2016).

A new early morning snacking occasion—prior to breakfast—is being driven by Millennials and households with kids. In 2016, one in five consumers snacked in the early morning hours (IRI 2016c).

Nutrients and protein are important breakfast criteria (FMI 2015, Jargon and Gasparro 2014). Energy, mental focus, feeling full, and helping to manage weight/hunger are other important early morning goals (IFIC 2015). On average, adults ate breakfast 5.1 times per week in 2016 (FMI 2016a).

After burritos, consumers have the most interest in breakfast tacos, pizza, burgers, and stir-fry (Datassential 2016). More than one in five consumers often eat frozen breakfast foods for dinner or lunch; 27% eat them on the go and 25% as snacks (Mintel 2016c).