A. Elizabeth Sloan

After nearly a decade of steady declines, the number of meals prepared at home has increased for the first time since the 1991–92 recession, with slight increases beginning as far back as 1999–2000, according to NPD Group’s 16th and newly released 17th Annual Eating Patterns in America reports. At the same time, Americans are eating fewer meals in restaurants and ordering fewer take-out suppers (see “Fast and Casual: Today’s Foodservice Trends,” Food Technology, September 2002, p. 34). According to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), 85% of grocery shoppers prepared a “home cooked” meal at least three nights a week during the first quarter of 2002, up from 74% during the same period in 2001.

But according to Gallup’s 2002 Study of Changing Food Preparation & Eating Habits conducted by Multisponsor Surveys, the jump in at-home meal preparation doesn’t mean more scratch cooking. In fact, when asked how to describe how they prepared “yesterday’s main meal,” only 38% of meal preparers said at home from scratch, 33% at home using convenience foods, 10% take-out from a restaurant or supermarket, and 18% ate out in a restaurant. Most important, those using convenience foods for yesterday’s dinner climbed from 21% in 1998 to 33% in 2002!

According to FMI, 45% of grocery shoppers use boxed, frozen, or canned meals that require some assembly at least once per week, and 40% used bagged salads, precut and cleaned vegetables, or marinated meats. NPD Group reports that home-prepared suppers with at least one side dish fell 19% since 1990; only one-quarter used more than one cooking appliance—the lowest level recorded in the history of their surveys; and nearly 12% included a frozen item, up 9.4% from just four years ago. With the average cost of a restaurant take-out meal at $5.60—nearly three times as high as an in-home meal—it’s no wonder that pre-prepared products are gaining ground!

From Campbell’s Supper Bakes and Kraft’s Stove Top Oven Classics to General Mills’ 30-year-old Hamburger Helper, Green Giants’ Create-A-Meal, and Stouffer’s Oven Classics, meal kits have enjoyed unprecedented success. ACNeilsen reported the dry kit category up 6.2% in 2001 sales and the Supper Bakes-like dinner-kit category up 92%. Watch as these new American meal staples continue to move toward more complete kits, such as ConAgra’s Banquet Homestyle Bakes, which include the meat in a can/stew/sauce-like mixture. Fish and seafood kits, such as Schwan’s Shrimp and Broccoli Alfredo Meal kits, and exciting ethnic options, such as Aurora Foods’ Chef ’s Choice Jambalaya Skillet Dinner, are next on the agenda.

But it’s the new generation of fresh, refrigerated, ready-to-cook, complete meals, most often offered by supermarkets and club stores themselves; ready-to-cook, fresh, premarinated meats, fish, and poultry; and fully cooked heat-and-serve fresh meats and poultry that are gaining ground. Hormel’s Always Tender marinade-injected, fresh flavored pork and poultry parts are guaranteed to be tender. In-supermarket third-party marinade programs like McCormick’s Fresh Start program, using its Golden Dipt marinades and Old Bay dry seasonings, allow fish/seafood customers to choose their own flavor while keeping labor to a minimum.

Jennie-O’s Go Easy Slow Roasted fresh pre-cooked turkey breasts/chunks in gravy, Hormel’s fully cooked “boil in the bag” or microwavable entrees, including Meatloaf with Tomato Sauce, Thomas E. Wilson’s roasts and John Morrell’s Convenient Cuisine items such as Boneless Chicken Breast in Tequila Lime Sauce, are providing fresh, time-intensive, great home-cooked meals in under 10 minutes! From salads to tacos, precooked fresh components are making everything easier—examples include Louis Rich’s Chicken Breast Cuts & Strips, El Paso’s fresh heat-and-serve Taco Sauce complete with seasoned ground beef or chicken, and Armour’s KC Masterpiece fully cooked barbecue with shredded pork, chicken, or sliced beef! Tyson’s Whole Chicken with Lawry’s Lemon Pepper keeps this American favorite easily on hand. And Verdelli’s Soup Made Simple features fresh-cut veggies that can be prepared in 30 minutes. Kraft Foods recently introduced Fresh-made Creations refrigerated dinner kits in limited markets. The kits, such as Classic Italian Lasagna and Four Cheese Chicken Alfredo, include all of the ingredients necessary for a complete meal except meat and are shelved in the fresh-meat case.

It’s clear that fast and fresh with be the way to go. But don’t sell any form of convenience foods short. From family-sized portions of heat-and-serve products and frozen casseroles, to frozen Chinese take-out dinners—cute box and all—like those offered by the Safeway Select line, precooked breakfast meats, and retorted shelf-stable dinners, there’s still plenty of room for growth!

Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.