A. Elizabeth Sloan

Taking Sides
Side-dish marketers have had a tough time. As the level of cooking skill and “tolerable time limits” for home food preparation continued to fall, consumers began to limit the number of dishes made at mealtime. From pizza to stir-frys, the shift of Italian, Mexican, and Chinese cuisines from restaurant to everyday fare furthered the movement to one-dish meals.

Averse to cleanup and more comfortable with convenience, Americans set a new table with skillet dinners and bowl meals at the center of the plate and, as a result of the recent “carb-control” movement, kicked favorite side dishes such as potatoes, pasta, and stuffing right off the plate.

Although several traditional side dishes—including frozen side dishes, frozen/ refrigerated pasta, dry/shelf-stable dinner mixes, stuffing mixes, and rice—are among the 15 fastest-declining supermarket categories, several emerging trends will help invigorate the side-dish segment.

First, ready-to-eat precooked and pre-prepared refrigerated and frozen meats, poultry, and seafood are creating a new generation of “scratch cooking” and a demand for more-contemporary recipes and fresh and quick-cooking side dishes. Information Resources, Inc. reports that for the year ending 11/2/ 03, refrigerated meat/poultry products rose 11.8% (ranking 10th on the list of the fastest-growing supermarket categories); frozen meat 10.3% (11th); and refrigerated seafood 9.8% (13th).

The Food Marketing Institute’s 2004 Consumer Trends Survey reports that 84% of shoppers eat “home-cooked” meals at least three times/week, up from 82% in 2003 and 74% in 2001. According to the NPD Group, 10.1% of all in-home suppers now contain a ready-to-eat item, 14.3% contain a frozen dish, and 32.1% are still made from scratch.

Second, it appears that Americans still have a healthy appetite for carbohydrates, making the road back to a balanced diet just a little bit quicker. NPD Group’s April 2004 Report on Carbohydrate Consumption Patterns, a dietary analysis of 11,000 people, found that virtually no one had cut back on carbs to the levels recommended by popular low-carb diets, and that only one in four on a diet cut carbs to a significant degree. Adults who claimed to be cutting carbs still ate an average of 128 g of “refined carbs” (total carbs minus fiber or net carbs)/day. Men ate 145 g/day and women 109 g/day—higher than the 20–50 g that low-carb diets recommend, but lower than the average 210g for all adults.

The 2003 Gallup Study of Consumer Efforts to Limit Carbohydrates found that among those watching carbs, chicken/turkey (77%) topped the list of the most frequently eaten dinners, followed by vegetables (56%), green salad (54%), steak/beef (48%), fish (45%), and pork (35%). Most important, one-third contained rice, one-third potatoes, and one-fourth pizza. Among those on a “diet,” one-fourth of meals contained rice, 18% beans, and 14% potatoes; one-third ate hamburgers with no roll. When asked by Schapiro Research Group to define healthy carbs, 69% of the respondents named rice, 49% potatoes, 46% pasta, and 36% bread.

Marketing Technology Solutions found that 30% of adults were determined to buck low-carb and follow a balanced diet. Smaller portions, lighter pasta sauces, rice steeped in herbal teas or juices, seasonal vegetable/potato combinations, and light bean vinaigrettes may attract the carb-conscious. Increasing the protein content, such as in sausage potato casseroles, is another option. In some cases, as with bread, certain varieties, such as whole wheat, whole grain, fresh, and specialty, seem to be relatively unaffected by low-carb. According to ACNielsen, for the year ending 12/27/03, fresh bread sales fell 2.5% and white bread sales fell 4.7%, while wheat bread sales grew 4.0%.

Smaller bagels, appetizer-sized pasta portions and samplers, and tasting flights with mini-portions should also have strong appeal.

Fresh and healthy are the key to contemporary side dishes. IRI reports that refrigerated salad/coleslaw was up 7.2% and refrigerated side dishes were up 9.2% in supermarkets. Fresh-cut salads, fruits, and vegetables continue to soar. High-quality fruits and vegetables remain the second reason for choosing to shop at a specific supermarket, according to FMI. Refrigerated salad dressing was the second-fastest-growing supermarket category (up 16.5%), salad toppings 8th (11.9%), and frozen prepared vegetables 14th (9.5%), according to IRI.

Last, with quick-cook protein items likely on hand, “cooks” will be looking for more “fresh” heat-and-eat sides to complement these items, rather than seeking the proverbial “rotisserie chicken,” which more than likely has already found a replacement that is already in the home.

Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.
[email protected]