A. Elizabeth Sloan

Portionability: The Next Generation of Single-Serve
When it comes to home food preparation, “portionability”—where individual portions are sold in larger multi-serving packages or directions provided to make a little, or a lot—is just what our economically minded, time-crunched cooks have ordered!

One size just doesn’t fit all anymore. With one-quarter of U.S. households composed of a person living alone and two-person married households without children under age 18 now the largest and fastest growing household unit, packages that make a fixed four servings simply don’t fit the bill. And although the NPD Group reports that 79% of all family households eat at least five suppers a week with everyone present, hectic lifestyles, extracurricular commitments, and “extended families” make everyday meal planning a revolving door. Also, economic uncertainty has caused consumers to be less wasteful and more cost conscious, and food is no exception.

With eight out of ten suppers prepared in the home last year, it’s not surprising that products that offer the added convenience of portionability are enjoying brisk sales, and meat, poultry, and fish are setting the pace. Information Resources Inc. (IRI) reported that supermarket sales of frozen meat rose 10.3%, frozen seafood 8.1%, and frozen poultry 6.5%, posting the three largest gains in the dinner solutions category for the year ending November 2003. And those products with added convenience—such as pre-flavored/stuffed, pre-cooked, or pre-washed—are witnessing explosive growth. During the same period, frozen dinners/entrees grew only 2.1%, while frozen “all-inclusive” bowl meals and skillet suppers each fell $60 million.

Tyson Foods broke the mold last year with its ready-to-cook line of pre-prepared, individually fresh-frozen meat and poultry entrees, like Beef Flat Iron Griller and Stuffed Pork Chops, in portionable and resealable bags and boxes. Fully cooked, portionable products like Southern-style Chicken Nuggets, Steak Fingers, and Popcorn Chicken Bits; pre-cooked ingredients, like Seasoned Beef Strips, Home-style Meatballs, and Pork Pattie Fritters; and complete Beef Fajita, Chicken Fried Rice, and Premium Chunk Chicken Salad Kits are now among Tyson’s wide selection.

Gorton’s of Gloucester sells Crunch Gold Fish Sticks in portionable bags, and Seapak Shrimp Co. offers Buffalo Popcorn Shrimp, Coconut Shrimp, and Shrimp Poppers. Pre-made frozen burgers are regularly used in one-quarter of all U.S. homes.

As these products drive the trend away from one-dish foods, the side dish may well have the best opportunity. According to NPD, side dishes—which fell from accompanying 68% of meals in 1990 to 56% in 2001—is back up to 57% in 2003. IRI reports supermarket sales of refrigerated side dishes up 9.2%, refrigerated salad dressings 9.4%, frozen bread 3.8%, and instant potatoes 3.9%. Lamb-Weston’s Inland Valley brand offers individual-quick-cooking portions of frozen mashed potatoes shaped like hockey pucks. Ore-Ida sells its Golden Crinkles, Tater Tots, and Country Style Hash Browns in an “easy open, easy pour bag.” Hershey’s Swirl Ice Cream is packaged in individual serving cups, while Sara Lee’s Cheesecake, Carrot Cake, and Triple Chocolate Fudge Brownie Bites are packaged individually wrapped. Pillsbury’s frozen Home Baked Classics™ dinner rolls and waffles are conveniently packaged in resealable bags. Maxwell House offers portionable coffee “filter packs,” and International Delight offers a box of Liquid Creamer Singles.

However, the vast majority of dried and frozen side-dish products are still geared for 4–6 servings, with directions focused on using the entire contents of the package. Clever marketers of traditional side-dish products, like Kraft’s StoveTop Stuffing Mix, have changed their packaging to a resealable container, flagging “Make a little, make a lot!” with easy directions for altering the serving size. Likewise, frozen vegetable packages include directions by the cup, rather than by the bag. While many dried and frozen food manufacturers need to work at making their products more portionable, other sellers of products like rice or dried beans need to tout their product’s flexibility.

Portionability is important in fresh foods, too. Resealable and portionable cheese shreds and snacks, like Kraft’s Cracker Cuts, and deli-thin cold cuts and refrigerated salads/coleslaw in reclosable tubs continue to lead refrigerated-case sales. Fresh-cut bagged salads/vegetables reached $1.8 billion in supermarket sales, while fresh food portions prewashed and wrapped individually within the package, like Foster Farms Chicken Breast Fillets, are fast finding a welcome market. And the future looks bright. For the first time since NPD Group began tracking eating habits, there was a substantial increase in the number of products used to prepare and serve at suppertime. In addition, with the Food and Drug Administration turning its attention to portion size as an aid to the obesity crisis, pre-portioned products may well be part of the solution rather than the problem.

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