The Basics of Convenience Food

Time-pressed meal preparers are reaching for meal kits, pre-cooked and pre-cut items and other shortcuts to make a ‘home-cooked meal’ in less time.

By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor

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Pre-cut veggies and bagged salads comprise a category that is growing rapidly as consumers aim to lose weight and eat more healthfully.

It's a paradox. At a time when TV food shows are popular and consumer interest in culinary matters has never been higher, food preparation skills are declining. So is the average time and tolerance for food preparation. Now is the perfect time for meal kits!

American consumers, known to spend upwards of three hours to prepare a meal on weekends, have less than an hour for weekday meals. For many, that's a stretch. Phrases such as pre-cut, pre-washed, ready-to-cook, ready-to-serve, instant, microwaveable and no-time or no-fuss preparation are replacing terms like basting, searing and sautéing in the common vernacular.

Consumers are reaching for the convenience of refrigerated and shelf-stable products like prepared salads, boxed dinners and entrées, value-added meat, poultry and produce, lunch and snack kits — more so than reaching for a recipe or even a take-out menu.

It is therefore of utmost importance that food formulators comprehend what makes a food "convenient to prepare."

The elements of convenience

Consumers want meal preparation to be convenient, and convenience has two elements: quickness of preparation and ease (or simplicity) of preparation. A big third element, but often an afterthought, is minimizing or eliminating cleanup.

Research from the NPD Group (www.npd.com), Port Washington, N.Y., reveals the No. 1 issue in American homes at dinnertime is how to get a meal on the table conveniently. The need for convenience surprisingly outranks health and "comfort foods," according to NPD Vice President Harry Balzer. A secondary trend is the need for simplifying food preparation at home.

While many things have changed, one key factor hasn't. "Contrary to popular belief, the female head of the household is still the chief preparer of most of these meals and is responsible for 70 percent of the grocery shopping," says Todd Hale, senior vice president at ACNielsen Homescan (www.acnielsen.com), Schaumburg, Ill. What has changed is that she now values her sanity and is willing to pay more — sometimes two or even three times more — for foods that will ease her meal preparation efforts.

What's quick and simple? Ready-to-cook foods and prepared foods that the consumer need only cook or assemble and heat before serving. These may be cleaned and prepared fruits and vegetables, marinated proteins (meats, poultry and seafood) or shelf-stable items.

Casey Roberts, vice president at Martinsville, N.J., research organization Food Spectrum (www.foodspectrum.com) attributes most of the growth in the prepared food segment to "prepared products that significantly reduce meal preparation times." Roberts observes, "Retail meal kits integrating refrigerated components offer a unique point of difference to consumers for preparation of fresh, home-made meals in the shortest possible time."

Adding value

Meat and poultry companies, plagued for years with razor-thin margins, have migrated to added-value foods to increase profits. By figuring out what matters to consumers, some of them have transformed themselves from suppliers of commodities to providers of value-added convenience.

The "ingredient meat" concept has started a whole new category, according to Shawn Walker, senior vice president of marketing-retail at Tyson Foods (www.tysonfoodsinc.com), Springdale, Ark. "The pre-cut/bagged chicken pieces category didn't exist a couple of years ago, and now it's growing at better than 50 percent a year."

Cooking bacon (right) is messy and preparing chicken strips (left) is time-consuming, so consumers may prefer to let Tyson do the hard work when the recipe calls for those ingredients.

Tyson Fully Cooked Heat 'N Eat Ingredient Meats include Grilled Chicken Breast Strips, Fajita Chicken Breast Strips, Southwestern Chicken Breast Strips, Roasted Diced Chicken Breast, Seasoned Steak Strips and Teriyaki Pork Strips. All are retort-packed in pouches and go from the grocer's refrigerated case to the home microwave. In addition to being convenient, they have significantly boosted Tyson's profits.

Formulators added chicken broth or a salt solution for moistness and flavor to address the two major issues consumers have when they cook chicken. In addition, those ingredients help to manage water activity and minimize microbial activity.

Tyson also offers a shelf-stable fully cooked bacon, which eliminates messy preparation and cleanup.

Betty Crocker Hamburger Helper from General Mills, Minneapolis, is one of the pioneers in this convenience category. This classic yields a one-dish meal for the family in less than 30 minutes. But even it requires the cook to brown hamburger, and this step may be considered inconvenient for some and challenging for others.

Last year to rescue came Jack Link's Inc., Minong, Wis. Jack Link's Fully Cooked Ground Beef is pre-cooked, pre-drained 100 percent beef packaged in a 10.6-oz. shelf-stable pouch ready for use. The package is equivalent to a pound of uncooked ground beef. No preservatives are added, the meat is not irradiated and the shelf life is 18 months. The price for convenience: $3.49 to $3.99 per package.

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