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.

Easy does not always mean fast. A Crock Pot (Rival's brand of slow cooker) is slow (quite slow) but it is extremely easy and consumers find it convenient. In the past, however, consumers had to shop for numerous ingredients and then prepare them for their Crock Pot meal. Now, with less time on their hands, consumers have ConAgra's Banquet Crock-Pot Classics.

Crock-Pot Classics (available in six varieties) help alleviate several of the stresses associated with evening meal preparation and also are a solution for families that eat in shifts, according to John Hanson, vice president of marketing for the Banquet brand at Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra (www.conagra.com). All the necessary ingredients are included in the package, and the meals may be started in the morning for slow cooking through the day.

Other ingredients that save consumers steps in the preparation process are sliced vegetable combinations and bagged salad. Prepared vegetables have been popular with consumers for several years now. Advances in ingredient science and food preparation technology have greatly enhanced the shelflife of fruits and vegetables — a category that is projected to grow tremendously with the increasing focus on ways to reduce overweight and unhealthy eating.

Ready Pac, Irwindale, Calif., relaunched its diced bell peppers and onions and other vegetable combinations in smaller, one-meal-only-sized boxes. Ready Pac has a whole line of Ready Fixins that includes washed and cut single items like No-Tears Onions but also combinations of vegetables for stir fry, stews and chop suey.

Americans appear to need help with more than just main courses. Unilever earlier this year launched Country Crock Side Dishes, ready-to-use accompaniments such as mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese in the same plastic tub as Country Crock spread.

Ingredients that make it possible

One consequence of this preparation and combination ease is more rapid spoilage of the food components. For example, an uncut apple can last for weeks, but once cut, it can spoil in minutes. Therefore the challenge for food manufacturers is to overcome this quickening spoilage, in other words to make items more shelf-stable. Ingredients' greatest contribution to making meal preparation more convenient is to help manage shelflife and appearance.

Not all ingredients used to enhance ease of meal preparation are apparent to consumers. Processors of pre-sliced and pre-packed meat employ plant-based gelling agents such as locust bean gum, gum arabic, guar gum, carrageenan and alginates (derived from seaweeds) to retain succulence and to help extend product life. Without these hydrocolloids, the slices would not be appealing and would shrivel up in very short time.

Formulators use instant cold water-swelling starches as a way to improve textural properties or emulsion stability in a number of applications including pie fillings and desserts and especially those formulated without sugar or with reduced fat. In addition to contributing to the texture, many of these novel ingredients have an important role in improving the nutritional profile of products and making products less obesogenic.

Marketers have to be careful about the appearance of their products. So formulators rely on emulsifiers, preservatives and glazing agents to enhance and extend the flavor, visual appeal and texture characteristics. These ingredients have contributed tremendously to the growth of convenience foods.

Calcium silicate and magnesium stearate are used to prevent caking of powder blends and to prevent lumps in dry mixes. Glycerol, propylene glycol, fructose and sorbitol are used as humectants to retain moisture in breads and cakes. Emulsifiers are used to improve the uniformity and smoothness of sauces and dressings.

Simple vinegar (acetic acid) is incorporated as the antimicrobial in conjunction with hydrocolloids to manage water activity of salad dressings, salsas and sauces. Salts and sugars serve as additional hurdles.

Processing and packaging technologies

While ingredients can help, packaging and processing technologies perhaps play even greater roles in preserving these convenient foods.

Menu Fresh uses high-pressure processing technology to keep beef and chicken fresh in its meal kits.

Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) effectively retards aerobic growth for foods including meats and bakery products. Maintaining the optimum mixture of gases — evacuating some and sealing in others — is the key to the technology. But most often, MAP means the replacement of oxygen with nitrogen or some other inert gas.

MAP is the key behind the shelf life of Oscar Mayer Lunchables from Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill. The packaged lunch kits, made up of cheeses, crackers and sliced meats, relies on air-tight packaging also for the prevention of moisture migration between food items. Consumer-friendly sodium lactate adds extra shelf life for the meat items.

MAP also is key to the relatively new category of refrigerated pasta. While the main driver here is a fresher, better tasting product, the shortened cooking time helps with convenience and is doubled by combining MAP and active packaging with refrigeration.

The retortable pouch has been a huge contributor to the shelf-stability of super-convenient foods. Rice, once of those long-simmering side dishes or meal components, now can be ready in as little as 60 seconds in the microwave.

Uncle Ben's, a division of Masterfoods USA (www.masterfoodsnews.com), Hackettstown, N.J., during World War II cut rice-cooking in half with its converted rice. In the 1980s, the company made it easier with its Boil-in-Bag Rice, which cooked in 10 minutes and with minimal clean up. When 10 minutes was too long for consumers, there was Instant Rice, done in five minutes. Now there's Ready Rice.

One simply tears open the Ready Rice pouch and microwaves the product for 90 seconds for a perfectly cooked and portioned rice side dish. It's so easy even a young child could fix rice. Plus there's no clean-up.

Retortable pouches also are replacing the short cans for tuna, but also allowing some seemingly less-easy-to-prepare seafood items such as (in the Chicken of the Sea lineup) crab, imitation crab, shrimp, clams and smoked oysters.

Keller, Tex.-based Menu Fresh uses high-pressure processing technology to keep beef and chicken in meal kits for home preparation of fajitas, enchiladas and quesadillas. "Complete with salsa and guacamole, we can get the family meal on the table in less than 10 minutes," says founder Jeff Morris.


NOTE TO MARKETING . . . AND PACKAGING

Convenience does not just mean time saved in the cooking process. Consumers want their food and beverage products to open easily, store easily and be resealable, easily disposable and easily transportable (or portable).

That requires marketing and packaging members of the team discussing the issues. Marketing certainly can set the goals, but the packaging people can determine how to meet them. There are plenty of new packaging materials and associated technologies that can deliver your convenient-to-cook product in a container that also is convenient – before, during and after meal preparation.

Packaging is no longer designed with a single purpose in mind – to hold food as best as it can. Packaging also conveys the quality or utility of the product. Consumers select based on their perception of how "convenient" the packaging makes the product look. Notions such as "recipes or ways to use leftovers" and "ideal accompaniments" entice the uninitiated and help even loyal consumers.



THREE RULES TO KEEP IN MIND

Prepared foods and meal kits are more than just time-savers. Increasingly, they are becoming the only foods contemporary home cooks know how to cook. The decline of culinary skills means food formulators should keep some rules in mind:

  • Keep it simple:
      1. Ease of preparation is paramount to the success of any food product these days. Assume that customers will not understand basic cooking terms and that even the seemingly simplest of instructions like "baste and broil" or "brown evenly" can confuse home cooks.
  • Build in home safety:
      1. If basic cooking skills are lacking, cooks likely also lack basic food-safety knowledge. Design the safety of the product for the lowest common denominator home. In addition to planning for safety during manufacture and distribution, also consider the worst case scenarios and build in safety mechanisms for the unexpected -- such as when cooking methods are misinterpreted, cooking times are extended or shortened and if an inexperienced consumer leaves the product in a heated car for an extended amount of time.
  • Understand consumer need:
    1. Clarify the intended use of the product and identify all the environmental conditions that consumers will subject the ingredients to during purchase, preparation and post-preparation handling. Knowing how consumers will handle and prepare the product is the key to identifying the appropriate ingredients, which in turn can contribute to optimal performance.

     




    'HURDLE TECHNOLOGY' FOR SAFETY

    Meal kits often include different types of food items including bakery, dairy, produce and freshly prepared food products — each of which has different modes of failure. The shelf life of the kit is governed by whichever item spoils first. The stability and safety of most foods depend on several factors (hurdles), and formulators should combine hurdles to extend shelf life, ensure safety, and maintain sensory and nutritive quality.

    The term "hurdle technology" implies that a combination of processes or hurdles is applied in the food system, and that the bacteria and pathogens have to "jump over" these hurdles before they spoil the product. These hurdles involve water activity, temperature, redox potential, modified atmosphere and preservatives, among others, and often show synergism and enhanced effect. Using hurdles simultaneously allows for gentler applications of preservatives for stability and safety without loss in sensory and nutritional properties of the food.

    Limited assurance of ideal storage and handling conditions makes hurdle technology essential for ensuring the safety of perishable items in meal kits. Hurdle technology is widely used to customize the food formulation to distribution, retail and consumer needs and environments. For instance, modifying the water activity and pH of the formulation can adapt the product to distribution and handling at ambient temperature. The modified product can now be stable and safe without refrigeration.


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