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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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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