Meal kits for years have been a way to quickly prepare a family meal. The first packaged meal kit was most likely Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, created in 1937. Hamburger Helper was introduced in 1971 in response to a meat shortage and escalating meat prices.
Hamburger Helper allowed homemakers to stretch a single pound of hamburger into a meal for five. The initial flavors reflected foods that were familiar to most Americans, including Italian, Cheesy and Mexican. The brand was so impactful Food Network listed it No. 3 among the top five fad foods of the 1970s.
The landscape of meal kit options has changed considerably due to constant innovation. For General Mills, the issue has been to find new, leveragable drivers for growth in the category. Since the product is about familiar, comfort foods, not about premiumness or gourmet, the key for Hamburger Helper is to make it even more convenient for its consumers. That convenience has been defined as time and ease of preparation.
Enter Hamburger Helper Microwave Singles. General Mills shrank the familiar and filling meal into a single-serving pouch, included all the ingredients (including freeze-dried ground beef) and made it microwavable, with a strong nod to the unsupervised but hungry after-school crowd. In this review, our consumer panel tested and tasted the Stroganoff flavor.
Understanding the marketplace
Convenience always has been a trend in the food industry. It is what the packaged food industry is all about. Meal kits provide convenience. They are fast, easy to prepare, have less cleanup and, because they are based on familiar flavors, the entire family is likely to eat them.
The meal kit category has been expanded to include dry meals, pre-cooked meats, frozen foods and restaurant warm-and-serve meals. New brands that have entered (and exited) the dry category include: Banquet Homestyle Bakes, Campbell's Supper Bakes, Stove Top Oven Classics and Lipton Sizzle and Stir. Kits come with spices, pasta and vegetables and may or may not include meat to make a complete meal.
Sales for dry dinner mixes (non-meat) are down almost 1 percent with overall sales of $495 million, according to 2005 IRI figures. Hamburger Helper has almost half the market. The category grew significantly between 2000 and 2003 due to kits incorporating meat, and this part of the category tripled in size. In 2003, low-carb diets impacted the category and sales declined about 9-10 percent. Once low-carb diets waned, the next wave of innovation came from other convenience foods: frozen and refrigerated products, fast food and restaurant pick-up.
Sales of pasta dry dinner mixes were nearly flat in 2005, and non-pasta meal kits were down 8.1 percent. Sales of frozen meal starters rose 27.8 percent, and refrigerated kit sales more than tripled, according to ACNielsen 2006 figures. The number of households with children is declining and consumers are looking for healthier, gourmet options; yet the need for familiar, comfortable foods has not gone away.
Less time and fewer cooking skills mean consumers can't spend a lot of time on food preparation. At least half of all households are too tired, due to their busy lives, to make elaborate dinners. Younger consumers don't want to take the time: 60 percent of 18-34-year-olds said they don't have the time for all the fuss, versus just 33 percent of over-55-year-olds. Similarly, 56 percent of households with annual income exceeding $50,000 also said they were too busy for long-form meal preparation, versus 41 percent of households making less than $25,000 a year, according to 2003 AC Nielsen figures.
Competition comes from take-out/pick-up, with one out of every four meals and snacks coming from restaurant food, according to Mintel Intl. Americans have been spending 47 percent of their food dollars on restaurant food, according to a 2004 USDA report.
With this change in meals is a redefinition of what is a snack food. Snack foods no longer encompass just salty snacks but also can be mini meals, bars, soups, appetizers … in short, a smaller portion of almost any food. While snack foods have traditionally been about fun, satiety and healthiness are new motivations.
Sales of packaged snack foods topped $61 billion in 2005 with a growth rate of 6 percent since 2001, according to a 2006 Packaged Facts report. The key growth areas have been in categories such as yogurt, fresh fruit and meat snacks … i.e., the categories that are more "food-like" and carry a healthy glow. Lower growth rates have occurred in categories such as cookies and piece candy. The idea of portion control, driven by the simplicity of 100-calorie packages (a remake idea from diets of 1923), has driven even more growth in the snack category.
With Hamburger Helper Microwave Singles, General Mills is using the brand, portion size, the convenience of all needed components in the package and microwavability to create a new snack that is more "food-like." The product delivers familiar, comforting flavors and textures and is a bit healthier than many other snackable foods.
Looking across our Crave It! and Healthy You! conjoint studies, we find convenient soups or stews are about chunks of fresh vegetables and meats made the old-fashioned way, something special, simply the best and classic flavors. Pastas sauces are about zesty, robust flavors, homemade tastes, thick and hearty sauces with chunks of real meat, made with fresh ingredients, with essential minerals and antioxidants and healthy eating that tastes great. All these studies show flavor, tradition, hearty or chunky and the meat itself are what consumers are looking for in convenient, healthy, craveable meals.
The key attributes for a convenient soup or stew are taste, aroma, appearance, healthiness and price. The key attributes for a healthy pasta meal are taste, price, portion size, appearance and amount of fat. Calories, brand and convenience are further behind. In both cases, taste is critical. Aroma gets us to a more craveable convenient food. Appearance is how we judge these foods. And they must fit within our price/value trade offs.
Key trends in meal kits and snacking are value, taste and healthiness. Convenience is an expected norm.
Value: Private label or store brands have improved their delivery of quality and sensory attributes to foods. This has driven branded manufacturers to even higher levels of creativity to justify the price difference. The addition of precooked meats to the category of meal kits has changed the game, as consumers easily have all the components for a meal. Now they only have to make judgments of price/value and whether the result fits their vision of "homemade."
A focus on portion size led many manufacturers to produce larger meals. Changing the game to snack size portions (as Kraft Mac & Cheese did with microwave versions) changes the expected effort and number of occasions where this category can now be considered.
Taste: Flavorful menu items and ethnic flavors have been the strongest drivers of sales of meal items. For comfort foods, the key is seasonings that fit the expected norms. Comfort foods also deliver great aroma. Bringing this to snacking changes the dynamics of the snack category.
Healthiness: Health-related trends in snacking include portion control, high fiber/whole grains, cutting unhealthy ingredients (trans fats, processed sugar, fat, etc.) and natural/organic, even as on-the-go and convenience remain key attributes that define the snack category.
Hamburger Helper Microwave Singles are available in four varieties: Cheeseburger Macaroni, Cheesy Beef Taco, Cheesy Lasagna and Stroganoff. (Our consumer tasters sampled the Stroganoff flavor.) Four single-serving packages are priced at $2.50 to $3.39.
The package has bursts of "Just add water," "Meat included" and "It's a snap" on the front - along with the "helping hand" glove. An orange background differentiates it from regular Hamburger Helper (White), Tuna Helper (Blue) or Chicken Helper (Yellow). The box also includes a beauty shot, a drawn image of four packets and a measuring cup with "Just add water" on it.
Most consumers were thinking of the original Hamburger Helper and were looking for the multiple pasta and sauce packets. All the ingredients are in each single-serve packet. While teenagers felt the instructions were clear enough, many preteens and teenage boys wanted the instructions printed as images with fewer words. The preparation was fairly easy (just add water, stir and microwave), and the aroma while mixing was pleasantly fragrant. Four to six minutes later the snack was done. This is fast enough that most teens and college students felt they could wait for the "food-like" snack.
The aroma was good and could pass for the aroma that you remember from "mom's" Hamburger Helper. The cooked color was light, not as golden as the regular form, yet clearly identifiable as Hamburger Helper. The cooked appearance is creamy - not too white or too brown and not glossy (thereby not looking greasy or too fatty). The small meat pieces look acceptable, not gross or nasty. The flavor was slightly salty with a pleasant, processed cream taste. The meat was not greasy or gristly and our tasters got the sense of eating real meat. The overall flavor was slightly spicy (classic onion-garlic).
This product surprised people on many levels. While many of our tasters might not have thought it would fit their busy lifestyles, they found it did. Most mothers felt positive about the snack, as they perceived it to be healthier than salty snacks, and it was warm. While the idea of "dried" meat can scare some, the meat quality, when considered as a convenient snack, was less important than when it is considered as a meal.
This product was new yet tasted very familiar. The serving size (for one) is small and was felt by our teens and college people to be a snack and not a meal. Older adult women, who have a taste for Hamburger Helper, found the size was adequate for a small meal.
This snack has 170 calories per serving (45g) with 25 fat calories, 3g of fat, 7g of protein and 660mg of sodium (28 percent of daily value). Fat content is low, which sometimes is hard to find in a snack food. The sodium was a little high. While we don't usually compare, the nutrition statement of this product is extremely positive relative to a serving of the traditional Hamburger Helper, with calories, fat and sodium lower than the "homemade," full-meal version.
Does the product deliver?
The Hamburger Helper brand has been about "Who couldn't use a little help in the kitchen?" and enjoying "a hearty, wholesome meal." The question is, can this translate to snacking?
Marketing statements speak to after-school snacking, empowering kids and teens to make this product, parents being able to trust it and its use at all times of day. The taste is the familiar Hamburger Helper taste, the ease of preparation and cleanup are critical for both kids and parents, and the trust factor rests on the healthy halo of "real food" vs. snack food for kids at the end of the school day.
The product does deliver, as there are not may options for after-school unsupervised snacking that do not come out of a bag. This product provides more flavor and texture options for convenient "real-food" snacking. And while not the main target, it also holds promise as a portion-controlled food.
How to make the idea bigger
This product represents a benchmark for the processed food industry. It is quite impressive for a packaged food, resetting the bar for prepared product. It has captured the image of the real thing but with no negative trade-offs.
The nutrition is fairly good -- better than the homemade version. This idea can grow by providing more vegetables (when coated with sauce, kids, teens and adults are more likely to eat them). The portion-control aspect also is a plus.
Other expansion opportunities are the noodles -- think noodles with more fiber or whole grains or nutrient enriched. How about packaging this in a microwavable bowl, as General Mills did with its Betty Crocker Warm Delights desserts or Suddenly Soup? Would it be possible to come up with a 1,000-calorie diet using all of the General Mills products that would satisfy yet provide sound nutrition?
Rating: This product does deliver on the promises. It captures the essence of Hamburger Helper. It translates the "who couldn't use a little help in the kitchen?" message to one of empowering snack-hungry youths to cook for themselves. It even continues the redefinition of the snacking category to snacks that are more "meal-like."
The product is a good benchmark for the food industry. It shows where opportunities can come through good science, product development and manufacturing.
Market Potential: Good enough. This is likely to be found in many college dormitory rooms around finals time. But beware: others will copy!
Hollis Ashman is chief strategist and Jacqueline Beckley is president of the Understanding & Insight Group, a strategy, business and product development firm that connects with consumers using qualitative and quantitative approaches. For more information, see www.theuandigroup.com.