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Advances In Packaging Deliver Fast Meals With Good Taste

April 11, 2008
Advances in microwavable and dual-ovenable packaging deliver meals fast and easy without surrendering taste or texture.

Overwhelming consumer demand for convenience is driving development of package structures that not only are microwavable or dual-ovenable but also provide taste profiles similar to those of conventionally prepared products. The result is a happy marriage of quick, easy preparation and appetite appeal.

The Simple Steps package from Cryovac uses pre-formed rigid trays made of crystallized polyester (CPET) topped with vacuum skin film over the product. It’s suitable for fresh or pre-cooked meat as well as fresh or frozen vegetables.

Products benefiting from the packaging innovations fall into an array of frozen, refrigerated and shelf-stable food categories. Examples include fresh meat and vegetables, single-serve and family-size frozen entrées and retorted toddler meals.

An intriguing development is cook-in packaging that makes it possible to cook raw meat and poultry in the microwave with no sacrifice of flavor or mouthfeel. Bell AG, Basel, Switzerland, launched such a package in Europe for the Bell Easy Gourmet line of fresh meat and poultry. Bell’s products include Black Pepper Steak and Thai Chicken.

Davide Elia, Bell’s leader of marketing/communication, admits at first consumers are somewhat skeptical that fresh meat and poultry can be microwaved and still taste good. “But once they try it, they are quite surprised how good the products are,” Elia says.

“The quality is extraordinary. The meat is tender, juicy and tasteful. It is easy to prepare, and you can’t do anything wrong. In two to three minutes, you have a perfect steak without soiling the kitchen.” However, he adds, “The typical crust is missing compared to a fried or grilled preparation. The look of the prepared product also is different from a fried or grilled product.”

Bell uses a version of Ready Meals Simple Steps packaging from Sealed Air’s Cryovac Food Solutions, Duncan, S.C. The Easy Gourmet package is a rollstock-formed, semi-rigid tray topped with a vacuum skin film.

“That package lends itself to producing a nice quality piece of meat, even in the microwave,” says Sean Brady, director of Ready Meals for North American marketing at Cryovac. “Because the lidstock stays on [during cooking], it holds the steam inside the package, which helps the uniformity of the cooking of the product.”

A variation on this package, also from Cryovac, uses preformed rigid trays made of crystallized polyester (CPET). The package, topped with vacuum skin film over the product, is suitable for fresh or pre-cooked meat as well as fresh or frozen vegetables.

In addition to providing consumers with the benefit of fast preparation – only 2 1/2 minutes for the Easy Gourmet Thai Chicken – the Simple Steps package offers benefits for processors interested in marketing value-added proteins. Because the meat doesn’t need to be cooked prior to packaging, processing is faster, easier and less expensive than with precooked, heat-and-serve products.

Bell AG is trying to get consumers in Europe comfortable with microwaving chicken or steak with packaging made by Cryovac.

Europe is moving forward with retail applications of the Ready Meals Simple Steps packaging for fresh meat, but Brady says the foodservice market will be the initial emphasis for this package-product combination in the U.S.

A hurdle for processors, as they develop products for this package structure, is the variability of microwave ovens in consumers’ homes. Cooking instructions that would work fine for one household could fail miserably in another, souring consumers on the product.

However, U.S. foodservice chains tend to use standard microwave technology across the board, so a processor can develop products and cooking directions specifically for the chain’s equipment and achieve consistent quality of cooked product.

In the foodservice and retail markets alike, expect this package format to remain on the small side: Packages holding a 3- to 7-oz. serving of fresh meat perform best in the microwave.

Steam cookery

New package formats for fresh vegetables and fruits also are harnessing the power of steam cooking. In-package microwave steaming protects the produce’s delicate flavors and nutrients to deliver a high-quality cooked product, quickly and easily.

Sholl’s Freshtables have an invisible valve that opens automatically to allow steaming in the microwave. The film is made by American Packaging.

One of the newer offerings in this category is Freshtables from Minneapolis-based Sholl Group II. Packed in a flexible bag and merchandised in the repfrigerated case of supermarket produce departments, Freshtables are fresh fruits and vegetables augmented with chef-inspired sauces and flavors. The 12 oz. of Freshtables in the bag cook in two minutes in the microwave.

The package material is a proprietary adhesive lamination suited to microwave temperatures, and the bag features a hermetic seal to prevent the product’s lowviscosity sauce from leaking. The consumer does not puncture the bag prior to cooking. The package, which builds up internal pressure when microwaved, uses EsterSteam technology from American Packaging Corp., Rochester, N.Y.

“There’s an invisible steaming valve that automatically opens up in the microwave, and that’s what allows control of the steam venting. When it reaches the right temperature and pressure, it automatically releases the appropriate amount of steam,” explains Darci Eckermann, senior vice president of Sholl Group II.

The packaging supplier designs the lamination with a customized oxygen transmission rate for each product so the produce can breathe during shipping, merchandising and home storage. Thanks to the packaging, Freshtables exhibit 14 days of shelf life, refrigerated.

Entrées for everyone

In the freezer case, both single-serving and family-size entreés are reaping the rewards of microwavable and dual-ovenable package innovation.

For single-serving frozen entrées, Con-Agra Foods Inc., Omaha, Neb., uses its unique microwave Steam Cooker package for Healthy Choice Café Steamers. Once again, steam cooking protects the quality of the cooked product, preserving flavor, color and texture.

The one-dish Café Steamers meals are packaged with vegetables, meat or seafood and pasta or rice in a steamer basket that nests in a plastic bowl. The bowl holds each recipe’s signature sauce.

As the sauce heats and ultimately boils, steam rises and cooks the items in the steamer basket. When the microwave cooking cycle is complete, the consumer simply removes the package’s plastic cover and mixes the food from the basket with the sauce in the bowl.

Note to marketing
A coupon attached to the film lidding on a frozen food tray stands a better bet of catching the consumer’s eye than a coupon printed on the carton. But what if the consumer forgets
to detach the coupon from the lidding before putting the product in the microwave or
conventional oven?
Not a thing, if the processor uses a heat-resistant film created specifically for such applications. WS Packaging Group Inc. (www.wspackaging.com), Green Bay, Wis., developed
such a film-paper-film construction, which is rated heat-safe to 500º F. The oven-safe film protects against fire even if a consumer cranks up the oven’s temperature in hopes the food will cook quicker – or selects the proper temperature but forgets to take the food out when cooking is complete.

In a category noted for convenience, the Café Steamers package takes that a step further. There’s no need to peel back plastic lidding, puncture an overwrap, stir the product midway through cooking or dirty a dish.

Multi-serving frozen entreés require other types of packaging to overcome the hurdles of microwave cooking. Wal-Mart Great Value Lasagna, which is a family-size product, uses a specially designed evenheating tray to assure uniform cooking.

The primary package for Wal-Mart’s 40-oz. lasagna is the pressed paperboard Micro-Rite tray from Graphic Packaging International Inc., Marietta, Ga. The Wal-Mart lasagna is the fi rst product to launch nationally in the MicroRite tray within the U.S.

As the product cooks, the tray uses shielding technology to refl ect microwave energy away from the edges of the product, preventing undesirable crisping or browning at the periphery. In addition, the tray features differential-heating technology: A foil pattern is laminated to the interior bottom of the tray, creating “antennae” that direct microwave energy to the center of the product. A thin layer of polyester on the tray acts as a barrier between the product and the paperboard substrate.

In addition to eliminating overcooked edges and cold spots in the middle of the dish, the even-heating tray reduces cook time and simplifies microwave preparation. The lasagna cooks for 10 minutes with the lid on plus three minutes uncovered, all at full power. The product then rests for two minutes and is ready to eat.

Heat-resistant film allows placement of a promotional coupon right on the film lidding of a frozen food tray – safe even if the consumer forgets to remove the coupon before cooking.

In contrast, with a conventional microwavable tray, the product would require 30 minutes of cooking time and the heating directions would be more complicated. The even-heating tray’s shorter cooking time translates not only into time savings but also into energy savings: 50 percent less energy is required to cook the product in the new tray vs. the old one.

Wal-Mart previously packaged Great Value Lasagna in a conventional microwavable tray. No product reformulation was required to switch to the even-heating tray, and the new tray runs at the same line speed as the previous one. The size of the secondary package, a paperboard carton, also remains unchanged.

Processors have a new lidding option available as they strive to protect the flavor profiles of microwavable and dualovenable products. It is the LumiLid line of solvent-free polyester lidding fi lms from Toray Plastics (America) Inc. (www. torayfi lms.com), North Kingstown, R.I.

These FDA-compliant, heat-sealable lidding fi lms, suitable for frozen and refrigerated food applications, are manufactured using a proprietary extrusion coating technology that does not require organic solvents. Thus the films expose the food in the package to no odorous solvents, safeguarding taste and aroma.

As a further benefit, “The LumiLid XL5 lidding film is actually lower in cost compared with other films, because we do not have to manage solvent coating processing issues like high solvent costs, measurement of retained solvents, incineration and waste management,” says Mike Theriault, business manager at Toray.

To make sure even the youngest family members have the option of eating tasty microwavable entrées, Gerber Products Co., Florham Park, N.J., launched Graduates for Toddlers Lil’ Entrées nationwide.

These microwavable mini-entrées are retorted and filled into trays sealed with an easy-peel film. Taste-tested by toddlers, the meals contain no artificial flavors or added preservatives.

The Lil’ Entrées primary package, molded with two compartments to accommodate multi-component products like turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy, is shelf-stable and reportedly offers 18-month shelf life.

The Gerber entrées cook in 30 seconds in the microwave but are also safe to eat at ambient temperature. It doesn’t get much more convenient than that.

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