Why Frozen Foods Are Hot Right Now

April 27, 2020
The category was picking up steam even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to cook and dine at home.

It’s kind of like that Mark Twain quote. After several years of dwindling sales, the frozen foods category was pronounced dead by many observers. But those reports “have been greatly exaggerated” – the category suddenly sprung to life in March 2018 and has been growing ever since.

The frozen foods department in grocery stores grew $918 million in the 52 weeks ending June 29, 2019, according to National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association with sales totaling $54.6 billion.

“While frozen food was already experiencing a renaissance of sorts, reduced access to restaurants and fast casual businesses due to the COVID-19 outbreak has caused demands to soar,” says Deepak Amin, CEO of Deep Indian Kitchen. “This, in turn, has led to the consumption of more frozen staples and frozen international products while people stay safe at home and seek products that have long shelf lives.”

The top five frozen department categories were ice cream ($6.7 billion), pizza ($4.8 billion), seafood ($4.8 billion), novelties ($4.6 billion) and complete meals ($4.5 billion). Pizza, seafood, novelties, vegetables and prepared potatoes all showed solid growth with an increased percentage of dollar sales ranging from 3.7 to 5.1 percent versus the prior 52 weeks.

The frozen department drives 31 trips per buying household annually and adds $10.90 to shopping baskets per trip. Ice cream and vegetables are the categories with the highest household penetration, showing up in more than 80% of homes. With half of U.S. households having access to more than one freezer, there is opportunity to take advantage of this extra capacity.

“Frozen foods have seen strong growth over the last few years as innovative products now align with consumers’ demands for organic, plant-based, gluten-free and so much more,” says NFRA President and CEO Skip Shaw. “NFRA’s consumer PR efforts have been successfully working to tell this positive story about today’s frozen foods. It’s real food, just frozen.

Mario DiFalco, Senior Director Innovations & New Ventures, Del Monte Foods

Del Monte Foods

There are a few reasons why the frozen category has shown strong resilience recently. Primarily, it’s been driven by the need for frozen to transform amidst all of the new healthy-ingredient, snack and meal options that consumers have today. A great of example are frozen meals -- we have seen many established brands refresh their offerings and a significant amount of new brands entering the space.

Del Monte Foods is one of the original plant-based companies and at our core we believe in the power of nutritious fruits and vegetables. We saw a great consumer response when we launched our [frozen] Del Monte Veggieful Bites, which contain a full serving of vegetables in every five bites with 9g of protein. They don’t sacrifice flavor and are made with real cheese and no artificial preservatives.

We launched our first Contadina frozen item, Pizzettas bite-sized snacks, which feature a blend of Roma tomato sauce, real cheese and crust baked with real cauliflower to provide a healthy and fun snack. The new product has been well received and even won recognition in the frozen category of the 2020 Product of the Year Awards.

What really sets Veggieful Bites as well as Contadina Pizzettas apart from competitors is that our dough which is made with cauliflower and whole wheat. Our dough is crusty on the outside yet yeasty on the inside. We roll out the dough, fill it with ingredients, then bake it just like you would bread at home. The real cheese factor is also important to make the items really tasty and flavorful as well as healthy. We wanted them both to be a fun snack that kids and parents would look forward to eating and would be a healthy alternative to what’s currently on the market.

Bringing our healthy offerings to frozen categories made a lot of sense. There is no end to the frozen categories that we can enter, especially as more and more consumers are seeking out healthier ingredients, including snack and meal options that are frozen. Our entrance into this category has been part of a broader strategy to expand the footprint of our offerings, fulfilling today’s consumer needs to find tasty, healthy options in various locations within the store, online and in channels such as convenience and food service.

People are looking for easily accessible, nutritious foods with wholesome ingredients, and frozen is a perfect category to address those needs. By increasing our presence in frozen foods, we can conveniently fit into consumers’ busy lives and offer them the nutrition they are looking for without extensive prep time in the kitchen.

Deepak “Deep” Amin, CEO of Deep Indian Kitchen

Deep Indian Kitchen

We’ve seen a general rise in consumption of frozen food by millennials over the past several years, especially frozen ethnic food. In fact, a Mintel International Food Trends Survey recently reported that 60% of international food eaters are looking to expand their palates with spicy and savory flavors. The Technomic Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report also shows that international flavors have led a 20% cumulative annual growth rate in new food & beverage launches from 2013-2017, largely drive by the 87% of millennial consumers eating the cuisine. The frozen food category allows Deep Indian Kitchen to meet this demand by making the ethnic flavors that people are seeking easier to prepare and enjoy in their own homes. Our frozen Indian entrees, street foods, appetizers and breads cater to this culinary trend by appealing to adventurous taste buds in an approachable way.

As far as health and wellness goes, the Indian diet is historically largely vegetarian and gluten-free — these happen to be popular diets that many millennials adhere to now by choice or personal restriction. Our frozen meals are authentically slow-cooked for hours, the result of which directly challenges the myth that frozen food can’t be as flavorful and healthful as non-frozen. Additionally, we use absolutely no artificial preservatives, colors or flavors in any of our foods.

We understand that Indian food can be intimidating for novice chefs to recreate in their home kitchens, so our frozen foods help make the experience more approachable while still living up to the high quality standards that today’s consumers have.

Frozen dishes are convenient for people who are leading increasingly busy lives, but still want to experience well-prepared dishes. Additionally, as people continue to seek out global cuisines to try, frozen food provides a format for them to experience new dishes without hesitation.

Todd Niezgodski, Vice President of Sales, Spinato’s Fine Foods

Spinato’s Fine Foods

Focusing solely on the natural products industry, the “better for you” pizza category is up 21.2% over the last 52 weeks as consumers’ love of pizza is still strong. Our consumers still want pizza as it’s America’s No. 1 convenient food, but they are looking for healthier, better-for-you options for their families.

Manufacturers are sourcing healthier ingredients and creating recipes that meet the needs of many different food tribes. We are continually researching and innovating our current and new recipes to stay ahead of trends, thus why we developed and launched our line of fully topped broccoli crust pizzas in 2019. Our pizzas are filled with micronutrients that are essential for the everyday diet, and broccoli is America’s favorite vegetable.

Why frozen is the best medium for our product? Keeping the pizzas frozen helps protect the integrity of the ingredients as well as its shelf life.

Frozen convenience foods, especially pizza, provide consumers comfort and a way to bring the family together around the table, and consumers are buying it because of its shelf stability. Over the past four weeks [essentially all of March], the category has seen an 80.3% increase in sales. Pizza is not only strong in brick and mortar stores, it also has become a food product you can conveniently purchase on-line direct to your home. Consumers are trying pizza products they have never had before and we are proud to be part of the supply chain that is keeping Americans fed.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga, Founder and CEO of Mason Dixie Foods

Mason Dixie Foods

I believe the category is making a comeback because consumers are looking for healthier, simple, preservative-free options. Therefore, more and more brands are gravitating to the frozen category because it’s the only real way to ensure preservative-free performance outside of canning and pickling.

At Mason Dixie, we pride ourselves in making clean-label products that contain simple ingredients that can be found on your grocer’s shelf, no preservatives, no artificial ingredients or natural flavorings. We don’t use substitutes, trans fats, oils, corn syrups or gums, and we opt for aluminum- and titanium-free ingredients always.

We have big ambitions, and the frozen category has really allowed us to build our brand to what it is today. There is so much room for growth in the category because it truly has not evolved since the 1980s. As we are no longer speaking to the same consumers from that era, we want to give them a new, better, modern option. Consumers are looking for clean label options and the best way to guarantee freshness and quality is freezing.

Sean Connolly, CEO, Conagra Foods. Frozen brands include Banquet, Birds Eye, Frontera, Gardein, Healthy Choice, Marie Callender’s

ConAgra Foods

In a conference call with investment analysts, Connolly said:

We’ve seen consumer demand for our frozen products continue to be strong due to a number of positive factors, including demographics and concept of value. We're tailoring new frozen product innovation from brands like Birds Eye, Healthy Choice, Banquet, Marie Callender’s and Gardein to bring premium food with the right nutrition, sustainability attributes and different price points to the freezer aisle and digital shelf. The result of Conagra Brands’ approach to innovation has generated significant growth in frozen for our business. [Birds Eye, acquired along with Pinnacle Foods in 2018, is now Conagra’s biggest brand.] Gardein [frozen analogue meat products] is accelerating at a very strong rate, up 15.9% in the second quarter of fiscal 2020 [ended Nov. 26, 2019] and up 24.4% in the third quarter. We expanded Gardein’s manufacturing capacity this year.

John Carmichael, President, Nestlé Foods Division. (Brands include Hot Pockets, Lean Cuisine, Stouffer’s, Sweet Earth and pizzas from California Pizza Kitchen, DiGiorno, Jack’s, Outsider’s and Tombstone)

Nestlé Foods Division

We are seeing three main factors contributing to the resurgence of the frozen category:

Convenience: First and foremost, convenience of frozen meals as the “the original meal kit” is appealing for shoppers, particularly as the novelty of modern meal kits may be waning. Millennials who grew up in an age of instant gratification are creating great demand for frozen recipes as they transition to the busiest phase of their lives (many as working parents) and have less time to prepare meals.

At-Home Dining: Another growth driver is at-home meals account more than 80 percent of eating occasions– which is greater than ever before [and that was before the coronavirus pandemic]. Consumers are opting for frozen options as a simple and efficient heat-and-serve solution. Frozen meals provide the same convenient lunchtime fix in the workplace, while dinner is the prime meal where frozen foods come into play to save time.

Modern Health: As definitions of wellness continue to evolve, the frozen aisle now offers a larger variety of products suited to fit consumer preferences and lifestyles – including plant-based, gluten free and organic. Culinary innovations that offer new global flavors and/or restaurant-inspired tastes also resonate with consumers, allowing them to try something new for a fraction of the cost.

For instance, we just launched Life Cuisine. This new brand offers flavor-filled, nutrient packed recipes, specifically crafted for every lifestyle. Whether you’re looking for a high protein meal to power up your day, a low carb snack to get you through the afternoon or a gluten free pizza to satisfy your dinner hunger, Life Cuisine has delicious recipes to help you meet those goals. It offers modern and on-trend dishes that align with four consumer preferences: high protein, meatless, gluten free and low-carb lifestyles.

Nestlé emphasizes innovation across its portfolio as one of the key ways to optimize recipes and deliver for consumers. Heritage brands like Stouffer’s, DiGiorno and Lean Cuisine are constantly looking for ways to meet consumer’s changing tastes and needs, whether that is innovating favorite recipes or offering meals in different formats and flavors.

  • DiGiorno is introducing a new Croissant Crust pizza, an indulgent offering and the only croissant-style pizza available nationally in the frozen aisle.
  • Stouffer’s Lasagna with Meat & Sauce now features 2x the meat, adding more heartiness to this already-favorite family dinnertime staple.
  • Lean Cuisine is reintroducing more than half its portfolio with new and updated recipes and formats, like adding more cheese to its Vermont White Cheddar Mac & Cheese and richer flavors to the mashed potatoes in its Meatloaf and Mashed Potato offering. Those meals, which remain delicious and reliable options for helping consumers stay on track with their goals, are available in updated packaging with a modern look and feel. Lean Cuisine also recently launched new Lean Cuisine Bowls which deliver 20% more food than previous recipes.

The frozen aisle has found new popularity among shoppers, particularly millennials, who are in search of convenient, less expensive options. Frozen entrées offer a pre-portioned meal option and the ability to test new flavors or cuisines inspired by restaurants or global food trends. Additional appeal lies in the reduced food waste from these varieties.

For Nestlé, it is a combination of many of the things noted above – a resurgence in the category due to consumers’ pension toward convenience, a rise in at-home eating and new definitions of “eating well.” As a leader in frozen, these all make the category a fertile market for growth and innovation. We’re extremely excited about the opportunity to engage consumers with new food trends, formats and options. What’s more, these unique formats have allowed us to lead with “category firsts,” such as new Life Cuisine Sous Vide Egg Bites and Cauliflower Crust Pizzas – a first-of-its-kind in the nutritional category, as well as the first single-serve cauliflower crust pizza found in freezer aisles (and that can be microwaved), respectively.

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