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Frozen Dinners Poised For Turnaround

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A flood of new premium options in Frozen Dinners compatible with modern lifestyle diets is expected to boost flagging sales.

Sweet Earth Foods introduces four globally inspired, plant-based bowls featuring its own meat substitutes.

Although the March numbers are likely to tell a very different story, during the 12 weeks ended Feb. 23, dollar sales of frozen dinners and entrees were down 1.8% and units 4.1% (versus the same period a year ago), according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI (iriworldwide.com). The handheld segment (-0.5%) held its own, but both the single-serve (-2.2%) and multi-serve (-2.6%) subcategories suffered more significant losses, particularly in terms of units, down 5.2% and 2.9%, respectively.

Manufacturers say mainstream and value offerings bear much of the blame, and the discrepancy between dollars and units reflects an ongoing shift toward higher-priced, better quality meals. As interest in clean labels and wholesome ingredients grows, “Consumers continue to trade up to more premium brands,” says Lisa Larkin, category manager for Berkeley, Calif.-based Sovos Brands, which includes Michael Angelo’s (michaelangelos.com). In fact, she reports, IRI data shows the CAGR of premium and super-premium frozen entrée brands jumped 12.8% between 2015 and 2019 – almost 2.5 times the CAGR for the category as a whole. “And in the latest 12 weeks, we’ve seen even stronger growth from these two segments, with premium up 19.8% and super-premium up 23.3% versus the same period last year.”

Those results dovetail with the findings of a recent survey by the Food Marketing Institute, which revealed 48% of consumers seek frozen foods with healthier ingredients, 47% look for more nutritional value, 41% want no artificial ingredients and 33% prefer items that are minimally processed. “Yes, this does cost a bit more, but we find that consumers are willing to spend a bit more for quality and delicious taste,” says Larkin.

It comes as no surprise, then, that manufacturers are flooding the shelves with new and improved frozen entrees that deliver on quality. “When we develop new items or make changes to a current line of [private label] products, it’s all about using clean ingredients,” confirms Jeff Gehres, senior director of sales and product development for Holland, Mich.-based private label manufacturer Request Foods (requestfoods.com). “Consumers study the ingredient statements.” But a clean ingredient statement is no longer enough, as more shoppers seek out products that are also compatible with modern lifestyle diets. Topping the list, of course, are plant-based offerings that meet the needs of a growing number of flexitarians looking to reduce the amount of meat in their diet.

PLANT-BASED GOES MAINSTREAM

“Meat alternatives have evolved beyond a niche market,” says Linda Sa, brand manager for Marie Callender’s (mariecallendersmeals.com), owned by Chicago-based Conagra. “Today, plant-based is for everyone, not just vegans and vegetarians. In fact, plant-based is the fastest- growing segment within the modern health category (+15% versus a year ago).” To make its first plant-based offerings more approachable, explains Sa, the folks at Marie Callender’s are replacing the meat in one of consumers’ favorite comfort foods – pot pies – with top-selling frozen meat alternative Gardein. Packed with at least 24 grams of protein, Marie Callender’s Gardein Inside Pot Pies are available in Meatless Chick’n and Meatless Be’f flavors, both of which feature its signature made-from-scratch gravy and flaky crust.

Primal Kitchen’s new skillet meals and bowls are paleo-friendly, certified gluten-free and Whole30-approved.

The company is also rolling out a pair of Healthy Choice Power Bowls with Gardein Inside. Available in Be’f & Vegetable Stir Fry and Chipotle Chick’n, the two vegan meals deliver 16 to 19 grams of protein and 6 to 7 grams of fiber apiece. (The company will also expand its “regular” Healthy Choice Power Bowls lineup with two more plant-based varieties: vegan Green Goddess and vegetarian Buddha Bowl.)

Later this year, Conagra also plans to roll out both Birds Eye and Birds Eye Voila! meals made with Gardein, including dishes like Meatless Be’f Lasagna, Meatless Garlic Chick’n and Meatless Alfredo Chick’n. In addition, the company will debut a pair of multi-serve Birds Eye Lasagnas (Lasagna with Meat Sauce and Five Cheese Lasagna) featuring pasta made from 100% vegetables.

Another player in the plant-based space, Moss Landing, Calif.-based Sweet Earth Foods (sweetearthfoods.com), is also incorporating its own meat substitute into new frozen meals. The company’s Kung Pao Chik’n and Chik’n Fajita bowls both feature its recently launched Mindful Chik’n while its Mongolian Beefless and Pasta Puttanesca bowls are made with new Sweet Earth Awesome Grounds. All four of the globally inspired meals contain 14 to 15 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber per serving.

“Sweet Earth is focused on continuously innovating vegetarian foods that are delicious above everything else,” says Ryan Riddle, senior product development specialist for vegetarian meal solutions at parent company Nestlé, Arlington, Va. “Our end goal is for people to savor the experience of eating plant-based.”

But not all new plant-based entries include meat substitutes. New Fat Rabbit (followthefatrabbit.com) vegetarian bowls from Pittsburgh-based Kraft Heinz “don’t need a meat alternative to keep you satisfied,” says the company, vowing to make plants the star, not the sidekick. “We believe in vegetarian meals that are actually made with vegetables.” Available varieties include Harvest Hooligan, Smoky Molé Madness, Green Riot Verde, Orange Cauliflower Renegade and Lemon Feta Frenzy, all free of artificial preservatives, flavors and dyes.

Conagra-owned EVOL (evolfoods.com) is also making some moves in the plant-based space, adding vegetarian Butternut Squash Curry and Veggie Burrito varieties to its Modern Lifestyle single-serve bowl collection. The company is also bringing a pair of paleo bowls to the lineup, Guajillo Chicken & Cauliflower and Unwrapped Chicken Egg Roll, highlighting growing demand for products compatible with other popular lifestyle diets as well.

PALEO, KETO, GLUTEN-FREE, OH MY!

Conagra debuts a pair of meatless Marie Callender’s Pot Pies made with its own meat substitute Gardein.

While 8% of U.S. adults self-identify as vegetarian, a fall 2019 NEXT survey finds that an equal number consider themselves keto, while 7% identify as gluten-free and 5% as paleo. But according to Mark Sisson, co-founder of Oxnard, Calif.-based Primal Kitchen (primalkitchen.com), part of the Kraft Heinz portfolio, there’s a dearth of convenience products that meet the needs of consumers that follow specialty diets. “So we felt there was a huge opportunity to bring our brand promise to the frozen aisle.”

Paleo-friendly, certified gluten-free and Whole30 approved, Primal Kitchen’s new frozen bowls and skillet meals are made with real, high quality ingredients like fresh veggies, cage-free dark meat chicken and grass-fed, pasture- raised beef – and no grains, soy, dairy, refined sugar or artificial ingredients, he says. Single-serve varieties include Chicken Panang Curry, Beef & Mushroom and keto-friendly Chicken Pesto Riced Cauliflower, all offered in bowls made with an upcycled sugar cane by product. Multi-serve skillet meals include Steak Fajitas, No-Soy Chicken Teriyaki and Chicken Fried Riced Cauliflower, each of which delivers at least 18 grams of protein per serving.

In the surging keto segment, meanwhile, Chico, Calif.- based Cali’flour (califlourfoods.com) is also making its first foray into the frozen meals category with a collection of low-carb, cauliflower-based single-serve entrees, including Lasagna with Meat Sauce, Vegetable Lasagna, Chicken Enchilada Bake and Vegetable Enchilada Bake. “These products allow carb-conscious consumers to enjoy traditional, high-carb comfort foods with all of the taste they crave but with a fraction of the carbs in traditional versions,” says chief marketing officer Pat Hughes.

He adds, “Even if the number of strict followers of the ketogenic diet remains low, a much larger segment of consumers is increasingly focused on reducing carbs and sugar. So we believe products like ours that deliver those benefits will continue to proliferate and take share from high-carb legacy offerings.”

Other newcomers to the keto frozen entree segment include Nutley, N.J.-based Happi Foodi (happifoodi.com), which debuted four bowls in February (Southwestern Chicken, Coconut Chicken, Cheddar Parm Chicken and Chicken Alfredo), and Vancouver-based Performance Kitchen (luvoinc.com), which just started taking orders for its new Carb- Wise Keto-Friendly Meals (Coconut Curried Chicken, Creamy Chicken & Broccoli, Curried Chicken & Eggplant and Smoked Paprika Chicken).

The gluten-free frozen meals segment continues to welcome new products as well. For example, both Red’s All Natural (redsallnatural.com), Franklin, Tenn., and Conagra-owned Blake’s All Natural (blakesallnatural.com), Concord, N.H., are rolling out gluten-free mac and cheeses. “The free-from space is growing (up 6% versus a year ago), and we know that ‘all natural’ and ‘flavor first’ are important attributes for consumers who eat gluten- free,” says Alexandra Ewing, associate brand manager for Blake’s. “So Blake’s has provided a very indulgent gluten-free option.”

In the kids frozen meal segment, meanwhile, New York-based Kidfresh (kidfresh.com), known for “hiding” veggies in its meals, debuts a pair of gluten-free pasta with cauliflower bowls (Marinara and Cheddar).

RESTAURANT-INSPIRED MEALS POPULAR

Despite the popularity of clean label, better-for-you products compatible with specialty diets, there’s still plenty of demand for more indulgent, restaurant-inspired frozen meals that consumers can prepare at home. And no format is more popular in the foodservice channel than bowls. In fact, says Sa, “Menu penetration of bowls at restaurants has grown 28% over the last four years.” Launched in 2018, Marie Callender’s collection of frozen bowls continues to gain ground as well, prompting the company’s roll out of 11 new additions featuring “exciting flavors and elevated recipes inspired by menu trends.” Among the highlights: Shrimp Mac & Cheese, Slow Roasted Beef Pot Roast, Chicken & Dumplings, Lasagna & Meat Sauce and Swedish Meatballs, all in single-serve bowls.

On the more decadent side, Kraft Heinz adds two new entrees to its unapologet-ically indulgent, QSR-inspired Devour (devour-foods.com) lineup: Loaded Nacho Fries with Chorizo and Creamy Bacon Alfredo Mac & Cheese with Chicken. “Devour leveraged an increase in QSR menu penetration of chorizo and nacho-type offerings and then took fan favorite Chicken Alfredo and…made it even more creamy and cheesy – and added bacon to it,” says a company spokesperson. Nestlé is also jumping on the restaurant-inspired bandwagon, rolling out eight More Cuisine entrees late last year that offer 20% more food than Lean Cuisine versions (leancuisine.com). “These restaurant-inspired favorites empower fans to ditch the takeout,” says the company. Available flavors include Orange Chicken, Sweet & Sour Chicken, Roasted Turkey & Veggies, Peanut Chicken Stir Fry, Four Cheese Tortelloni with Pesto, Balsamic Glazed Chicken, Sesame Chicken & Vegetables and Shrimp Alfredo.

NEW IN ETHNIC MEALS

Like the rest of the frozen entrees category, the on-trend ethnic segment is also seeing an influx of higher-quality, clean-label items. But, while there are plenty of upscale single-serve Asian meals, the folks at Michael Angelo’s noticed a lack of premium Italian offerings, prompting its recent introduction of single-serve gourmet bowls. Made the old-fashioned way with kettle-cooked sauces, cheese grated on-site and hand-placed basil, “Our gourmet bowls offer a unique twist on classic recipes, including Chicken Cavatappi, Gnocchi Alfredo, Meat Lasagna Bolognese and Tri-Color Cheese Tortellini,” says Larkin.

Another company known for high-quality, clean label, ethnic meals, Stamford, Conn.-based Saffron Road (saffronroad.com) is also expanding its lineup, adding Thai Basil Beef Noodles and Thai Red Curry. “Thai items have performed very well for us and are one of the fastest-growing segments of our portfolio,” says executive vp Jack Acree. “But the key is offering an assortment of diverse, authentic ethnic offerings that appeal to the new wave of frozen consumers.”

Understanding how that group differs from their parents is critical, says David Perkins, founder and CEO of Austin, Texas-based Beetnik Foods (beetnikfoods.com). “We see 18- to 34-yearolds exhibiting far, far different buying patterns than consumers 55+.” Not only do they want more ethnic fare, “Almost half of them are label readers who really care about what’s in the products they buy versus only about 15% of consumers 65+. That’s independent of socioeconomic status or affordability. So the young consumers retailers will increasingly be fighting for have a very different profile.”

Beetnik recently introduced Organic Chicken Tortilla Soup but decided to hold off on additional refrigerated meal rollouts until after the coronavirus crisis passes.

FROZEN DINNERS & ENTREES

Sales in supermarkets, drugstores, mass merchants, military commissaries and select club and dollar stores combined for the 12 weeks ended Feb. 23, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI (iriworldwide.com). Percent change is versus the same period a year ago.

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Denise Leathers

Denise Leathers

Denise is the editor of Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer.

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