Meals that go from shelf to microwave are getting more retail space as upscale, better-for-you and other new products hit the market
The shelf-stable meals category was virtually nonexistent at Associated Food Stores a few years ago.
“We were down to about four SKUs of Chef Boyardee microwavable cups,” said Nate Laver, category manager at the Salt Lake City distributor to about 600 food retailers.
All that changed when the economy plummeted, and consumers consequently started brown bagging and eating at home more. Those in the workforce became increasingly interested in portable meals that can be prepared in minutes, fit easily into a briefcase and require no refrigeration — all aspects that let them enjoy a meal without disrupting their busy schedule.
New products entered the market and existing ones were reformulated with better-for-you positioning. The result was new products like Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers and Hormel Compleats and the expansion of the shelf-stable meals category.
Today, Associated offers about 20 shelf-stable meal SKUs, half of which are from the category leader Hormel Compleats. The microwave meals feature chicken, beef or turkey as well as vegetables and pasta, potatoes or rice. The line is available in more than 25 varieties, including six geared toward a healthy lifestyle.
“It's like a brand new category,” Laver said. “The category virtually died off until Hormel Compleats came out.”
Today the category includes Hormel Compleats, Chef Boyardee and Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers, as well as Marie Callender's Home-Style Creations, Ronzoni Bistro, Del Monte Harvest Selections and Dinty Moore Big Bowls, a meat and vegetable meal in a 15-ounce microwavable bowl.
Shelf-stable dinners generated $1.3 billion in food stores for the 52 weeks ending March 21, a 0.9% rise from the same period the previous year, according to SymphonyIRI.
Research firm Mintel says the category is poised for growth thanks to new products with premium and better-for-you positioning, as well as continued consumer demand for restaurant-quality dining experiences at work and home.
Shelf-stable meals have come a long way since years ago, when they got a bad rap for being high in fat and sodium, Laver said.
“The old shelf-stable meals were often referred to as a “Heart Attack in a Can,” he said.
That kind of thinking has changed with the launch of such items as ConAgra's Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers, rice or pasta-based entrees that have reduced sodium and calories. Requiring no refrigeration or freezing, Fresh Mixers come in such varieties as Sweet & Sour Chicken, Sesame Teriyaki Chicken and Szechwan Beef with Asian Style Noodles.
The meals are unique in that the starch and sauce are kept separate in the package. A specially designed cooking device acts as a pasta cooker/rice steamer. This way, the rice and pasta can be cooked separately then mixed together with the sauce to create a complete meal in about five minutes.
Healthy Choice is expanding its Fresh Mixers line with two vegetarian varieties to cater to the 25% of consumers that are so-called vegetarian-inclined, or eat four or more meatless meals per week, according to brand director Paula Ford.
ConAgra has also introduced a shelf-stable meal designed for people looking for an indulgent meal while at work or home. Marie Callender's Home-Style Creations feature premium ingredients such as whole beef strips, authentic cheeses and wine reduction sauces. The brand was introduced late last year with an ad campaign touting “A Little Touch of Home for Lunch.”
While shelf-stable meals perform “fairly well” at Associated, Laver said their success is limited due to the relatively high price points: $2.50 to $3.50 each. Even on promotion, they cost an average of $2 per 10 ounces.
Such retails are a particularly hard sell in Utah, which Laver said is one of the most value-conscious markets in the nation.
“For $2, I can go to Wendy's and get something off their value meal menu, and it's probably just as healthy,” he said.
Price points are also an issue at Jungle Jim's International Market, Fairfield, Ohio, according to Charlie Van Skaik, grocery operations manager.
With many area residents unemployed and looking to save money, some shoppers balk at spending more just for convenience.
“Unless they are on sale, they are too expensive for people out of work,” Van Skaik said.
One exception is category leader Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers, which sell regardless of price. They are so popular that Jungle Jim's occasionally runs out of stock.
“They sell well and are gaining in popularity,” Van Skaik said.
Despite the price-point obstacle, the category still has satisfactory sales, he added.
Van Skaik attributes this to the fact that they can be used for multiple meal occasions. The primary eating occasion for shelf-stable convenience meals is the working lunch. But products appeal to other demographic groups, from kids to college students to moms.
“The good thing about shelf-stable meals is that everyone eats them, and not just for lunch,” Van Skaik said. “Personally, I've had the Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers for lunch while working.”
What's more, shelf-stable meals cater to those looking for a quick-and-easy way to enjoy comfort foods like macaroni and cheese.
Kraft's Macaroni and Cheese Dinner Cups are for those who love macaroni and cheese and also want a convenient way to prepare and eat it in one package. They require just a little added water and a microwave.
“We continue to see interest in convenience,” said Kraft spokeswoman Joyce Hodel.
The cups are available in such varieties as Alfredo, Cheesy Pizza, Original, SpongeBob SquarePants Shapes, Toy Story Shapes and Triple Cheese and White Cheddar.
Kraft extended its microwavable cup product line last year with the launch of Velveeta Shells & Cheese Cups.
Consumer interest in the category of convenience meals is an enduring trend and one that will be central to Hormel's strategic efforts for the foreseeable future, said Bob Pepper, Hormel's group marketing manager of its Simple Meals Teams.
Hormel's product line-up includes Hormel Compleats, Dinty Moore Big Bowls and Chi-Chi's Fiesta Plates.
Hormel is testing a line of shelf-stable, restaurant-inspired meals designed for two. Hormel will introduce the new products in phases over the course of the next several years.
“As we see it, for many of today's consumers, the term cooking has been redefined,” Pepper told SN. “For many today, simply heating an item in their microwave qualifies as cooking.”