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Shelf-stable Meal Solutions Come of Age


Like the fast-paced world they inhabit, busy consumers’ demand for convenient meals shows no signs of slowing down. Accordingly, retailers have responded with solutions designed to enable shoppers to eat well, even when they have only limited time to cook.

Recently, Skokie, Ill.-based e-grocer Peapod, an Ahold USA company, teamed with Barilla on five more meal kits featuring all-new recipes by the Bannockburn, Ill.-based pasta brand, with all ingredients pre-packaged and pre-measured to make a meal for four or more; a total of eight kits are now available for delivery or pickup in the Chicago, Indianapolis and Milwaukee markets.

Likewise, a Square One Markets convenience store in Bethlehem, Pa., has launched a pilot allowing customers to purchase The Six O’Clock Scramble Fresh & Fast Family Dinner Kits, which cost around $20 and are ready after less than 30 minutes’ preparation.

For consumers outside of those markets, however, their local supermarkets offer plenty of quick meal options, and they need look no further than center store, where they can find a range of products beyond the taco assembly kits and Hamburger Helper-style meals that have long been staples of the section. The new solutions are either complete in themselves or simply augmented by the addition of a protein and/or vegetables.

To begin with, shelf-stable options have a distinct edge over their frozen and refrigerated counterparts in certain key respects. “The ability to take a shelf-stable meal to work or to school without worrying about refrigeration is appealing to many of our consumers,” notes Jill Roberts, brand manager, convenient meals at Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods. “Additionally, storage space in the fridge or freezer is limited in many homes. Consumers often have more space to store shelf-stable meals.”

“The clearest advantage[s] of shelf-stable meal solutions [are] storage and portability, given that they don’t require refrigeration to maintain integrity,” agrees Jan Pajerski, co-founder of Ithaca, N.Y.-based Grainful, maker of an innovative line of side dishes incorporating steel-cut oats.

Perhaps in response to shoppers’ embrace of their greater convenience, and a subsequent influx of new products from manufacturers, shelf-stable meal starters, after years of steep declines, showed a 4.6 percent uptick in sales dollars for the 52 weeks ending Aug. 29, according to Schaumburg, Ill.-based Nielsen.

Among related categories during the same time frame, prepared food dry mixes’ sales dollars were down 1.1 percent, after several years of essentially flat growth, while ready-to-serve prepared foods posted a 5.2 percent sales dollar increase, possibly indicating consumers’ preferred meal solution forms.

The Value of Inspiration

To address consumer needs, ConAgra has refreshed its Chef Boyardee Big Bowl Microwave pasta offerings with adult consumers in mind. The items now feature two new grown-up favors — Italian Sausage Marinara and Creamy Tomato Chicken — among the seven varieties, while the product line’s updated new look emphasizes hearty serving size, value and adult appeal.

The company has even looked to its frozen offerings for shelf-stable ideas, launching Banquet Big & Hearty microwave bowls at the end of August. “They bring proven Banquet frozen-inspired recipes to microwave meals and offer a better value per ounce thanthe current competition,” Roberts points out.

In fact, value is as important as convenience for ConAgra. “The price of our meal solutions should communicate value,” asserts Roberts. “We want consumers to know they’re getting a hearty, satisfying meal at an affordable price.” In the area of merchandising, she notes, “High-visibility end caps have been successful for us in terms of getting in front of consumers and reminding them to put Chef Boyardee and Banquet Big & Hearty microwave bowls in their carts.”

ConAgra isn’t alone in reimagining old favorites. Kraft Heinz has introduced bold Chipotle and Jalapeño varieties to its Velveeta Shells & Cheese line, as well as rolling out Kraft Macaroni & Cheese in “Minions” and “Star Wars” movie tie-in shapes. Additionally, by January 2016, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese will be made without artificial preservatives or synthetic colors.

Other companies are zeroing in on shoppers’ desire for classic comfort food without the fuss. In time for the onset of colder weather, General Mills’ Progresso brand has expanded its offerings to include two new stews and a vegetable chili item, enabling consumers to dig into hearty home-style meals after just five and a half minutes of preparation. Meat-free Progresso Roasted Vegetable Chili with 3 Beans contains roasted corn, red and green bell peppers, poblano peppers, onions, and pinto, black and dark-red kidney beans, while White Chicken Stew with Savory Herbs offers a blend of white chicken meat chunks, potatoes, mushrooms, carrots, cream, peas, celery and onions, combined with savory herbs and seasonings, and Hearty Vegetable Stew with Beef includes large cuts of beef, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, okra, onions, celery and sea salt.

In a similar vein, packaged mashed potato maker Idahoan Foods promises real Idaho potatoes in every spoonful of its recently launched first-ever soup line in four substantial varieties: Cheddar Broccoli, Three Cheese Chipotle, Loaded Potato and Creamy Potato. The dry soups can be prepared in five minutes — nearly one-fourth of the time of other soups, according to the Idaho Falls, Idaho-based company.

On the organic front, Pacific Foods is thinking globally with the introduction of pre-cooked Organic Polenta in four ready-to-heat flavors: Original, Chipotle Cheddar, Jalapeño Cheddar, and Roasted Garlic & Herb. “American eaters are more adventurous and looking to grocery store shelves for products that can help them recreate authentic favors and dishes at home,” asserts Kevin Tisdale, VP of marketing for Tualatin, Ore.-based Pacific Foods. “Polenta is delicious, but traditionally time-consuming to make. We’ve given families a head-start on a flavorful meal that’s prepared and easy to customize.”

Time for ‘Brinner’

Then there’s Grainful, which has broken new ground with Steel Cut Sides, any one of which can be paired with a protein or eaten on its own. The line comes in four varieties, each featuring steel-cut oats, vegetables, a seasoning packet and preparation suggestions: Cheesy Oats, Tomato Risotto, Madras Curry and Jambalaya. The company playfully refers to the product line as part of the growing trend toward “brinner,” that is, eating breakfast foods for dinner. (Read more about Grainful here.)

To promote the inventive item, which hasn’t yet hit retail shelves, Grainful is readying a full slate of activities. Brand Manager Katie Long says that the company “plan[s] on demoing the product and participating in advertisements as well.” For instance, she notes, “We have plans to run ads in multiple in-store publications, which will allow us to spread awareness about the new products and offer the consumer a coupon to use.”

The demo portion of the campaign is particularly important, according to Long. “Since savory oats is an unfamiliar idea to many, demos are a great way to teach people about the concept and get them to try the product,” she explains. “We always bring coupons with us to demos as well to drive trial, which is very important to do with new products.”

As for merchandising, Grainful has been working on POS materials. “Since this is a brand-new product, and since we are the first company to market savory oat shelf-stable side dishes, we want to draw consumers’ attention to the products and inform them about oats for dinner,” says Long. “We created a wobbler and aisle violator that we will offer to retailers.”

Also in the offing is a POP display or shipper. “This will be a great option for retailers, because our product can be in a branded standalone display that can be moved about the store,” observes Long. “It is pretty much an ad and functional display all in one, which we believe will be good for many retailers. It will also catch the consumer’s attention, more so than being on a shelf, and inform them a bit about the products and our brand.”

Small Steps

As consumers’ convenience needs keep evolving, manufacturers will keep tweaking their center store meal solutions accordingly.

“Shelf-stable meals will continue to expand their offerings in terms of new, exciting favors,” predicts ConAgra’s Roberts. “Consumers also want simpler, cleaner ingredient labels. Our classic Chef Boyardee pasta offerings, such as our Beef Ravioli and Lasagna, have no preservatives, no artificial colors and no artificial favors. This is a change that many of our competitors are now looking to make. Convenience and value will continue to be mainstays of this category.”

For her part, Grainful co-founder Jeannine Sacco believes that her brand is spearheading future shelf-stable meal solution development. “I expect to see more of the smaller food manufacturing companies like ours pushing the envelope with pouches of ready-to-eat meals that are shelf-stable, taste great and are made from ‘real food,’ she says. “We are definitely moving towards a ‘real food’ movement. I am a chef, not a scientist. I make real food that tastes great. And it happens to be convenient.”

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