Today's typical American dinner would not be possible without today’s convenience foods. From a rotisserie chicken and bagged salad mix, to the veggie side dish scooped up at the deli counter, many supper staples have in some way been pre-prepped.
Fresh prepared foods have grown in popularity, and now generate $25 billion in sales annually, according to market research firm Supermarket Guru.
One of the most common reasons consumers turn to these "almost homemade" options is a lack of time.
“Moving away from the frozen dinner, you’re getting these options that are maybe recently prepared,” Amy Bentley, a professor in New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, told Food Dive. “People moan about the loss of cooking skills. I just think cooking skills have changed because of the food environment and technology that’s available.”
The trend of convenience foods is continuing to grow in that direction. Grocery stores and food manufacturers are stepping into our busy lives to largely play the role of sous chef. They’re happy to charge as much as 300% more to wash and cut up kale, and consumers are willing to pay the extra money for saving a precious few minutes.
Food of all kinds has become more convenient in the last several decades. Today's convenience food meets a common theme: Helping the strapped-for-time consumer be able to get healthier, fresher and more appreciated food on the table quickly. Here are a few areas where convenience has reshaped preparation and consumption.
Grocery stores as convenience hubs
While consumers in years past were only able to buy ingredients for meals, today's full-service grocery store sells meals and components almost completely ready prepared.
In 2015, less than 60% of dinners served at home were actually cooked there, according to NPD Group statistics cited by The Washington Post. This is a drop from 75% home-cooked meals in 1985. Still, men and women on average collectively spend just over an hour cooking each day.
It goes without saying that there is new demand for better-for-you fast options.
“Everyone is super busy, and the need for quality tasting healthy food that feels somewhat homemade has really driven the growth of deli prepared,” Sarah Schmansky, director of Nielsen's Fresh Growth & Strategy team, told Food Dive.
Deli foods at the grocery store have been a hot trend in the last decade, Schmansky said. What was once home to cold cuts and sliced cheese now offers everything from picnic staples like potato and macaroni salad, to more elevated dishes like poached salmon and chicken marsala.
“Retailers that really focus on the fresh space are winning from a total food standpoint," she said. "The powerhouse that’s driving that is deli, and deli prepared is what’s leading that growth charge.
“Retailers that really focus on the fresh space are winning from a total food standpoint. The powerhouse that’s driving that is deli, and deli prepared is what’s leading that growth charge."
Director, Nielsen's Fresh Growth & Strategy team
Limited time is the top reason that deli prepared foods have become so popular in recent years. Consumers still want to eat at home, even though everyone seems to be working longer hours, leaving little time to cook a full meal and have it on the table by 6 p.m.
While deli-prepared food has not traditionally been the healthiest option available to consumers, trends toward healthy eating — plus labeling and transparency laws and norms — are changing that.
By May 2018, ingredients and calorie counts will be listed in the grocery deli prepared space when the federal menu labeling law takes full effect. This is good news for consumers who want to have more information about exactly what they’re scooping into their to-go boxes.
Also, look for healthier options, like low-sugar ingredients and more vegetable dishes, to start popping up.
One option that that is growing in popularity has a reputation of being more healthy than others. Sushi has come a long way since it was first introduced widely in supermarkets in 1998. It took a few years for mainstream America to get on board with eating raw fish strapped to rice by a strip of seaweed. When it popped up in the refrigerated section of supermarkets, it was the first time some consumers came face-to-face with Japanese cuisine.
For supermarkets, it was a way to improve their image as grocery store with refined tastes.
Schmansky won’t go as far as saying supermarket sushi is the next deli prepared roasted chicken, but it’s quickly gaining in popularity.
“Sushi is a category that we are seeing tremendous growth in grocery store prepared foods. It’s grown over $200 million over the past three years,” she told Food Dive. “It continues to add assortments to the mix, continues to increase in distribution, where it’s being sold. It’s actually the fastest growing deli prepared category that we have listed.”
It’s nothing to see a sushi chef behind the counter at most supermarkets, but even drug stores in urban areas are joining the trend with sushi chefs of their own. This is a category to watch for continued growth.
Convenience makes it easier to be green
As more consumers have become interested in eating healthier, convenience-focused products and services have come on the scene to make it easier for people to get their fruits and veggies.
Pre-washed salad mixes were introduced in 1989. They were born both from consumers having less time to put dinner on the table, and new technology that was available to food manufacturers. When cellophane packaging and clamshell boxes were introduced, food processors had a whole new way to get fresh, prewashed and precut produce to consumers quickly.
Bentley said salad mixes are “a great example of a healthier product that really took off, that became very, very popular, and filled all of the components of a packaged product.”
Salad mixes were a win for manufacturers, since they could charge significantly more for the product. Pre-washed lettuce may also have helped usher in the value-added produce market, which would explode in popularity years later.
While per capita sales of iceberg lettuce have decreased by half in the last quarter century years, bagged greens and salad kits are projected to reach $7 billion a year, with sales increasing by 6.5% every year, according to a Nielsen report cited by NPR.
"It goes back to the fact that we’re all busy, that we want some extra things done for us, so that we can provide for whoever we may be feeding.”
Director, Nielsen's Fresh Growth & Strategy team
What started with prewashed salad mixes blossomed into a whole new dimension of value-added produce in 2010. Consumers still want to cook dinner, but are willing to pay to get some of the prep work done for them. And they may want a more complex side than a salad, or maybe they want to serve a meat-free meal.
“They don’t want to buy a dollar onion. Maybe they would rather spend double that for one that’s already pre-chopped and washed and ready to go,” Schmansky said. “Again, it goes back to the fact that we’re all busy, that we want some extra things done for us, so that we can provide for whoever we may be feeding.”
According to Nielsen research, from 2011 to 2015, value-added vegetables posted a CAGR of 15%. In the same time period, value-added fruit grew by 12%.
Many stores today now have added vegetable butchers to the produce department, so shoppers can still pick out their veggies and then have them chopped while they do the rest of their shopping. Today, what started as a small trend in specialty marketplaces like New York City’s Eataly has caught on with more mainstream grocers.
Convenience: Mother's new little helper
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 25.1 million mothers of children 18 and younger are in the workforce, representing a third of the nation's working women. Many have felt the burden of planning and cooking family meals, including school lunches, creating the perfect storm for Kraft-Heinz’s Lunchables, which hit the market in 1988.
Packaged almost like a small present, here was an easy way for busy moms to solve the lunch problem and give their children a special treat at the same time.
“It’s an example of taking something that every kid needed to do, which is bring a lunch, and market it and make it a sexy product,” said Bentley. “If you’re a kid and you bring a Lunchable, you’ve got a lot of status.”
Its poor nutritional makeup would later come into question, but it remains a popular product with an expanding lineup of varieties, from organic to pepperoni pizza. In 2013, Lunchables reached $1 billion in retail sales for the first time. The meat and cheese tray was also an innovator with children’s prepared lunches, paving the way for pre-made wraps, sandwiches and boxed kids’ lunches.
But the search for convenient children's meal solutions starts earlier than school days. From the time that children start eating solid food, something to snack on at all times becomes a necessity.
Considering how popular baby food pouches have become, some parents may question what their predecessors did without them. They are another one of those products consumers didn’t know they needed until they were created and marketed in 2008.
According to a 2015 Nielsen report, baby food pouches are taking the world by storm and grew by triple digits in several markets between 2013 and 2014. During these 12 months, the pouch market in the U.S. grew 7% — and sales of baby food packaged in jars or tubs actually decreased 2%.
“Americans value flexibility, we value convenience. And what’s more convenient than a pouch that you can just take the top off and hand to the kid and let the kid feed himself?”
Professor, New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies
“The pouch is kind of a game changer after 50 years in a glass jar,” Bentley said. “Americans value flexibility, we value convenience. And what’s more convenient than a pouch that you can just take the top off and hand to the kid and let the kid feed himself?”
Parents started taking an interest in eating more healthfully, and wanted to pass those good nutritional habits on to their children. Ingredients for these easy-to-feed pouches include traditional baby food items like sweet potatoes, but many add trendy produce like kale and in-demand grains like quinoa. Focused on superfood ingredients and clean labels, many found what they were looking for in these new pouches.
This product not only makes parents lives easier from a grab-and-go standpoint, it also is a boon for baby food makers.
“Manufacturers love it because it extends the use of baby food product by about a year,” Bentley said. “Baby food has a very small window of use — a few months at best — but you can give a toddler one of those things as a little snack, and it won’t seem so odd as taking a spoon and spooning some baby food into their mouth.”
“Here was a product that we didn’t know we needed, and wow, it’s become a fixture,” Bentley said.
A full meal in a box
A recent addition to convenience foods is one that also reflects consumers’ desire to eat whole, healthy foods, but recognizes they don’t necessarily have the time to do the shopping and prep work to make a home cooked meal happen on a Tuesday night. Meal kits were first launched in 2011. Most arrive with all of the pre-portioned ingredients needed to make a meal, with a step-by-step recipe included.
“It’s definitely not a fad,” Schmansky said. “It’s something that’s here to stay. One of the stats was that one in four Americans had purchased a kit over the last 12 months, whether that’s in store or delivery. We see that growing.”
“It’s definitely not a fad. It’s something that’s here to stay."
Director, Nielsen's Fresh Growth & Strategy team
Right now, the meal kit market is dominated by home delivery services, but supermarkets are catching up. According to Nielsen, in the last year, in-store sales of meal kits were up 6.7%, generating $80.6 million in sales.
“Consumers are going to look to their grocery store to have full meal solutions that rival the delivery sector,” Schmansky said.
Expect to see more options in local supermarkets in the near future. Sales of in-store meal kits are expected to exceed $100 million by 2020, and have the potential to keep on growing Nielsen found. The grocery store kit has an edge over home-delivery varieties in that they can be an impulse purchase for a future evening.
Convenience food will only continue to grow. What is likely to change are the types of help consumers are looking for when they go to the store. Decades ago, instant pudding made life so much easier. Today, it’s precut vegetables and deli-prepared dishes. However, Schmansky said, growth in this area comes down to manufacturers, meal kit companies and grocery stores meeting consumer demands.
“Consumers don’t have the control over what goes in them [convenient food items]," she said. "So in order for manufacturers to really continue to grow in this space, there has to be a focus on health and on transparency on what’s in the food, so that consumers are aware and feel good about eating it.”