Consumer demand for less processing, fresher ingredients and more participation in food preparation is a huge challenge for the processed food industry, but there are ways that food manufacturers can respond to this demand, according to experts at the recent Research Chefs Association conference.
Responding to demand for fresh foods was a recurring theme at the conference, with several speakers suggesting that innovative dinner kits, prepared elements of dishes, and microwaveable dinner components are likely to become more popular with time-pressed consumers, who are still seeking convenience, but also want to feel that they are actually preparing – rather than just reheating – food for their families.
Executive director of market research at The Beef Checkoff, John Lundeen, told delegates that kits for meals like sizzling skillet sandwiches, fajitas, and even fast-cooking microwaveable roast beef fill a market need for customizable dinner options that allow consumers to add their own choice of ingredients.
“There are lots of opportunities for ready to cook meals that use more fresh ingredients – and also for combining ideas and ingredients to tap into those growing trends,”he said.
As for price, Lundeen said that according to market research,“pretty universally, people said they would pay an extra dollar a pound”for meat sold with extra seasonings and cooking instructions, but the options are far wider than meat kits alone.
Manufacturers of Asian, Mexican or classic Cajun food ingredients, for example, could tie their products in with fresh food producers, or with chain restaurants, he suggested.
While there may be room to expand the concept, dinner kits are not new, and many major manufacturers are already on board. Kraft Foods, for example, expanded its product range at the beginning of this year to include a number of new customizable options, such as Kraft Sizzling Salads Dinner Kits, to which consumers add their own choice of meat and vegetables, and it also added new flavors to its Velveeta Cheesy Skillets Dinner Kits range.
Keynote speaker Chef Eric Ripert also said that Americans are cooking fresh foods more than ever before, and he said that some people in the food industry deny that this is happening.
“When you see Walmart stocking fresh ingredients – organic ingredients – Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and many other stores…They know what they’re doing,”he said.
Departing RCA president Janet Carver said that dealing with food-savvy consumers looking for fresher, more natural foods “is something we are struggling with as an industry.”
She said that options that allow consumers to add to a dish and participate in its preparation help parents to feel less guilty about what they are feeding their families if they are not always able to cook from scratch.
In a separate session , Chef Mark Miller, founder of Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, added that this kind of meal presentation could be especially interesting to Hispanic families, as many Hispanic women in particular tend to feel that their sense of self-worth is linked to being able to provide healthy, home-prepared foods to their children that are also true to their cultural identity.