The fresh baby food category has grown steadily in the US market with retailers increasingly stocking brands such as Once Upon a Farm, Fresh Bellies, lil'gourmets, Yumi, and others.
"There’s been a lot of innovation and momentum in this category, but probably more focused on 6- to 12-month-olds, and not as many options for toddlers and certainly nothing with protein (each serving of Little Dish contains at least 6g of protein)," said Graves, who launched Little Dish 14 years ago in the UK.
"We’ve been going in the UK since 2006, so we feel quite knowledgeable and experienced in this category when it comes to creating freshly-prepared, just-like-homemade food for this particular age group of toddlers," she told FoodNavigator-USA.
"But it was so important that we made any refinements to successfully launch into the US, which is a much larger market."
Refining the offer for the US consumer
Aside from the differences in preferred flavor profiles among its customers (i.e. fish pie is the #1 best selling product for Little Dish in the UK compared to the US where macaroni & cheese and chili are kid favorites), there's a good amount of overlap between the UK and US target consumer, according to Graves.
It turns out that mothers in both markets are looking for ways to incorporate more fresh, whole food ingredients -- particularly vegetables -- into their child's diet, she said.
To ensure each of its fresh toddler meals contains the optimal amount of calories, protein, fiber, and healthy fats, Little Dish collaborated with Nicole Avena, Ph.D., a research neuroscientist, child nutrition expert, and author of What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler (2018) to create its meals and performed taste tastes with a panel of US toddlers.
No added sugar
Made with "100% natural" and "real food" ingredients Little Dish's US heat-and-serve toddler entrees include macaroni & cheese, and pasta & tomato sauce with more varieties such as vegetarian quinoa chili and lentils & beef to roll out in the coming months.
Each product contains at least one to two servings of vegetables, and is free from added sodium and sugar, preservatives, and other ingredients many parents are trying to avoid in their child's diet.
For instance, the brand's pasta & tomato sauce is packed with covert 1/4 cup of vegetables in the form of carrots and red pepper incorporated into the sauce, upping the nutritional value.
"It’s a proposition that really appeals to millennial parents and that’s such an important customer for the retailers," said Graves.
Retailers embrace fresh kids food category
It's now much more common to see fresh baby and toddler food in many retailers who are embracing the concept in greater numbers as parents are prioritizing fresh food options for their kids, noted Graves.
"Almost every single retailer is participating in this category," she said, adding that Little Dish provides retailers with incremental sales growth opportunities beyond fresh food for babies under 12-months-old.
"We can come in and keep the customer longer -- all the way to age three or four."
Merchandising fresh baby food
Still an emerging category, fresh baby and toddler food hasn't quite found a dedicated spot in the traditional retail footprint (merchandising is often in the baby food aisle in dedicated fridges or in the dairy aisle), noted Graves, who is optimistic about Little Dish's placement in the produce section of Target stores where parents are already in the fresh food mindset, she said.
"First of all, I think it gets great footfall" and, she said, "It has those cues of healthy and fresh. We’re really excited about how it looks in store and the contextual merchandizing of how it sits so close to fruits and vegetables."
As Little Dish expands its retail presence, Graves is looking forward to introducing more SKUs to its US line as the brand has done in the UK.
"There are a lot of healthy meals and snacks that we can bring to American toddlers and their families. At the moment, it’s getting the meals into as many distribution points as possible," said Graves.
Are there enough healthy kids food options available in the market? Find out what's happening in the fresh kids food category and more during the FOOD FOR KIDS summit, which takes place over the course of five weeks commencing Wednesday, Oct. 21st at 12 p.m. CST. Check out the program agenda and full list of speakers.