Frozen prepared meals have long been popular with time strapped cooking novices, but what’s on the menu today in the United Kingdom is far removed from the ding dinners of previous decades. Indeed, demand for convenient, quality and healthy dishes has elevated the ready meals market to a whole new level.
“Consumers have been forced to look at options for convenience and health,” explained Heidi Thompson, managing director of UK Midlands-based Thyme Foods, which produces and delivers premium frozen ready meals directly to customers’ doors. “Savvy shoppers have had to look harder for convenient food.”
In the last decade ready meals have evolved beyond food that can simply be popped in the microwave to be nuked within a couple of minutes with average to poor results. The new generation of frozen meals has a greater focus on quality ingredients, nutrition, provenance and sustainability.
Sustainability is of increased importance today, and ready meals suppliers are investing in new ways to produce and package their products in a more environment-friendly way. Thyme Foods, for example, is striving to make its offerings more sustainable.
“As we deliver direct to the consumer we are very aware of the packaging we use and are always looking for ways to improve our carbon footprint,” said Thompson. “Our products are sent out in cardboard boxes with ice packs and a return label so we can reuse them where possible and recycle them if re-use isn’t appropriate.
“We just moved away from 60% of our plastic trays and replaced them with a paper-based product. With our smoothies we promote re-usable straws and recycling the plastic cups.”
The reputation of frozen ready meals has improved dramatically over the last 10 years, with many misconceptions being challenged by research highlighting the nutritional value of frozen food as well as its cost, quality and sustainability.
“The best way to cook is from fresh and scratch, which isn’t viable in this day and age, so frozen meals are providing an alternatives,” said Thompson. “We blast freeze our products at their peak, which maintains quality, flavor, texture and prevents nutritional deterioration.”
With nutritional benefits now a keen focus for consumers, the industry has taken note and is concentrating on communicating the nutritional benefits of frozen meals and freezing as a natural form of preservation.
“With freezing, no additives are required to keep food as fresh as the day it was harvested,” pointed out Phil Rimmer, head development chef at Towbridge, Wiltshire-based Apetito UK, the British unit of Rheine, Germany-headquartered Apetito AG. “However, frozen foods are not only nutritious. They have both monetary and environmental benefits through the reduction of waste, as there is no need to use more than what is needed.”
Consumers’ tastes are changing all the time, especially as global cuisines are readily available and increasingly influencing food choices. Health and lifestyle trends have also had a huge impact on consumer tastes, leading to demand for more plant-based options.
“With a push towards cleaner labels and more ethical eating in recent years, we have seen a rise in demand for vegetarian and vegan options,” said Rimmer. “Whilst consumer tastes have become more open and adventurous, there is still a high demand for traditional meals.”
Thyme Foods promotes what are referred to as entry products, which are well known dishes such as cottage pie, to make consumers become more familiar with the brand and ultimately more adventurous with every order. Current offerings include fish pie, curry, burgers, steaks, chilli and smoothies.
“Smoothies are one of our most popular lines,” said Thompson. “Vegan products are also in higher demand, so we launched vegan dishes to support the range rather than as alternative to meat or fish, as a lot of customers buy across the range with meat and vegan options.”
According to Rimmer, the fact that people are living longer on average has impacted on the types of ready meals that are now in demand. This means increased demand for meals catering to special dietary requirements, including intolerances and allergies.
“We employ both a dietician and a nutritionist, who work closely with our chefs, to ensure all our meals are nutritious and meet the specific dietary needs of the consumer,” he said. “Our onsite Campden-accredited lab acts on a positive release system, allowing us to be confident in our production process. We have specialist equipment in our factories in the UK and Germany that allows us to produce an award-winning texture modified range of products for people living with dysphagia (difficulty to swallow food).”
Apetito’s product range includes energy-dense offerings for those needing more calories due to poor diet or unintentional weight loss, and healthier options for consumers who require a balanced diet. The company also works with suppliers to provide ethically appropriate foods that are kosher- and halal-certified.
“Apetito is built on the values of creating healthy, nutritious, good food,” said Helen Willis, a dietician at the company. “We signed up for the Public Health Responsibility Deal around salt reduction, and although this is now defunct, we still adhere to it. We have also gone through an internal process called ‘Clean and Green,’ which has focused on reducing salt, sugar and saturated fat in products.”
Over the last few years there has been a sharp focus on flexible catering within hospitals, with many healthcare facilities introducing 24-hour feeding programs. As a result they have looked to caterers to design meals to give them the needed flexibility.
“The ease of cooking frozen prepared meals that provide consistent high quality, nutritionally balanced servings delivered a solution to this need,” said Rimmer.
“When designing meals for hospitals and care homes, the dining experience should never be overlooked, as it is the most important element is ensuring people want to eat them.”
The consumer demographic hungry for ready meals has changed dramatically over in the last decade, expanding well beyond initial prime targets of single people, students and the elderly. The shift in the customer base for these products has prompted manufacturers to reassess their ranges, with health, nutrition, provenance and value at the forefront of new product development. – Reported by Sarah Welsh