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Elevating frozen meals

With the lines between dining in and dining out continuing to blur, there’s a growing appetite for higher quality frozen meals

After a long day of work with a family to feed and little energy to spare, frozen meals can be a lifesaver on weeknights. Many of us have had the experience of grabbing these items for a quick, convenient meal. But it’s in this context that frozen meals have been limited, as they’re often viewed by consumers as emergency food.

This will always be the case to some extent, but during the pandemic frozen foods have also undergone a renaissance. As people hunkered down at home, filling up chest freezers with foods that would last in an emergency became appealing.

That was then, and this is now. Canadians are becoming less anxious, and foodservice is rebounding. As a result, this is putting pressure on retail compared to 2020. The main question that companies need to ask is, how can they adapt to this “next normal?”

Canadians expect elevated meal experiences, at least some of the time. Value may be the dominant topic right now with inflation surging, but value doesn’t just mean low prices. Mintel’s data shows the main reasons Canadians turn to unique at-home meal solutions, such as meal kits, is they’re hungry for new ideas and they want what they prepare to be simple. Frozen foods, crafted with care and quality, can fulfil these needs. Formulation matters, of course, but so does positioning.

There are more examples of frozen offerings in the market that are building a reputation for offering real ingredients and, to some extent, restaurant-quality meals. These products also tell compelling stories about their origins, which make for compelling brands.

The Pie Commission, a company whose products can be found at self-branded stores and select grocers, demonstrates how frozen foods can be elevated. The Ontario-based company produces what it describes as “gourmet, savoury pies” such as Tourtières, Chicken Mushroom Pot Pies and Braised Beef Rib Pies made with whole ingredients. The packaging is dead simple with no glossy pictures on the front of the package. In a funny way, this makes the pies stand out, giving off an air of authenticity and confidence when it comes to quality. Though not cheap, anyone who’s tried these savoury pies would have a hard time arguing that they don’t deliver great value for the price.

As for whether shoppers will buy in, findings from the United States show an ample selection of consumers say they will. When asked what they would like to see more of when it comes to frozen, prepared meals, “hearty comfort food” tops the list at 44%. “Restaurant-branded” meals (37%) and “gourmet items” (36%) are the next most commonly cited areas of interest, according to Mintel research on the U.S. prepared meals category. In short, there are many consumers who are looking for quality and convenience and they are willing to pay for it.

If anything has changed during the pandemic, it’s been a blurring of the lines between dining in and dining out occasions. The past two years have only amplified the importance of the at-home dinner occasion, which means there’s opportunity for the frozen meal space to step up with elevated offerings. Frozen meals need not be relegated to emergency occasions, but can be a “go-to” when looking for simple, restaurant-quality dinners that can be heated up at home.

This column appeared in Canadian Grocer'December 2021/January 2022 issue.

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