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Feeding a New Appetite for Home Cooking

Consumers: The food industry is focusing on comfort, convenience and customization in minimal-effort meal kits.

June 16, 2002|MELINDA FULMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's essentially a canned soup packaged with a pouch of baking mix. But when you stir in a little water and put Homestyle Bakes Chicken & Dumplings into the oven, you're cooking--at least by today's standards.

After years of focusing on grab-and-go products that required virtually no preparation, the food industry is finding a lucrative niche in products that require a few extra cooking steps. The aim: to satisfy people who yearn for the security and nostalgia of home-cooked dinners without having to spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

A slew of these minimal-effort meal kits have crowded into supermarket shelves, freezer and meat cases, squeezing sales of fresh meat and threatening the grande dame of quick dinners, General Mills Inc.'s Hamburger Helper, which requires more effort.

A few, such as ConAgra Foods Inc.'s Homestyle Bakes, already have become runaway hits. Taking in $100 million in the year ended April 21, the meat-included meal kit is the best-selling new grocery product of 2001-02, according to market research firm Information Resources Inc.

And with more of these shortcuts on the way in the next year, the supermarket is slowly changing from a food ingredients store to a prep kitchen, analysts say.

"Manufacturers are rearranging the supermarket," said Harry Balzer, vice president of research firm NPD Group. "Meal centers are being created."

Although consumers may say they want to do more cooking, most won't spare more than 15 minutes for preparation, said P.J. Rosch, brand manager for Homestyle Bakes.

And with most decisions about dinner being made between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., few can be bothered to plan meals and hunt down or defrost ingredients, Balzer said.

Yearning for Home-Cooked Meals

What shoppers are demanding, food companies say, are "think-free" meals that require only a tad more effort than a frozen dinner, maybe a little stirring or browning.

"Mothers are looking for meal solutions to alleviate their guilt [about not cooking]," Rosch said. "They may not feel like hamburgers or mac and cheese for the third time that week."

This yearning for home-cooked meals began in earnest after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as more people found solace in the family ritual of sharing a meal, analysts say.

For the first time in two decades, the number of meals eaten at restaurants dropped, NPD Group said. But people didn't immediately tie on an apron, analysts say. The number of takeout meals increased as did as sales of quick-to-fix meals such as Homestyle Bakes.

And after a decade of favoring mostly fresh ingredients, consumers also began to sacrifice some of this for convenience.

Indeed, as people have become more comfortable with using processed and prepared ingredients, magazines and television shows have begun using them more in recipes. A potato salad recipe in Real Simple magazine calls for a pouch of partially cooked Simply Potatoes. A homemade pie uses frozen Boston Market cinnamon apples and a frozen pie crust.

People may have a greater interest in cooking, and are increasingly buying tools to do it, but they are using a lot more shortcuts thanks to convenient new products that are pre-chopped and precooked.

"The definition of cooking is changing," said Balzer of NPD Group. "People are assembling," he said, and then heating the mixture.

Preparing Foster Farms Fast Favorites requires a family chef only to dump a packet of cooked chicken and sauce into a skillet along with a pouch of precooked pasta.

Louis Rich Dinner Starters, now hitting stores, requires only the cooking of pasta and the heating of cooked meat and sauce.

General Mills' Tuna Helper Complete includes a pouch of tuna so consumers don't have to wheel their cart down another aisle to get it. By contrast, the meat must be bought separately for Hamburger Helper.

"People are looking for convenience in whatever form they can get it," said Karen Ramos, spokeswoman for Albertson's Inc., the nation's second-largest food and drug chain.

For people who don't want to cook at all, Albertsons stores stock rotisserie chickens and other prepared deli meals. For those who do, the stores are assembling all the ingredients for certain meals at ends of aisles.

The question most food companies are struggling with, however, is: How much do people want to do in the kitchen?

Though sales of the one-box-meal Homestyle Bakes took off last year, sales dropped off for Hamburger Helper-style kits that require consumers to cook meat.

However, food companies say people still are a bit old-fashioned. Nuking a frozen entree in the microwave isn't enough to make most people feel like they are cooking.

"People like to stick something on the stove," said Lisa Allen of the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "It smells good even if they didn't have to roast the chicken."

For meal kits such as Campbell Soup Co.'s Supper Bakes and Kraft Foods Inc.'s Freshmade Bakes, cooks must purchase and brown meat, but the kits include the rest of the ingredients for a meal.

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