Marketers of frozen items are offering restaurant-themed options as part… (Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty…)
Ask a harried mom about what's for dinner, and you could get an icy reply.
Feeling increased pressure to get a full meal on the table in less than 30 minutes, more families are eyeing the frozen-food aisles for items that can carry dinnertime.
About 16% of dinners tonight will come from the freezer aisle, an all-time high and up from 11% in 1990, according to NPD Group.
Also, frozen food is taking up more of the store, according to grocery consulting firm Willard Bishop. The average length of frozen-food space has about doubled since 1990 to about 400 feet.
"We used to talk about the freezer aisle," said Corey Henry, a spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute. "But now it's freezer aisles."
The trend toward frozen has increased since the beginning of the recession, said Stacy DeBroff, chief executive of Mom Central, a Newton, Mass.-based social media agency specializing in marketing to mothers.
"Moms are busier than ever," she said. "With the recession, a lot of moms who had been staying at home with their kids are working part time to make ends meet."
In many cases, she said, these women are working to balance out income from a partner who lost a job or suffered a pay cut.
When you're rushing around, DeBroff said, being asked "'What's for dinner, Mom?' becomes the bane of your existence."
When polled about their preferences, she said, most mothers would rather cook from scratch. Carryout is the second choice and frozen meals come in third.
DeBroff also cited a reemerging cooking trend, popularized recently by celebrity chef Rachael Ray, of doing bulk cooking on Sundays to have meals done for the week, which helps busy parents serve their families dinners from scratch.
Anne Levy Brown, who works part time while caring for her 21-month-old son, said she relies on planning and weekend cooking to keep her family from eating processed food during the week. She allows some frozen foods, such as frozen peas, which her son loves.
"We save time by cooking large amounts and eating leftovers several nights a week," Levy Brown said in an e-mail.
Virginia Lee, an analyst at Euromonitor International, said many women decide to be stay-at-home mothers to spend time with their children, not "to start working on dinner at 4 o'clock."
Marketers are looking to capitalize on this opportunity, with restaurant-themed options that simulate a meal out but that draw on the emotional benefits of getting the family around the table. Executives at Nestle, which owns Stouffer's, Lean Cuisine and DiGiorno, are citing research that shows family dinners together can improve grades and help to reduce the incidence of drug use in children.
Nestle, the world's largest package-food company, had about 12% of the U.S. frozen-food market in 2009, according to Euromonitor. That share grew substantially in 2010, when Nestle bought the pizza portfolio of Northfield-based Kraft Foods Inc.
Now, Nestle is beefing up its pizza business to take advantage of an increase in folks eating at home and to better compete with a resurgent pizza-delivery business. The company's strategy: Combine popular restaurant side items with pizza.
Enter products such as California Pizza Kitchen Sicilian-style pizza with spinach artichoke dip and flatbread wedges, and DiGiorno pepperoni pizza with buffalo-style boneless "Wyngz."
Mothers are willing to prepare such meals when they feel they're at the end of their rope, DeBroff said, but they're not proud of it. The evidence of that "is in how fast she throws the box away," she said.
Dawn Jackson Blatner, a dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn., said that while many frozen meals aren't necessarily health food, they often contain less fat, calories and sodium than their carryout counterparts.
Portion control is also easier with frozen meals, Blatner said, compared with restaurant pizzas, which typically come in larger sizes and tend to be eaten in one sitting.
But Blatner flinched at the idea of having both pizza and buffalo-style wings.
"It's not a healthy choice," she said, adding that a consumer should choose one or the other.
Although consumers should be mindful of products in the frozen-food aisles, Blatner said, there are many healthful options, including brown rice, precut vegetables and meal kits that have vegetables and lean meats.
Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke said pizza has the potential to be the ideal balanced food. He pointed to the food pyramid and said pizza could represent each level — with grains, dairy, meat and vegetables.
If "you can bring in all of these levels and do it in a portionable dimension, actually, you have the most balanced food you can imagine," Bulcke said.
Paul Bakus, president of Nestle's pizza division, has been charged with improving the nutritional profile of the company's frozen pizzas.
"The good news is, everybody loves pizza," he said. But "they're just not going to sacrifice the taste, and pizza is known as an indulgent food."
Bakus added that DiGiorno sells a 200-calorie pizza for one, and Nestle is looking for ways to add more vegetables and whole grains.
"Ultimately, we want to give the consumer options," he said.
Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, sees the new pizza products as the latest volley in the long-running battle between frozen pizza and delivery giants Domino's, Pizza Hut and Papa John's.
Pizza consumption is at an all-time high, Balzer said. The average American this year will have restaurant pizza 19 times and frozen pizza at home 14 times, he said.
According to NPD Group, pizza is the sixth-most-popular dinner entree, behind sandwiches, chicken, beef, Italian food and pork.
"If you want food that defines this country as an entree, it's pizza," Balzer said.