The quest for convenience is making inroads in food retailing, especially in the growing segment of easy-prep meal kits. Most of these kits contain portioned meat and poultry, often times offered by processors who season, trim and individually portion pack the product using modified atmosphere and proven food safety and shelf-life extending technologies.

Ingredient technologies include plant-based extracts to preserve color and prevent fatty acid oxidation that leads to rancidity. It also includes food-grade acids and ferments that slow microbial degradation and destroy pathogens. With the right systems, anything is possible.

 “What we’re seeing now is that everybody is aware that there’s an opportunity here,” says Michael Uetz, managing principle at industry consulting firm Midan Marketing, Mooresville, North Carolina. “Everybody seems to be stepping up to the challenge. I’ve been really impressed that almost every day I read about another retailer who has made an investment of some form in trying to create alternatives for their customers that are going to save them time and help them in their meal preparation.” 

Processors and retailers get creative

Smithfield Foods Inc., Smithfield, Virginia, entered into a strategic partnership with the e-commerce meal solutions provider Chef’d, El Segundo, California, in August 2017. Together the companies are leveraging Smithfield’s portfolio of brands for meal kit solutions across a variety of occasions and bringing meal kits to retail in a big way. This was displayed at the 2018 Annual Meat Conference held Feb. 25 to 27 in Nashville.

At the expo, Smithfield debuted eight varieties of meal kits, one vegetarian and seven containing beef, chicken or pork, along with seasonings, condiments, vegetables and a carbohydrate side. The fresh dinner for two claims easy prep and ready-for-the-plate in 30 minutes or less. Patented innovative packaging – clear plastic to showcase content--keeps all ingredients fresh without preservatives. Coffin-style branded freezers are available for retail merchandising.

 The two companies moved fast in the partnership, and it’s no wonder, as new research from Nielsen, New York, shows that in the year ended 2017, in-store meal kits generated $154.6 million in sales, posting growth of more than 26 percent. This is huge. To compare, total brick-and-mortar sales for center store edibles, including grocery, dairy and frozen foods, dropped 0.1 percent to $374 billion during this same time period.

 The Nielsen data indicates that 9 percent of Americans say they have purchased a meal kit in the past six months (10.5 million households) and 25 percent of consumers say that they would consider trying a meal kit in the next six months (30 million households). Of that 9 percent, a mere 6 percent purchased them exclusively online. This means they are increasingly finding meal kit solutions at retail, which presents an opportunity for meat and poultry processors to make their offerings more meal kit friendly.

 In Nielsen’s “What’s Cooking” consumer segmentation analysis, researchers found that more than one-fourth (26 percent) of US meal kit users classify themselves as “gourmet cooks,” yet only 16 percent consider themselves gourmet cooks, highlighting the appeal of meal kits to this segment. In other words, the kits should have some degree of sophistication. Chef-inspired recipes attract an important group of shoppers, those often willing to spend a little more when there’s gourmet appeal.

 Retailers recognize this opportunity and are trying to capitalize on this desire for fast, fresh and sophisticated. Many, such as Wegmans, Rochester, New York, create their own mix-and-match meal kits by offer prepackaged trimmed and seasoned meat and poultry alongside washed and trimmed vegetables and prepared sides. Other grocers rely on processors to create the kits. Both formats help retailers keep the supermarket as a dinner destination.

 It’s an evolving category, and all players are learning what attributes customers are look for, everything from fresh to value to culinary innovation. The Nielsen data show that nearly 60 percent of shoppers identify value-for-the-money as extremely important while 49 percent say low-cost items are important.

 This has Walmart Inc., Bentonville, Arkansas, on board. The retailer will be rolling out its exclusive meal kits to more than 2,000 stores this year. The meals will also be available via the chain’s online grocery pickup.

 All of the meals are made and assembled fresh in-store daily. On shelves in the deli, options include pre-portioned cooking kits, kits to accompany the grocers’ rotisserie chicken, along with options that can be heated up and on the table in less than 15 minutes. The pre-portioned meal kits include everything from steak Dijon to sweet chili chicken stir fry to pork Florentine. The meals are designed to serve two people and range in price from $8 to $15.

 “Customers are busier than ever and we know getting a delicious dinner on the table can be a chore. We’re here to help,” says Tyler Lehr, senior vice president and general merchandise manager-deli services at Walmart.

 The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, agrees. That’s why the company continues to grow its exclusive Prep+Pared Meal Kits line across its many retail brands. Cooking time for each meal kit is about 20 minutes. The kits feed two adults and range in price from $14 to $20.

 “The meals are fresh-made, chef-inspired, restaurant quality, easily prepared at home and affordable,” says Valerie Jabbar, president of the Ralphs chain. “With Prep+Pared, we’ve taken all of the work behind planning and preparing a fresh, delicious meal and made it easy to cook in just minutes.

 “We’re always looking for ways to make our customers’ lives easier, and they have told us they want fresh, convenient and affordable meal solutions,” Jabbar says. “Our goal is to make home cooking easy.”

 Retail meal kits help keep meat and poultry on the dinner table.

 Uetz concludes, “It’s been interesting to watch the dynamics of the different ways the retail community has been stepping into this program.”