Frozen meat and poultry processors continue to innovate with flavors and forms, as consumers’ renewed interest in frozen foods resulting from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is expected to be long lasting. Oven-ready center-of-plate proteins appeal to household cooks looking to diversify what’s for dinner, while also keeping the process simple and as close to making it from scratch as possible. That’s what consumers get from Sandra’s All Natural Chicken, a brand of frozen entrees from Maple Leaf Farms, Milford, Ind.

The week of April 12 marked the sixth week of COVID-19 grocery shopping. Frozen food sales continued to show highly elevated levels, with dollars spent up 32.5% over the comparable week in 2019, according to IRI, Chicago, which is working with 210 Analytics, San Antonio, and the American Frozen Food Institute, Arlington, Va.

“The largest share within frozen foods, meal solutions, increased more than 20%,” said Anne-Marie Roerink, principal, 210 Analytics. “This was driven by continued appetite for frozen pizza, that was up 47% over the week ending April 12 versus the comparable week in 2019. Like fresh meat and poultry, frozen animal protein continued to see high gains, up 39.2%, with big gains for meat.”

Sandra’s has been providing families with meal solutions. The brand recently grew its premium line to now include five varieties of antibiotic-free stuffed chicken breasts made with whole grain breading. The frozen raw entrees are ready in about 45 minutes in the oven. Varieties are: Broccoli & Swiss, Cauliflower & Chia, Cordon Bleu, Quinoa & Veggie, and Kale & Pepperjack.

“The antibiotic-free options build off the solid foundation of the original Sandra’s flavors,” said Alicia Mort, marketing manager of the chicken division. “Our entrees are 100% all natural and feature no preservatives. This means we use real cheese and whole grain breading, which provides a better-tasting entrée that is also better for you.

“The flavor combinations came as a result of buying habits and consumer interest. It is no secret that more Americans are reading labels and care about the impact of the food they eat on their body.”

The Sandra’s team targeted three superfoods during product development: cauliflower, kale and quinoa. These ingredients are blended with real cheeses and other better-for-you foods, such as chia seeds, spinach and artichokes.

After stuffing the marinated (up to 14% solution) chicken breasts with rib meat, they are coated in whole wheat flour and pre-browned in soybean oil to develop a desirable crunchy coating. The clean-label marinade contains only simple ingredients, such as rice starch, lemon juice, vinegar, sea salt and seasonings. This plumps up the meat and binds the moisture, preventing it from developing freezer burn during distribution and drying out in the oven.

Vinegar is also an important part of the marinade, as it helps tenderize, preserve, enhance flavor and even enhance color, naturally. Acetic acid is the primary component of vinegar. Vinegar ingredients used in meat and poultry are buffered to a pH similar to the application matrix, which allows for seamless incorporation into formulas without negative quality impacts.

It is the vinegar’s free hydrogen ions that tenderize. They interact with proteins, altering their molecular structure and changing their texture and consistency. Vinegar breaks the chemical bonds that hold protein chains in a twist, causing the proteins to denature or unravel. This is the act of tenderizing.

Vinegar ingredients are also a natural food safety and shelf life extending ingredient. The acetic acid inhibits growth of pathogens and spoilage bacteria.

In addition to focusing on using only clean-label ingredients, Sandra’s has a unique sustainability campaign that makes it stand out in the freezer. The brand gets consumers involved and helps educate them about making smart choices for the environment.

“Sustainability is something that is incredibly important to us, as well as our retail partners, so this demonstrates our commitment to being a good environmental steward,” Mort said. “By incorporating #UpcycleWithSandras, we’re inviting consumers to participate in the sustainability effort along with us. Consumers can look inside the product boxes to find letter tabs and other fun reusable items, including bookmarks, recipe cards, coupons and more.

“Our #UpcycleWithSandras contest has also been a bit hit. To enter the contest, consumers clip and save the letter tabs from product packaging to spell the brand name ‘Sandras.’ They then snap a photo of their completed letter collection and post it to their Facebook or Instagram profile with the hashtag #UpcycleWithSandrasEntry.”