It’s easy to assume that the move toward clean labels, wholesome ingredients and artisanal flavors would equate to more people preparing home-cooked meals from scratch. Despite many families spending more time at home, the ready-made meal category is at an all-time high.
Among those catering to this growing trend are convenience and grocery stores in the United States that feature a hot bar or ready-made food section. Some have even started meal delivery services. Many find these types of offerings to be more profitable than their overall grocery sales.
How can food manufacturers, grocers and convenience stores cater to this growing segment of consumers and ensure freshness and quality?
Convenience is Key
Convenience continues to be the main driver of prepared food products, but consumers are still trying to avoid overly processed foods when possible. As busy consumers look for more on-the-go options, they’ve increased their demand and reliance on fresh, ready-to-eat foods. As they become more popular, however, it’s crucial that convenience doesn’t drastically outweigh a product’s health benefits or result in spoilage.
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Ensuring that packaged foods or those found at a deli or hot bar align with consumer preferences for healthy meals with clean labels and wholesome ingredients is a challenge. Formulators and those preparing meals need to consider many factors:
- Limiting the amount of salt, sugar and fat
- Food safety and expiration dates
- Whether gluten-free options or fruits and vegetables need to be included
- How the food will stay fresh
- Packaging methods
- How to reduce food waste from perishable foods
- And more
Are Prepared Foods the New Meal Kit?
Grocery stores have the potential to differentiate themselves with their prepared meal offerings. The frozen meal aisle and refrigerated sections have long been areas where retailers display ready-made products (or those that require minimal preparation at home). Moving forward, a trip to a reimagined hot bar or deli could help a grocery store become a popular destination rather than a routine chore.
Smaller grocers in particular are poised to stand out with their take-home meals. While they might not compete on price and selection with major chain stores, they can find their niche by branching out from mainstream recipes and providing tailored customer service.
Convenience stores are making strides in prepped take-home meals as well. Many have broadened their menus to offer more take-home dinners and ready meals on the go.
Limited Shelf Life Remains a Challenge
Creating a shelf-stable, ready-made recipe that meets consumer demands for healthy and convenient food choices can present a number of challenges for food manufacturers. For starters, many of today’s ready-made recipes are high in fat, calories and sodium, while also incorporating artificial flavors, preservatives or additives.
Consumers want healthy options but, even more so, they want rich flavors and textures, which have traditionally conflicted with their health goals. Dishes such as Thai curry chicken, cheesy ravioli, macaroni and cheese, chicken alfredo, creamy soups, sides and gravies are often found at hot bars or delis, yet their nutritional value can be questionable.
One reason behind these unhealthy inclusions is that fresh ingredients often have a shorter shelf-life, making them less viable to use in ready-made recipes. In addition, many foods formulated with fresh ingredients do not go through the freeze-thaw process well, which can drastically change the texture and mouthfeel of the product.
How to Use Functional Whey Protein to Create Healthy, Convenient Ready-Made Foods
Food manufacturers and grocery stores can overcome these challenges and create ready-made foods that are both convenient and healthy by using natural, functional whey protein ingredients. Including whey protein helps reduce fat, clean up labels, and even enhance the taste and texture of their recipes.
For example, Grande Bravo® functional whey protein can be used to partially replace high-fat, high-calorie dairy products like heavy cream. It provides consumers with a more nutritious, natural ingredients they’re familiar with, without the short shelf life.
Entrees and snacks with cheese sauces, such as macaroni and cheese, nachos, queso dip, cheesy broccoli soup and more benefit from partially replacing fresh or processed cheese with all-natural Grande Gusto®. It is a dry whey ingredient that not only reduces sodium, fat and calories, it actually enhances flavor and texture according to a sensory panel.
Grande Bravo and Grande Gusto can match and often improve the flavor and texture of recipes while giving your soups, sauces, dips, dressings and fillings the ability to survive multiple freeze-thaw cycles due to its proprietary functionality. Your food will taste just as great as your original formulation. These capabilities are ideal in situations where the customer may want to save leftovers for later.
These are just a few ways that whey protein concentrates from Grande Custom Ingredients Group can enhance the quality of a formulation. Contact our food scientists to discuss your formulation challenges. They'll help you determine the right ingredient and how to precisely incorporate it into your application.