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How Healthy Options Are Heating Up Frozen Aisles

Clean ingredients, plant-based options and convenience leading the category
Photograph: Shutterstock

Remember those little pot pies and foil-covered TV dinners baby boomers grew up on?

If they’re still stacked in your frozen food cases, you’re missing a prime opportunity for building sales in a growing category—one in which those once-iconic items are being overshadowed by healthier alternatives.

“From frozen desserts to appetizers and meals, the frozen section in U.S. grocery stores has the ability to be a one-stop shop for consumers on the go,” according to “The Future of Frozen,” a 2017 report from CPG marketing agency Acosta, Jacksonville, Fla.

Growing Category, Great Potential

According to a July 2018 report from Global Industry Analysts Inc., frozen ready meals hold a 43.2% global share of frozen food sales by type, and the category also holds promise for the future. “Current microwavable food options offer myriad benefits in terms of preparation, time, flexibility, handling, portion consistency, hygiene, waste reduction and easy-to-make recipes,” says the report, which points out that future growth “will be driven by a steady offering of high-quality and healthy meals.”

While frozen food sales haven’t yet reached stellar sales status, things are on the upswing, according to Acosta, which reported that 26% of total U.S. grocery shoppers are shopping in the frozen foods department more frequently than last year, driven by millennials and households with children.

As for what shoppers are most in search of in the frozen food aisles, clean ingredients, plant-based options and convenience are hot.

Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods, for example, “is seeing record growth with its plant-based, natural frozen products,” says CEO Larry Praeger, who says that millennials are driving category growth. “In addition to seeking new flavors, clean labels, and plant-based options, millennials are also looking for the convenience that the frozen aisle provides.”

Similar stories are playing out at The Jackfruit Co., Path of Life, KidFresh, Bonafide Provisions, Saffron Road Foods and Red’s All Natural.

jackfruit bowl
Photograph courtesy of The Jackfruit Co.

“Across the map, in both conventional and natural markets, brands in the frozen dinner and entrees category are working toward optimizing their products to contain more pure, clean ingredients to appeal to a growing category of conscious consumers looking for options that are better for their bodies and the planet,” says Adriane Pilcher, brand director for The Jackfruit Co., Boulder, Colo.

“People are not only choosing plant-based but also are looking for finished options to get a mindful meal on the table quick for their families,” says Ashley Collins, brand manager for Warrenville, Ill.-based Path of Life, who says the company “has been busy rebranding and reformulating our Simple Quinoa & Cauliflower Blends to meet consumer demand.”

Matt Cohen, CEO and co-founder of New York-based KidFresh, sees new brand entrants “focused on health and nutrition,” as well as a slow decline in offerings of frozen processed foods.

An absence of chemicals, stabilizers, preservatives and processing is what today’s consumers increasingly demand, says Sharon Brown, founder and CEO of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Bonafide Provisions. She also sees a trend toward foods that are paleo, grain-free and Whole30-approved.

Jack Acree, EVP of Stamford, Conn.-based Saffron Road Foods, says the company has seen a big increase in sales of its natural frozen food brand since launching the world’s first halal-certified, antibiotic-free, humanely raised frozen entree in Whole Foods Market in 2010. “Products with protein, without antibiotics and with clean ingredient labels are what consumers are responding to in the category now,” Acree says.

“Retailers are investing more space to natural and organic brands, which has increased visibility of new natural/organic items for shoppers,” says Brad Locke, VP of marketing and innovation for Franklin, Tenn.-based Red’s All Natural, who says high protein levels and low carbohydrates are nutritional attributes that hold appeal for a broad section of shoppers. “The ‘free from’ segment also continues to gain traction across all frozen formats,” he says.

riced cauliflower bowl
Photograph courtesy of Red’s All Natural

The fact that frozen meals now deliver ingredient profiles and health benefits consumers seek is why the category is starting to shine. “Freezing food is mother nature’s preservative. You don’t have to add shelf stabilizers, chemicals or put your food through high-heat processing to preserve it—simply freeze it,” Brown says.

Marketing Frozen Meals

Making the frozen meal category more relevant to consumers is a task grocery retailers must tackle. Accordingly, Jack Acree, EVP of Saffron Road Foods, says it doesn’t mean appealing to frozen food shoppers of the past. Instead, he says, bringing in new consumers is key: “Smart retailers have had patience as millennials come in and try products.”

How can retailers drive traffic to their frozen food aisles? Suggestions from industry experts include:

Product demos, coupons and cross-promotions. Promoting frozen items in other parts of the store with signage and coupons will help incentivize shoppers, says Adriane Pilcher, brand director for The Jackfruit Co. Sharon Brown, founder and CEO of Bonafide Provisions, agrees. “Off-shelf displays that live outside the frozen aisle are key to bringing new shoppers into frozen,” she says.

  • Educational, eye-catching displays: Use POS, floor talkers, email and social media campaigns to highlight the clean ingredients and functional benefits products in the freezer aisle deliver, Brown suggests. “Allowing more signage and making the aisle more dynamic and inviting also would help … and endcaps are a great way to introduce the brand, too,” says Matt Cohen, CEO and co-founder of KidFresh.
  • Creative merchandising plans: “We’ve seen retailers create specific ‘functional frozen’ sets, where a variety of paleo, grain-free products are merchandised together in one door,” Brown says. “We’ve also seen success when retailers have embraced items that are new to the frozen set with eye-level merchandising to help shoppers find new products that haven’t traditionally been key items in the frozen category.”
  • Increase space for natural, organic and clean-label products and have a balanced but diverse selection: “While shoppers say they want variety and adventure, classic flavor profiles are what they buy most frequently and in greatest quantities,” says Brad Locke, VP of marketing and innovation for Red’s All Natural. “I’d build a section that is two-thirds classic and one-third adventure.” Both meat-based and vegetarian items are musts. “While vegetarian items established the natural category, meat-based items are now a major driver of category dollar growth,” he says.

Whatever path retailers decide to take, the goal Larry Praeger has set for his company, Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods, is perhaps one both manufacturers and retailers who want to build frozen food sales should consider: “To create products to support this new generation of eaters who don’t want to sacrifice health for convenience.”

breakfast bowl
Photograph courtesy of Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods

The Millennial and Frozen Food Connection

Millennials find a lot of value in frozen foods, according to “The Future of Frozen” report from Acosta. This is great news for the category as this age demographic enters its peak spending years.

  • For millennials, frozen foods are valuable as quick dinner solutions (89%), convenient lunches (72%), convenient breakfasts for kids (81%) and as side dishes (78%).
  • Fifty-four percent of millennials will buy only specific frozen foods because they believe them to be healthier, while that amount is 48% for both Gen Xers and boomers.
  • Nearly one in three millennials have purchased frozen foods online, and most of these orders arrive via a grocery delivery service (68%) or from a pure-play retailer (68%).



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