Consumers’ renewed engagement with cooking at home has been one of the few phenomena to be described as a “silver lining” of the COVID-19 pandemic and a year spent more at home than ever.
For many consumers, fewer commutes to and from the office and fewer after-school or after-work activities to manage has meant a little more flexibility when it comes to meal prep. But food still needs to get on the table every night.
And so pandemic-weary consumers have sought out center-of-plate options that emphasize convenience and promise a hot, flavorful made-at-home meal without some of the most time-consuming prep work. Retailers and suppliers alike in the past year have stepped up their offerings of value-added meats and seafoods—marinated chicken breasts, stuffed pork chops, breaded fish fillets and the like—that go from package to pan (or grill, or microwave).
“Sometimes you want to open a can of tomato sauce and put some meatballs in a pan,” says Kay Cornelius, general manager of Perdue-owned Panorama Organic Grass-Fed Meats. That’s why Panorama, which specializes in steaks, is expanding its lineup this spring with the addition of grass-fed meatballs as well as sausages and hot dogs.
Whether via sausages for a skillet pasta dish or via a single-portion, seasoned grass-fed steak (also new from Panorama), “We’re going to take the labor out of it,” says Cornelius, herself a fourth-generation rancher.
Beyond offering appeal as a low-hassle answer to “What are we going to do for dinner tonight?,” value-added selections can spur consumers to try new-to-them cuts/varieties and flavor profiles. It’s a low-risk way to experiment with different proteins and incorporate more variety into consumers’ dinner rotations, Cornelius says.
Smaller-portion value-added proteins for weeknights and larger heat-and-eat selections for weekends or special occasions meet consumers’ demands for filling, flavor-rich fare that minimizes the mental and physical labor of meal prep. Panorama, for its part, is looking to seize on consumer curiosity about grass-fed meats with the launch also this spring of single-serve packaged seasoned steaks in two varieties: harissa, with a bold, on-trend spice blend featuring chiles and cumin; and Himalayan sea salt with Aleppo pepper. Eyeing special-occasion family dinners, Aldi in March introduced a 14-ounce, fully cooked roast half-duck, packaged with an orange sauce for glazing.
“We’re seeing shoppers include meat in more at-home meals and seek out culinary and convenience options as cooking fatigue sets in,” says Rick Stein, VP of fresh foods for FMI–The Food Industry Association. Stein expects interest in value-added proteins and cooking at home in general to remain strong even as restaurants reopen more fully in 2021. “Many shoppers are seeing the value equation of eating at home and are likely to embrace this trend further,” he says.
Trial and Trial Again
More meals prepared at home also influences what consumers buy and what they’re willing to try. FMI and the North American Meat Institute’s Midyear Power of Meat 2020 report, released in September and using data and analysis from IRI, found that half of consumers were seeking more variety in their meat purchases because they’re cooking at home more.
Just more than a third (34%) said they’re experimenting more with different types and cuts of meat, and 63% said they consider themselves more knowledgeable about meat than they were pre-pandemic.
Stein says “value-added” shoppers have been early adopters of online shopping too. A demand for convenience is one factor contributing to this crossover; many consumers seeking easy mealtime solutions—a group that runs the gamut from app-savvy but cooking-inexperienced young professionals to working parents and older adults with mobility challenges—also have embraced more-convenient and flexible options for getting their groceries.
But for online shoppers, there’s more to value-added proteins’ appeal than speedy meal prep. Consumers who aren’t standing at a meat case or counter in-store, inspecting what’s on display and asking questions or making requests of a butcher, can find a little peace of mind and quality assurance in packaged, heat-and-eat and prepared selections with the idea that what they see online is what they’re going to see in their order, and the product will be generally consistent every time.
In January, Landover, Md.-based Giant Food launched a line of private-label Cook-in-Bag meals, available online and in-stores, that can go straight from the shopping bag to the oven or slow cooker. Meat and poultry selections range from chimichurri chicken thighs to a whole chicken roaster to Greek-seasoned loin fillet, and oven-ready seafood options include lemon-dill scallops, bourbon salmon and Chesapeake Bay-style shrimp.
On the supplier side, Tyson, too, is offering new oven- and Instant Pot-ready value-added choices. The Springdale, Ark.-based company in January introduced Creamy Chicken & Noodle Casserole, Creamy Stroganoff Beef & Noodle and Chipotle Seasoned Chicken Instant Pot kits and a Roasted Garlic Alfredo Fettuccine Pasta & Chicken family-size oven-ready kit.
Maximizing Value in Value-Added
Convenience and consistency are two top selling points for value-added items, but consumers are also increasingly paying attention to ingredient quality and health attributes in assessing their value-added options, says Stein of FMI. With food’s role in promoting health and well-being likely to remain in focus post-pandemic, “value-added meat options need to take into account convenience and health needs,” he says.
Like Panorama, Oakland, Calif.-based supplier Belcampo is playing up its ingredient-integrity credibility with new additions to its seasoned meats lineup. Available online and at retail as of February, Belcampo’s new Seasoned Lemon Pepper Chicken Breast and Seasoned Lemon Pepper Chicken Legs are made with pasture-raised chicken, and their six-ingredient marinade contains no added sugar.
“We’ve been working toward creating free-range proteins that not only taste amazing but are also made with ingredients aligned with the values of our regeneratively pasture-based ranches,” Belcampo co-founder Anya Fernald said in a news release. Belcampo touts the new oven-ready items as “ideal for quick family meals and paleo- or keto-friendly dishes.”
For customers of West Sacramento, Calif.-based Raley’s (a 2021 WGB Remarkable Independents honoree), the use of high-quality ingredients in value-added selections is becoming an expectation, Director of Meat and Seafood Todd Allen says. Shoppers are seeking out value-added items made from natural or organic sources, he says, and they’re eager for more variety and choice within the value-added category overall.
“There grew an expectation for innovation and expansion of item selection,” Allen says. Raley’s dedicated “Dinner Tonight” section in-stores carries value-added selections across proteins, including seafood, he says. For Lent this year, the retailer added seasoned halibut and salmon and marinated shrimp. For grilling season, Raley’s will add kebabs and skewers of all proteins, as well as a variety of beef, chicken and turkey gourmet burgers.
As in the case of kebabs, value-added protein selections don’t need to be complex in order to be successful. Even just taking the chopping out of the picture for consumers can prove worthwhile. To wit: Dollar sales for precut fajita beef climbed 41.3% in 2020, according to NielsenIQ and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. (Value-added beef sales overall climbed 18.5% in 2020, to $877 million from $740 million in 2019.)
Whatever the protein, delivering choices that resonate is largely about serving flexibility and build-on-this inspiration, at the right price point, that will help consumers create the meals and experiences they want to enjoy at home. “Offering variety and cross-merchandising with other time-saving options can help create complete meal solutions that shoppers crave,” says Stein.
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