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Family Meals Trend—With Meat at the Center—Is Sticking Around, Says FMI's Rick Stein

The VP of fresh foods reflects on pandemic-related meat trends and what's ahead for the category
Family meal
Photograph: Shutterstock

As Americans go back to more traditional ways of eating, with meat at the center of the plate, Rick Stein, VP of fresh foods for FMI, says retailers should be offering shoppers cooking tips and recipe direction, as well as information on portion sizes. Prior to FMI–The Food Industry Association's and The North American Meat Institute's virtual discussion on the Power of Meat, Stein spoke with Winsight Grocery Business about how meat performed in 2021 and the stickiness of trends such as at-home cooking. 

Rick Stein, VP of fresh foods for FMI
Rick Stein

Diane Adam: Last year, Americans prepared more meals at home because of the pandemic. In terms of the fresh meat category, did anything surprise you in 2021? If so, please explain?

Rick Stein: Yes, a couple of things surprised me. ... I thought it was interesting that people began to go back to some of their traditional ways of eating, one of which was having meat on the plate. Another thing that surprised me is how much variety consumers are buying. They are buying lamb products and different cuts of meat that weren’t selling before. Another trend I saw that was doing so well in the meat department is the ground meats. Ground beef, turkey and chicken are not as expensive, and people are buying them and learning to cook. Shoppers are starting to embrace different cuts, which is a very sustainable way of eating.  

What are the top fresh meat trends you are seeing from consumer demand and behaviors as a result of the combination of 40-year high inflation and COVID-19 cases? 

We are seeing a bit of premiumization. Consumers are trying to replicate that fine-dining experience that they are missing. Despite inflation, consumers want to treat themselves to a nice steak or pork chop—something that’s a little bit more premium than they normally would. I think that was an interesting outcome of the pandemic because in the face of inflation you would almost think it wouldn’t go that way. But the fact is that people are buying more food and cooking it at home, so you’re spending less and that’s a big change in behavior. The idea of eating at home continues to amaze me. FMI did a big push on family meals and the mental health and academic benefits; then came the pandemic, and we didn’t have to do anything to push family meals—everybody did it naturally—and it has stuck around too.

The “center of the plate” is a term meant for the portion of protein such as a piece of red meat or a grilled pork chop that dominates the plate. You recently wrote that the “center of the plate mindset is back in vogue.” Can you explain that to our readers?

You know that term almost went away for a while. As people began to eat more at home, they began to go back to some of their traditional ways of eating, which was having meat on the plate. I think we are going back to more traditional ways of eating—things that evaporated over the last 30 years are starting to come back.

Will clean-label, grass-fed, organic and “all-natural” and other health-related meat categories continue to see a strong performance in sales as 2022 continues?

Customers want transparency. I believe customers should have the right to transparency, and we’re seeing more work with QR codes now where you can scan it. This information is becoming important to the customer. We’ve been home now watching everything we eat, and it’s interesting as consumers have become more engaged on how food is raised or grown. Consumers want a better understanding when they’re making their choices. This idea of having transparency is important.

What's one thing retailers should take away from meat's performance in 2021 and how can they leverage that in 2022?

I think retailers should embrace the fact that consumers are cooking more at home. I think retailers should hang on to that, and they can educate their consumers by giving them cooking tips and recipe direction and even direction of the cuts of meat. I think the more the retailer can educate consumers the better off they are. Another interesting note is that portion sizes are changing. Consumers are asking about portion sizes. They want to continue to buy the meat, but they want to know the right portion size too.

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