CHICAGO — If you don't have time to make dinner at home, you have plenty of company. Supermarkets are selling wider varieties of prepared meals and trying to make customers' trips to the store quicker.
"People aren't cooking like they used to," Michael Sansolo, senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute, which represents the supermarket industry and is holding its annual trade show this week in Chicago. "Stores are experimenting with creating departments right at the front of the store for grab-and-go."
For example, people can pick up bagged dinner for two at Virginia-based Ukrops Super Markets. Byerly's in Minnesota has brought local restaurants into the supermarket to make ready-to-go meals.
Some Food Lion stores in North Carolina offer meals in different stages, from things people can eat right then to food that requires a little preparation.
Rotisserie and fried chicken used to be staples of those departments, and still are. Now grocers are getting inventive with main and side dishes by adding vegetables and other fresh ingredients, said Meg Major, fresh food editor for Progressive Grocer magazine.
"We're seeing a movement away from over-produced, overdone things; the emphasis on freshness is so important," Major said.
Stores are also trying to help customers make quick trips. Some are creating separate parking areas and checkouts for grab-and-go customers, or separate checkouts for phone-in deli orders to keep people from waiting in line.
The amount of time people have to shop keeps shrinking, Sansolo said, because the number of dual-earner couples and working single people keeps rising. FMI estimates the average customer shops 2.2 times per week and says 8 of 10 shoppers eat at home at least three times a week.
Stores are more frequently bringing together all the elements for a meal in one place to keep shoppers from traipsing from the meat department to the produce department to the dairy case to assemble one meal.
The concept of "meal solutions" has invaded every part of the store, from take-home meals to recipe cards in the meat department to cottage cheese combined with fruit in the dairy case.
As heat-and-eat meals continue to grow in popularity, food makers are challenged to come up with new products. Banquet started selling its Crock-Pot classics last year and is expanding the line. People dump beef stew, chicken and dumplings or other mixes into their slow cookers, add water and have it ready for dinnertime.
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The company also expanded its Bakes boxed dinners by creating Dessert Bakes, such as coconut cream pie and chocolate silk pie. They can be chilled and ready to eat in 40 minutes, without ever having to go into the oven.
The difference between assembling a quick dessert versus buying a pie from the bakery is that it can help ease a parent's guilt over not having time to cook, said Steve Booker, vice president of sales for ConAgra Foods, which owns Banquet.
"You get the satisfaction and pride that you're making a home-cooked meal instead of going through the drive-thru," Booker said.
Smaller companies such as Texas-based Menu Fresh are also getting into the ready-to-eat business with fresh meal kits that put beef and chicken fajitas, chicken enchiladas and chicken quesadillas, complete with salsa and guacamole, on the table within 10 minutes. Now selling the kits in Texas, the company plans to expand its business.
"People don't believe they can actually buy that in a box," Menu Fresh's Jeff Morris said.
The amount of time people have to shop keeps shrinking as the number of dual-earner couples and working single people keeps rising, according to Census figures. The Food Marketing Institute estimates the average customer shops 2.2 times per week, and its surveys show that eight of 10 shoppers eat at home at least three times a week.
Besides whole meals, things that save steps in the cooking and preparation process are also booming business, from grilled and sliced chicken for salad and sandwiches to sliced vegetable combinations and bagged salad.
For example, Ready Pac has re-launched its containers of diced bell peppers and onions and other vegetable combinations, putting them into smaller, one-meal-only-sized boxes.
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