In the early 1950s, at the dawn of the frozen meal era, it was fairly easy to predict the type of meals that appeared in those iconic, foil-covered aluminum trays.
“They very much reflected what was put on the kitchen table for an evening meal, a Sunday lunch, or something like that, with the fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and some kind of a brownie for dessert,” says Kristin Reimers, director of nutrition at Conagra Brands in Omaha. “It was such a new technology that there was a need to keep the food familiar.”
Omaha figured prominently in the development of frozen dinners and entrees, and it still does. Reimers describes Omaha as “command central” for Conagra’s innovation in such products.
“All of the technology [for innovation] resides here in Omaha with the 1,200 employees that remain in Omaha,” she says. “This is where all the research and development occurs.”
That research and development team includes such high-level employees as food science experts, chefs, and processing and packaging engineers.
In 1980, Conagra purchased Banquet Foods Co. (an early marketer of frozen entrees). The company was a competitor to Omaha-based C.A. Swanson & Sons, which developed the TV Brand Frozen Dinner in 1953.
Then, in the late 1980s, Conagra blazed a new path in the frozen meal and entree market when it introduced the Healthy Choice brand at the urging of then-CEO Mike Harper.
Healthy Choice signaled a change in frozen meals toward better nutrition, as well as convenience.
Reimers says that in recent years, Conagra has revisited not just Healthy Choice, but all of its classic brands to make them more appealing to millennials and others who seek restaurant-style meals at home that feature foods different from what they might prepare in their own kitchens.
“People are looking for the convenience, but they don’t just want the convenience,” she says. “They want the experience.”
“People are embracing it and loving it,” she says. “They’re looking at these frozen meals as they would a restaurant experience—some way to explore new foods at a very small risk. If you don’t like it, no big deal. You haven’t spent a lot of money or a lot of time. But if you love it, it’s like ‘wow’—you’ve experienced something really exciting—and really nutritious, too.”
“We can offer foods to people that maybe they haven’t tasted before. We’ve been able to really explore a greater variety of foods,” Reimers says. Foods such as the Adobo Chicken and Korean-Inspired Beef versions of the company’s Power Bowls entrees, which were introduced last year. Items in that product line include whole grains and vegetables that consumers tend not to keep in their pantries.
In July, Conagra Brands introduced Morning Power Bowls, which variously include grains such as farro, quinoa, oats, and buckwheat. They offer an Unwrapped Burrito Scramble, Turkey Sausage and Egg White Scramble, Roasted Red Pepper and Egg White Shakshuska, and Pesto and Egg White Scramble.
And the bowls themselves are made from a plant-based fiber instead of a plastic, providing a nod to today’s more environmentally conscious consumer along with a reduction in energy use for the company.
Regarding nutrition, consumers need not fear they are missing out on key nutrients when they choose frozen meals. Reimers says the nutrition of frozen meals is comparable to that of meals prepared using fresh or raw ingredients.
Freshness is no concern, either.
“Vegetables that are in the frozen meals are probably fresher than a consumer would be using at home,” Reimers says.
“The foods are harvested and brought to the frozen state, usually within the same day—hard to do, even if you have your own garden,” she says. “The amount of time that that food is exposed to air and to light that will cause the degradation of nutrients is very minimized in the frozen food.”
Visit conagra.com for more information.
This article was printed in the October/November 2018 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.