Patrick and Livia Melton of Rockwall, Texas, are typical 30-somethings. They have busy work and social schedules that include a 10-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter. Like most people their age, they avoid highly processed foods in favor of clean-label products. But when the time crunch is on, they turn to frozen foods with no second thoughts.
“Frozen food is a backup,” said Livia. “If I don’t have enough fresh [food], or I don’t feel like cooking, or I’ve had a rough day, I’ll pull out the frozen. It’s so easy.”
As for the taste of frozen versus fresh, “on a scale of 1 to 10, if fresh is a 10, frozen foods—or the ones I get at least—are about an 8,” she said.
Today, millennials, particularly time-strapped parents like the Meltons, are revitalizing the frozen foods category. According to The Future of Frozen report from consumer research organization Acosta, millennial consumers find frozen foods perfect for quick dinners (89%), convenient lunches (72%), expedient kids’ breakfasts (81%) and fast side dishes (78%).
Forget the gravy-soaked, frozen TV dinners of the past. Today’s frozen foods feature more protein, healthier formulations and a wider array of flavors. Where once shoppers’ choices were limited to Salisbury steak or chicken pot pie, today they can choose interesting fare from a variety of cuisines, such as pad Thai or street tacos.
In the future, expect to see more products and more innovation—in frozen foods.
In the convenience channel, the frozen foods category, which includes dinners, entrees, meals, pizza and desserts, made up 0.16% of in-store sales, down 0.01% from the previous year, according to the NACS State of the Industry Report of 2017 Data. “Frozen foods brought in an average of $3,250 in sales per store and an average of $1,282 gross profit dollars per store, with a gross margin of 39.44%,” said Jayme Gough, NACS analyst. When selecting a frozen food option, “these shoppers are looking for no antibiotics, hormone-free, all-natural, sustainable and low sodium,” she said.
They also are looking for value and convenience. Cooking frozen foods at home is easy on the wallet, and frozen breakfast foods are especially attractive for millennials, who must get their kids off to school in the morning.
“Plus, frozen foods minimize waste,” Gough added. “As proponents of environmental sustainability, millennials and Gen Zs are very conscious of the waste they generate. Frozen foods, especially those in single-serve packages, create minimal waste compared to items prepared onsite and packaged in [polystyrene], for example.”
Better for You
For years, people thought of frozen foods as a pale substitute when fresh foods were lacking, “but from a nutritional standpoint they are identical,” said John Clevenger, managing director and senior vice president at Acosta. “You don’t lose any nutrients, and you don’t lose a lot of the crispness and freshness of the vegetables.
“If they had the time, millennials would go to the store, buy fresh vegetables and prepare them themselves every day, but frozen vegetables provide a great convenience option without too much compromise,” he said. “Millennials are educated about the foods they eat. They look at the labels and say ‘Wow. There is nothing added here. No preservatives or added sodium.’”
This changing attitude toward frozen is coming at a critical time for some food manufacturers. For instance, Kellogg’s built a strong customer base by selling Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops, but the popularity of these cereals has waned. Now, demand for the company’s frozen food is on the rise and boosting sagging sales. For example, sales of frozen Eggo waffles jumped more than 10% during the first quarter of 2018. It didn’t hurt that Kellogg’s recently nixed artificial colors and flavors from the waffles and introduced updated packaging. (And the Netflix series "Stranger Things" also added to the popularity of the Eggo waffle.)
“The millennial generation thinks about frozen differently than other generations,” Steve Cahillane, Kellogg’s CEO, has stated publicly. “It’s kind of the new fresh and the new convenient. We expect frozen foods to continue to grow.”
At Conagra Brands, frozen foods are having a positive impact on business. “In the last 52 weeks, the frozen single-serve meals category is up $138 million,” said Sean Connolly, president and CEO of Conagra. “Retailers care about category growth, and they’re allocating more shelf space to our products.
Today's frozen foods feature more protein, healthier formulations and a wider array of flavors.
“While we see growth coming from all age cohorts, including millennials, Gen X and boomers, our growth does over-index to younger generations,” Connolly said. “Younger consumers are clamoring for contemporary frozen foods, but large manufacturers have been slow to move in that direction. We’ve incorporated the modern food attributes millennials value into our iconic brands to reimagine our frozen portfolio. As a result, we’re capturing an outsized share of the growth among millennials and Gen X consumers.”
Heat-and-eat frozen pizza has long been a freezer staple, and sales are predicted to experience a compound annual growth rate of 3.41% worldwide during the 2017 to 2021 time period, according to Radiant Insights, a San Francisco-based market research company.
Quick to prepare, frozen pizza can be enhanced to meet the consumer’s personal requirements. Although frozen pizzas come in several sizes, “medium” is popular because it can satisfy a hearty appetite or easily serve two people.
“That old standby—pizza—is going through a lot of changes,” said Clevenger. “You’re finding gluten-free crusts and more exotic ingredients. While pepperoni is still the No. 1 selling pizza in the world, flavors like Thai barbeque chicken are available. If I was a convenience store thinking about getting into frozen, that would be a good place to stick my toe in the water.”
The York, Pennsylvania-based Rutter’s convenience chain doesn’t carry a large frozen offering, but the company does sell frozen pizzas. “They aren’t flying off the shelf like candy or snacks,” said Joseph Bortner, category supervisor for Rutter’s. “But we sell enough to warrant the space in our larger-format stores.”
A current hot product in the frozen food case is the grain bowl. “It’s got a grain, vegetable and some sort of protein with a sauce,” said Acosta’s Clevenger, noting that two national cooking magazines recently featured stories in the same month explaining how to prepare grain bowls at home.
“They’re not easy to make because you’ve got all these different ingredients that have different cooking times,” he said. “If you throw all the ingredients into the bowl raw, it won’t come out right. But if you get a microwavable bowl that has your prepared protein, fiber and other nutrients combined—maybe it’s Korean or Thai—it’s an easy option.”
In the future, expect to see more products—and more innovation—in frozen foods. “You’ll continue to see more emphasis on the formulation and the packaging, and it will be a combination of less—less sodium, less fat, less calories—but more protein, gluten-free, non-GMO, organic,” Clevenger said. “We can’t forget that retailers want to provide more variety, but whether you’re in a convenience store or grocery store, it’s finite space and a real challenge to organize.”
Plus, the frozen food department can be difficult to shop because everything is behind a door. “You’ve got to make it easy for shoppers to find it and try it,” Clevenger said.