Against the backdrop of considerable geographical disparities and continuously rising numbers of new products, the prepared meals category has seen a number of interesting developments recently, reports Mintel's Jenny Catlin.

We have witnessed something of a resurgence in frozen meals, for long the "poor relation" of chilled meals in many European markets. We have also seen ethnic moves gaining further momentum and better-for-you developments, in addition to numerous innovative launches.

For the purpose of this article, prepared meals encompass all complete (main course) meals, generally including protein, starch and vegetable, which need no additional ingredients to be supplied by the consumer.

The global market for ready meals is one of the most buoyant food categories as it saw more than 7,500 new products between 2000 and 2003. While some of the growth recorded partly reflects coverage improvements to Mintel's global new products database gnpd, (primarily in Asia Pacific), other regions, namely Europe and North America, show genuine increase. These high numbers echo consumer demand for a constant change in varieties, on the one hand, but are also indicative of changing consumer expectations, such as the growing demand for ethnic, up-market and also "better-for-you" solutions.

The number of new variety/range extensions recorded by gnpd more than doubled in 2001, alongside a very modest increase in genuine new products. However, in 2002 range extensions remained steady while most of the category's NPD growth originated from new products. This is the first time in four years that we have witnessed the ratio between new products and range extensions change in favour of genuine new products.

Product trends

Prepared meals can be classified by storage type, namely shelf-stable, frozen and chilled. The availability of each type varies to some extent by country, and also varies according to target audience, occasion, budget, etc. In many European markets chilled meals consistently have an upmarket image and pricing, when compared to frozen, whereas in the US the great majority of meals are frozen, so premium products are identified by brand and positioning.

In many respects, convenience is no longer enough of a selling point on its own. Consumers expect a prepared meal to be relatively convenient in any case, and no longer get overly excited by product claims such as "microwaveable" or "ready in less than ten minutes". Consequently, manufacturers are increasingly focusing on added value in the form of taste, quality and innovative recipes - even at the expense of convenience, as the chilled meal boom indicates. With a shelf life of just a few days, and a recommended cooking time of up to 30 minutes, many chilled meals can hardly be considered convenient.

Recent product launches seem to indicate that frozen and ambient varieties are fighting back against their chilled counterparts. Nonetheless the core format for premium products still remains chilled. This is most evident in the UK from private label companies such as Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury and Tesco, which clearly dominate this segment. Products include Marks & Spencer's Steam Cuisine range of chilled foods, Tesco's Finest label, for example Savoy Cabbage with Bacon, and Sainsbury's extensions to its Taste the Difference premium range through the launch of Beef Bourguignon. In contrast, the majority of prepared meals in the US tend to have a less upmarket positioning.

Ethnic recipes play an important role in the prepared meals market, perhaps more so than in any other category, making it the most pronounced trend in ready meals. While global new prepared meal launches grew by around 20% in 2002, ethnic launches almost doubled. Today, more than one in five new products globally, and even as many as half of all new prepared meals in the UK, are claimed to be "international" or ethnic. Ethnic meals also saw an increase in popularity in the US. However, few meals in the US are marketed as "authentic" ethnic, which is in contrast to Europe, where it is common to see speciality regional ethnic recipes.

In what could almost be considered a counter trend to ethnic and Mediterranean dishes, we have seen a growing number of home-style meals in Europe, for example Sainsbury's Classic British range in the UK, which comprises meals such as Chicken, Bacon & Leek Rosti, Beef with Yorkshire Pudding, Shepherd's Pie and so on.

Low fat and low calorie meals only account for a relatively small percentage of new products. Popular product lines include Heinz's Weight Watchers and Stouffer's Lean Cuisine (in the US), and private label lines such as Marks & Spencer's Count on Us or Sainsbury's Be Good to Yourself!.

Currently, the focus of consumers' attitudes towards ready meals is primarily on flavour. Form and convenience are important, and low fat, low calorie meals can only win the consumer's attention when considered to be tasty.

Jenny Catlin works for Mintel. To view Mintel research reports, click here.

To find out more about Mintel's Global New Product Database, click here.