Bighams has launched a new branded range of premium microwave meals called Steam.

Bighams, the ready-to-cook specialist, has clearly recognised that consumers are increasingly unwilling to trade quality for convenience. Consumers' prepared meal requirements are now more sophisticated and providers must offer more than ease and speed of preparation.

The Steam range, which includes eight variants, has recently gone on sale in Waitrose outlets in the UK. The products have an upmarket positioning, something reflected by the types of dishes on offer, which include Pesto Salmon, Florentine Chicken and Atlantic Cod. Recipes use fresh ingredients and new products are expected to follow at some point in the future.

A high price strategy is also being used to re-enforce the premium credentials of the range. According to The Grocer magazine, one of the 370-390g chilled meals will cost British consumers between £3.99 (US$7.29) and £4.79. Intent on maintaining the quality message, Bighams indicated to The Grocer that the price will not be discounted apart from limited promotions, the first of which is earmarked for August.

The Steam range attempts to provide the important benefits of health and convenience to the growing array of British consumers who are time poor, yet nutritionally conscious. Using the latest packaging technology, it incorporates the health benefits of steaming food as well as being a quick and convenient microwaveable meal solution.

Bighams is not the first UK company to turn its attention to steam based cooking. Marks and Spencer, for example, has already developed a popular Steam Cuisine range that it is about to extend with the launch of five low-carb Steam Cuisine meals later this month.

It is not surprising that manufacturers are capitalising on cooking techniques that give prepared meals a more sophisticated positioning. Despite significant improvements over recent years, prepared meals can still suffer from a perception of limited quality. Using cooking methods that are perceived as being healthier, combined with premium pricing, can be an effective way to differentiate a product from its rivals.

To encourage growth in the market for prepared meals, suppliers will have to diversify their offering, as well as increase quality. The best way of achieving this is to maximise perceptions of freshness and develop increasingly sophisticated recipes, while maintaining the focus on convenience.

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