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Ready Meals – a timeline of change

Cambridge MR hold a unrivalled database of 30,000+ new product consumer test evaluations, providing a unique insight timeline into product development trends across more than 450 categories, including the pivotal Ready Meals sector.

Successful Ready Meals offer value for their price point at every level from Economy / Value to Premium. At their most successful they match expectations of their name; they limit perceptions of being ‘over-processed’, deliver authenticity, a ‘clean’ ingredients list and emphasize provenance of ingredients and sustainability.

Innovation is as much about matching expectations as well as changing taste boundaries

2015 witnessed a growing appetite for prepared in-home meal solutions as time-starved consumers looked for family friendly alternatives during the week, as well as more indulgent weekend fare. This was a big year for premium frozen; Cook! entered the market with some strong scoring premium ready meals, including their innovative Chicken & Mushroom Lasagne.

2016 brought fresh thinking fuelled by global food ideas and a changing UK retail scene reshaped by the increasingly successful Discounter model. Social media emerged as a powerful influence; ‘clean eating’ influencers advocated cutting out certain food groups, with a push for Insta-worthy meals increasing the importance of looking good. ‘Free From’ found a wider audience, fuelling a new wave of product development, while M&S focused on the promise of enjoyment and value for money: like their Gastropub Ham & Chicken Crumble - “expensive for one”, but well worth it given its “good quality ingredients”.

In 2017 the cost of the weekly supermarket shop was on the rise making consumers even more price – and Discounter - aware. The demand for Convenience energised the ready meals sector. We tested a number of hand-held foods aimed at eating on the hoof such as Symington’s Singapore Curry Naked Noodles and more chilled component meals and meal kits such as Aldi’s popular Beef Stroganoff Meal Kit. Meat Free began to emerge as a powerful trend aggressively promoted by celebs and social media.

2018 saw the launch of Jack’s by Tesco and rapid expansion by Aldi and Lidl. The quality standards offered by the Discounters at every level increasingly disrupted consumer expectations. Innovation continued across the category, but Aldi and Lidl churned their repertoire of core lines offering quality and prices that attracted consumers across the demographic, matching the market at every level from Value to Bigham’s. Range and innovation were less important than quality and value, with recipe variants and listings evolving to maintain maximum interest.

2019: the year of plant-based food. Vegan launches made up a fifth of all retail NPD by May. Most successful were inventive plant-based recipes such as Morrisons V Taste Coconut Katsu Curry Melt, 46/50. Not just for a minority, Vegetable and Vegan foods clearly appealed to a wider audience looking to vary, lighten and rebalance their diet.

2020: Disruption to our lifestyles will inevitably impact on future trends in food and drink. Ready Meals saw an initial fall in demand during lockdown as consumers, initially, focused on preparing food at home. But with restaurants closed and overseas holidays unlikely in 2020 the appetite for the new and different is likely to grow as we readjust. A return to familiar foods has been reflected in range reductions by retailers, but the canny will understand that the opportunity is now for different foods and formats, with a willingness to experiment.

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