If television's popular cook-off program "Iron Chef America" were to truly reflect our country's kitchens, the show's vaunted "secret ingredient" wouldn't be something like crawfish or goat cheese. Instead, the music would crescendo and the host would lift the silver dome covering the platter to reveal "secret ingredient—Hamburger Helper!" And for the show's "Natural Edition," that ingredient would be something like Annie's Organic Skillet Meal.
Increasingly, when Americans prepare meals at home, they are "speed-scratch cooking," using ingredients that offer shortcuts, giving time-crunched (and skill-limited) consumers an easier option for meals with a home-cooked flair. "Speed scratch" ingredients include all types of time-saving products, from simmer sauces and pre-cut vegetable packets to soups and powdered entrée mixes.
Speed-scratch cooking is "absolutely here to stay," says Sarah Bird, vice president of marketing for Napa, Calif.-based Annie's and Fantastic Foods. Annie's five varieties of skillet meals, which include organic pasta and sauce mix, have been "strong sellers" since their introduction four years ago as healthy alternatives to mainstream products, Bird says. "Just add a protein, milk and water and you have a healthy meal in under 20 minutes." In addition to a quick and easy meal, consumers also can get a feeling of accomplishment. "You feel like, ?I'm involved, I'm not just opening a can,' " she says.
This winter, Union City, Calif.-based Simply Asia foods is introducing four new, 10-minute Thai Kitchen curry simmer sauces, broadening the company's offering of speed-scratch Thai specialties. The new sauces are the simplest products yet, says Faye Shulte, director of marketing. "Our other products are also very easy," she says. "You just add curry paste, coconut milk, fish sauce and sugar and they cook up very quickly, but we're going even beyond that with the simmer sauces. Just add whatever protein you want, serve it on jasmine rice and you have an authentic Thai meal in minutes.
"Consumers are looking for a way to add fresh ingredients to customize a meal, feel ownership," she says.
"Insights Into Tomorrow's Ethnic Food and Drink Consumers," a report published by Datamonitor market research firm in August 2005, backs her up: "Packaged sauces and meal kits are an important way of helping consumers overcome their anxieties about preparing ethnic meals." "Nearly half of all consumers say they'd like to cook from scratch," according to the survey, "but don't have the time."
Food designer John Rossi understands that time crunch—he has six children. When he created Athens, Ohio-based Zio World Cuisine's line of just-add-water rice, pasta and grain-based dishes, "He wanted to bring his great love of international flavors to the American table in a way that was convenient for consumers," says Kristi Hewitt, Zio's CEO. The results? Peruvian Farmer's Lunch, Sardinian Peasant's Supper, Tandoori Spicy Rice & Lentils, Armenian Wednesday Pilaf, Tunisian Fancy Couscous and Cuban Chile with Cilantro & Cumin. "Most people add ground beef or shrimp to the Cuban Chile and chicken to the Tandoori, our two most popular varieties," she says.
Using prepared or frozen protein products does more than save consumers time, says Jim Poppens, vice president of marketing for frozen foods for Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co., which owns Morningstar Farms vegetarian foods. "Our Meal Starters line—which consists of Grillers Recipe Crumbles, Sausage Style Recipe Crumbles, Chik'n Strips and Steak Strips—allows consumers to create a broad variety of meatless recipes that would be difficult to create otherwise," he says.
Preparing—and cleaning up after preparing—chicken and meat can be the most time-consuming part of cooking. That's why Coleman Natural Foods developed its new All-Natural Fresh For the Freezer line of chicken items, says Eva Safar, director of marketing for the Golden, Colo.-based company. The premarinated, boneless, skinless, trimmed breasts come in individual easy-peel pouches. "This means you can easily slip the chicken out of the packaging and right onto your pan without worrying about dirtying multiple utensils," Safar says.
Fantastic Foods' line of Easy Vegetarian Meal mixes, which includes packages of taco filling, sloppy Joes and tofu scramblers, have been around for decades and their popularity shows no signs of waning, Bird says. "Just add water and in five minutes, you have a tasty, filling, healthy meal."
Chopping prep time in half
When Los Angeles-based Melissa's/World Variety Produce marketed prewashed and chopped Asian stir-fry vegetables more than a decade ago, the company was one of the first to offer value-added produce. Since then, Melissa's has expanded its line—and its technology—in an effort to "get Americans to eat more produce and save time in the kitchen," says spokesman Robert Schueller. "Value-added is definitely the way to go," he says. "People are more than willing to pay for convenience, and new packaging technologies are allowing us to do a lot more."
The most cutting-edge option for speed-scratch-friendly produce, however, may be the company's Cryovac packaging that vacuum seals sliced carrots, steamed lentils and beets for cooking without losing flavor or texture. This winter, Melissa's has added whole, peeled and steamed chestnuts to the line.
From nuts to soup
Consumers toss a few ingredients into the mix of Frontier Soups' Hearty Meal Soups before simmering for a few hours. The Waukegan, Ill., company's Homemade in Minutes line makes it even easier, says Trisha Anderson, Frontier Soups' founder and president. "They're quicker to assemble and require fewer ingredients." Frontier also offers easy-to-assemble mixes of cornbread, polenta and focaccia (which includes yeast, olive oil and sea salt) to accompany the soups.
In response to customers' requests, Anderson has published a booklet with adaptations for preparing each soup in crock pots. "Each recipe is broken down for convenience—what to do the night before, what to do in the morning before you head out the door. Then, eight hours later, maybe adding a fresh ingredient at the last minute," she says.
Fans of Pacific Natural Foods' line of soups have been customizing the products for years by adding fresh ingredients, says Kevin Tisdale, director of marketing. The broths are obvious meal starters, but when the Tualatin, Ore.-based company ran a customer recipe contest, two-thirds of the winning recipes incorporated the creamy soups, he says.
A recipe can be the secret ingredient in merchandising to speed-scratch chefs, says industry consultant Debby Swoboda, president of Stuart, Fla.-based Debby Swoboda Marketing Solutions. "It's really the glue that pulls the ingredients together." Post a tear-off recipe on an end cap or in a cup holder on a freezer or fridge door. "But make sure you test it first," she says.
"A fun thing you can do to build on that is to add employees' favorites"—variations on the recipe, Swoboda says. "For example, ?Joey likes a little spice in his life, so he adds hot pepper flakes.' " Include the recipe in handouts and use overhead announcements as well as e-mail blasts.
Even with all these nifty products, speed-scratch cooking might not necessarily mean less time in the kitchen, according to a study by archaeologist Margaret Beck at UCLA's Center on the Everyday Lives of Families. Beck, who usually studies cooking routines among traditional cultures, instead pored over footage of 32 working California families as they prepared weeknight meals between 2002 and 2005. Of 54 weeknight dinners, 70 percent were completely home cooked, though not necessarily from scratch. Almost all were served with some sort of packaged convenience food.
The study, published in 2007 in the British Food Journal, found that dinner didn't get on the table any faster in homes that favored convenience foods—because the meals utilizing the speed-scratch ingredients became more elaborate. It seems that "convenient" doesn't take away from "creative."
"Iron Chef Speed Scratch" might be an intriguing option, after all.
Shara Rutberg is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 1/p. 22,24