Are ready meals making a comeback?

04 November 2021, 07:38 AM
  • Ready meals and soups struggled in the Covid era. Post-lockdown, a focus on provenance and quality ingredients will mark the next generation of convenience
Are ready meals making a comeback?

2020 was a challenging year for many fine food producers, but convenience-leaning segments, such as ready meals and soups, saw a particular challenge. Typically a cornerstone of busy Brits’ diets – 86% of adults in the UK eat ready meals or ready-to-cook foods, and three in 10 eat ready meals at least once a week, according to Mintel – it’s little surprise that the market has an eye-watering value of £3.9bn.

The pandemic was a harsh awakening for the sector, as consumers who were spending more time in their homes got crafty in the kitchen and relied less on ready-to-eat food. “Convenience food will always be popular by nature; however, during the height of the pandemic, there was a real shift towards home cooking and baking,” says Dominie Fearn, founder of The Wild Hare Group.

“Ready meals didn’t have a particularly good pandemic,” adds Richard Harrow, CEO of the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF). “We saw that in the early stages of the pandemic, and it continued all the way through. Ready meal consumers tend to be cash rich and time poor. With the lockdown, everyone had more time,” he says. 

However, post-lockdown, consumers lives are filling up with activities, and the selling points of convenient food and drink are ringing true once again. According to the BFFF’s data for the 52-week period ending June, ready meals were up by 2.1% as they begin to bounce back. “As we move to a post-Covid era, people are becoming more inclined to increase their uptake of convenience food due to naturally busier schedules,” Dominie explains. Amid this growing market, speciality ready meals are seeking to draw customers in with high-quality ingredients and sustainable credentials.

The Covid effect

Covid not only caused shoppers to skip over the ready meal chillers – it also accelerated changes in consumer behaviour that have long been contributing to a decline in mass-produced ready meals and soups. “I genuinely think people’s eating habits have changed,” says Milly Bagot, cofounder of ByRuby. “They care more about quality ingredients and being conscious of provenance. People are eating less meat and fish, so when they do eat it, they want it to be carefully sourced.”

The ‘processed’ image of ready meals and soups has long been a deterrent for healthy-minded customers. With Covid supercharging the health trend, shoppers are taking a closer look at ingredient labels. “The pandemic has meant that people have had to cook more out of necessity and understand what goes into a really delicious meal,” Milly explains. “This makes them more discerning when they reach for a ready meal.”

The brands that were positioned in the fine food sector, which prioritise provenance as well as taste, were some of the few beneficiaries during the pandemic. ByRuby saw a significant spike in sales early in the pandemic when supermarkets were struggling to stock shelves and delivery slots were like gold dust. Businesses that are able to maintain this have the potential to continue growing post-Covid. Milly believes this new Covid-inspired demographic – the consumers who would have previously dined at a restaurant but not trusted the quality of ready meals – is here to stay. “We have lots of customers who wouldn’t ordinarily buy so-called ready meals but feel they trust what we do because of the ingredients we use and our careful sourcing. Those people will not go away after the pandemic dissipates.”

A taste for the classics

The rise of plant-based ready meals has been a significant development – and something which was accelerated by Covid. A poll by Yonder revealed that more than a fifth of Brits were eating less meat than the previous year, and 65% were willing to reduce their meat consumption, with health being a driving factor. According to Richard, retailers can expect to see more free-from and vegan products hit the market. “You wouldn’t have naturally associated plant-based with ready meals a few years ago. You were seeing it as a meat replacement, as a protein. Now you’re actually seeing it as a ready meal.”

This change is well underway in the multiples. A report by Eating Better reveals that more and more plant-based ready meals are making their way onto supermarket shelves. The 2021 report said vegan meals are the fastest-growing category, up by 92% since the group’s first survey in 2018. Aldi and Tesco had increased their plant-based ready meal options by 175% and 103% respectively. 

Despite a clear demand for vegan meals, plant-based isn’t everything. While consumers are keen to eat more vegan and vegetarian meals when they cook for themselves, Milly believes that when they reach for a ready meal they’re looking for classic flavours. “A ready meal for most is a treat, and that’s how people eat ByRuby,” she says. The brand’s most popular products support this theory, as classic dishes – such as British Free-Range Chicken, Leek and Bacon Pie or Classic Fish Pie – are firm favourites. Wild Hare’s bestsellers reflect this too, with Dominie noting that the business’s traditional Shepherd’s Pie is a fan favourite.

Richard agrees that nostalgia is a winner for ready meals. “We’re seeing two things: people are looking for health, absolutely, but they’re looking for comfort food as well. We’ve still got uncertain times around us, and so I think people are going to their favourites.”

Staying power

Post-Covid, the return to normal – or even a ‘new normal’ – will certainly benefit the ready meals and soups sector. “As shoppers start to return to more normal shopping habits – which we’re seeing at the moment quite strongly – I would expect that ready meals will start to bounce back,” Richard says. However, to retain customers who are zeroing in on health and sustainability, fine food independents should look to the brands championing provenance and sustainability. 

Retailers can expect to see more and more brands improving their eco credentials, Richard says. “As a manufacturer, you ignore sustainability at your peril.” There are a number of qualities retailers can look for in sustainable ready meals, from packaging that is recyclable or compostable to ambitious net zero carbon plans – for example, Wild Hare has partnered with a carbon tracking app that lets customers offset their carbon footprint by supporting nature-based soltuions, such as tree planting or restoring peatlands. But finding an eco-friendly niche can also be as simple as sourcing ingredients produced closer to home. “By sourcing our food from local British farmers, the reduced travel distance lowers the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere via transportation vehicles,” Domine says. 

Producers of great-tasting ready meals that put the environment first will see positive growth, Dominie believes. “I think the future is bright for quality ready meals post-Covid. The attention of the entire world has shifted towards the climate crisis and there has never been a more appropriate time to adopt a carbon-conscious attitude to both production and consumption,” she says. “I am determined to educate people on the importance of sustainability and hope that we can encourage collective action in an industry that could really make a big difference to the overall carbon footprint of the UK.”

After a tough year and half, it is clear that the speciality ready meals sector is optimistic again. “People have enjoyed eating at home more and the process of cooking, but they still want something seriously special that they haven’t cooked themselves now and then,” Milly says. “That’s where our meals come in.”

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