The frozen food industry has come a long way in the past several years. Gone are freezers of the past filled simply with fish sticks, freezer-burned vegetables and year-old TV dinners. Many brands today are offering high-quality meals that can easily be heated and served on demand. These luxury frozen food brands have reinvented the idea of frozen food as one offering premium quality, ready-to-go meals in a way that is healthy, convenient and sustainable.

Recent research by Grand View Research, Inc. found that the U.S. frozen food market is expected to reach $72.98 billion by the year 2024. Overall, sales of frozen foods in the United States are flat, according to a recent Research and Markets study, reflecting a growing consumer preference for fresh foods. Nonetheless, the market is being strengthened by robust investment in product innovation, which includes developing bold and unique flavors, varieties inspired by world cuisines, product offerings that accommodate special dietary concerns, and products with cleaner labels and healthier nutrition profiles.

Among packaged food products consumed as hot meals, frozen foods are considered the most affordable and the most convenient by a substantial margin over their shelf-stable and refrigerated/fresh counterparts. However, between 2014 and 2016, frozen foods lost ground to these alternatives on all counts, including convenience, which has traditionally been thought of as the driving factor in purchase of frozen foods. But at the same time, quality and healthfulness have risen in importance, reflecting the recent reformulating and repositioning of leading brands and the growing presence of emerging brands that emphasize these qualities. In addition, convenience may play a less decisive role than might be expected, as consumers simply assume that this is a feature automatically associated with frozen meal items.Frozen food has the potential to answer a diverse range of consumer needs, ranging from sustainability to health to less time required for food preparation.

Recognizing these needs, the frozen food industry has gained retail leverage by touting the sustainability benefits of frozen food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service found that in 2010, 31 percent of the food supply was wasted. That translates to roughly 133 billion pounds and $161 billion of food.

Beyond wasted food not reaching people in need, food waste is the single largest contributor to landfills nationwide, making landfills also the largest producer of environmentally harmful methane gases. According to a study from the Frozen Food Foundation, frozen food generates 47 percent less food waste when compared to other foods. With 89 percent of Americans concerned with the effects of food waste this gives frozen food a distinct advantage.

In addition to marketing its sustainable credentials, the industry has also sought to promote the health benefits of frozen food—frozen vegetables in particular—which appeal to health-conscious consumers as they offer increased nutritional content for a lower cost. Demand for frozen fruit has also increased due to the growing trend for juices and smoothies, for which using frozen, already-cut fruit reduces preparation time.
packaging innovations

To shed the traditional views of frozen food being low-cost and low-quality, frozen food manufacturers must gain consumers’ attention as being a high-quality, sustainable and healthy option.

This is where investing in packaging is vital. By using modern materials and designs, the industry can reinvent existing products as luxuries and capitalize on the true potential of the frozen food aisle. To have this impact, food manufacturers need to get creative. Packaging design must quickly attract consumers and assert itself as a premium product. This is particularly important in the frozen aisle where the products are obscured behind fogged-up glass doors and cold temperatures can mean that consumers are less likely to spend time browsing.

Packaging must also have highly regarded sustainable credentials to ensure consumers they are making a “green choice” by eating frozen meals. Consumers choosing frozen food for its health aspects also gravitate toward innovative packaging, such as packaging that can be safely steamed or microwaved. Since nearly all consumers ultimately choose to purchase frozen food for convenience, luxury frozen meal brands are producing trays with printed lids, enabling quick and easy access to the product.

As frozen food quality increases, fewer food preservatives will be needed and packaging too will have to adapt. Recent innovations include pads that absorb juices and odors. These are problems that happen with vacuumed meat products, where a buildup of odors occurs when the meat is finally defrosted, leading consumers to assume the meat has expired.

Rebranding as Luxury

Packaging with anti-bacterial properties will be particularly relevant for the poultry market which will eliminate dangerous bacteria, such as E. coli, that cause food poisoning. These advanced packaging solutions will take time to be brought into the mainstream market and will initially cost more, but will serve companies in the long-term by reducing waste and attracting new consumers.

With the frozen food industry poised to grow, the future is looking bright. Consumers are ready to move past unhealthy, preservative-rich foods and fall back in favor with frozen; however, a final push is needed from the industry to revamp and reinvent frozen food as a luxury option. Packaging is at the heart of this, and with creative design and clever innovation, it could ensure the success of the industry for years to come.