Can Frozen-Food Companies Make TV Dinners Cool Again?

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American diners have been giving frozen food the cold shoulder lately. Aging boomers are put off by high sodium and calorie counts in many frozen dishes, while many young adults would rather stop by Subway, Chipotle or Domino’s than bother turning on an oven at all. But frozen foods are refusing to be relegated to the metaphorical back of the freezer of consumers’ minds.

“According to proprietary research from the organizations, 98% of products in the frozen aisle are experiencing flat or declining sales in the U.S., across nearly all categories,” Advertising Age magazine says. Ad Age reports that a consortium of industry heavyweights is getting ready to throw $50 million in cold, hard cash at the problem. A huge advertising blitz will be launched later this year.

A spokesperson from the American Frozen Food Institute tells NPR, “Frozen-food manufacturers are united to weigh in in a comprehensive fashion.”

“Weigh in” might not be the best term to use, given that many people view frozen food as unhealthy. Our dining habits and preferences today are supposed to lean toward fresher, less-processed food. What we’re eating might not necessarily be better for us — Panera’s Chipotle Chicken on Artisan French Bread sandwich sounds innocuous, but it’s really an 830-calorie fat-and-salt bomb. But many consumers think they’re eating healthier, and that’s what counts when we go to the grocery store, sandwich shop, or drive-through.

Increasingly, the frozen-food aisle doesn’t come across as particularly tasty or healthy. “I don’t think it’s particularly appealing merchandise,” says Bob Goldin, executive vice president at Technomic, a food-industry consulting firm. “There’s a perception among consumers that probably the quality doesn’t meet the standards of fresh prepared or restaurants.” What’s more, “there’s so much competition for the food dollar these days, there are other alternatives that are perceived to be more attractive than frozen food.”

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Analysts say categories that could be described as ingredients rather than dishes — frozen veggies, for instance — are holding their own. Frozen breakfast items are doing well too (maybe because we’re letting our kids pick them). But the classic frozen meal is struggling.

“Frozen dinners, frozen entrées — this area looked like it peaked three to four years ago … after years and years of growing,” says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at market-research firm NPD Group. Balzer says frozen-food consumption among 18-to-34-year-olds nearly doubled between 1984 and 2007, but then hit a wall.

The industry was “expecting that to always grow,” Balzer says. Now that it’s not, frozen-food players are eagerly trying to get back on the path of rising sales — and they may even attack their brethren in the supermarket aisles to do so.

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According to Ad Age, frozen-food manufacturers plan “to change the way consumers think and feel about frozen food by promoting positive messaging regarding the benefits and attributes of frozen foods.”

Nestlé, for example, is taking an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach, encouraging shoppers to add a fresh item like a salad or a piece of fruit to a frozen entrée, according to The Packer. The company also is partnering its Lean Cuisine brand with Fresh Express, a brand of prepackaged salads. Instead of a typical TV-dinner format, its new “salad additions” packages contain everything except the salad itself, with the idea that the customer will buy both.

This compromise marrying fresh and frozen probably will be the exception rather than the rule, though. The Packer’s Tom Karst calls the upcoming ad blitz a “shot across the bow” and says the frozen-food industry may even decide to “go negative” on fresh food. A dietitian employed by frozen-food giant ConAgra, for example, recently told NPR, “A lot of times, those vegetables have been transported for days, and then sit. It could be a matter of weeks between when they’re picked and consumed.”

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Given that frozen veggies are one of the healthy (dietetically and financially) frozen-food categories — something TIME’s Jeffrey Kluger emphasized a few months back — it seems unwise for frozen-food companies to try rehabbing their image by slinging mud into the produce section. Regardless, it looks like something of a “cold war” is coming to a supermarket near you.