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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 21:23 EDT

Harried Diners Turning to Grocers for Fast Food Pre-Made Meals Give Families a Sit-Down Dinner Without the Restaurant Expense.

September 30, 2008

By KEVIN TURNER

Mandarin resident Gretchen Brennock was at her local grocery store last week, buying pulled pork and sirloin steaks with bleu cheese butter.

But what made her visit different than that of a typical shopper was that she was picking up six prepared meals to freeze for evenings when she’s crunched for time between soccer practices and volunteer work.

She said buying the pre-made dinners through the Publix Aprons “make-ahead meals” program, which is available in Jacksonville only at the store on San Jose Boulevard near Interstate 295, is both time- and money-saving. She freezes the meals until needed, she said.

“The steaks are awesome,” Brennock said. “You go to a restaurant, you’re going to spend more than $20 for four steaks.”

Instead, she said, in the Aprons program, she buys six make- ahead meals – including steak dinners – for her family of four for about $110, she said.

With the economy on shaky ground and more people starved for time, many are eschewing restaurants for prepared foods from grocery stores, saving the cost of eating out while also saving the time of preparing meals at home.

Ann Incorvaia, 75, waited at the Publix at Merrill and Townsend roads in Arlington as the produce staff made her a fresh fruit salad with strawberries, pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon.

Incorvaia said she enjoys buying fresh prepared foods and sometimes also buys whole rotisserie chickens, which are available in the grocery’s deli.

“It’s convenience,” she said. “That way, I don’t have to cook the chicken.”

Prepared meals, which the grocery industry typically calls “home meal replacements,” have been part of grocery store chain food marketing efforts for at least 15 years. They differ from frozen meals because they are made fresh by grocery store deli and meat staffs. They are made from the same grocery store ingredients used in kitchens to make home-cooked meals, so they aren’t laced with preservatives, sodium and fat – typical hallmarks of frozen and processed foods.

That has translated into sales, according to the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association. Between July 2006 and July 2007, sales of prepared foods rose to $5.3 billion – $247 million more than in the previous year. But that’s still a fraction of restaurant sales, which clocked in at more than $500 billion in 2007, according to the National Restaurant Association.

There are several different types of prepared foods at grocery stores. At area Publix stores, rotisserie chickens and fresh sides like potato salad and macaroni and cheese are available at the deli, and “cook-and-eat” meat entrees like chicken cordon bleu are available at the meat counter, said Publix spokesman Dwaine Stevens.

Area Winn-Dixie stores offer a number of entrees and sides in its “restaurant meal replacements” as well. The chain also offers flavored chicken wings, dipping sauces and salads.

A NATIONAL TREND

Grocery and industry experts said sales of the meals are on the rise, which they attribute to economic issues and rising fuel costs.

The trend is observable at grocery stores nationwide, said Kathleen Thomas, communications manager for Washington food industry advocacy group Food Marketing Institute.

“We have found in our consumer surveys that people are looking for ways to feed their families and stretch their food dollars by eating out less and shopping more for prepared food at their local supermarket,” she said. “Our survey found Americans prefer to eat food at home and cook food themselves. We also find consumers feel when they eat a meal at home, it’s better for them.”

The institute’s May 2008 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends surveyed 1,000 consumers nationwide, she said. The survey found that 80 percent reported that they eat at home at least three times weekly.

“But when we talk about cooking at home, it’s a little different than when our parents were growing up,” Thomas said.

There are now more prepared foods involved, perhaps blended in with the home-cooked foods to save time.

Thomas said dinners cost an average of $12 per person at restaurants and about $5 per person eating at home. Spiking energy costs are also part of the decision to eat at home, and prepared foods can be planned into grocery store trips shoppers already make.

“As consumers focus on high energy costs and food costs, they’re trying to make their food dollar stretch further. Consumers are shopping less each week, planning more and making multiple stops in a trip. They’re concerned how fuel costs have affected the pocketbook,” she said.

Nancy Gaddy, vice president of Winn-Dixie’s Deli-Bakery, agreed that the tightening economy is fueling home meal replacement sales.

“In these tough economic times, shoppers are relying more heavily on their neighborhood grocer to offer these hot meals as an alternative to eating out or purchasing frozen entrees,” Gaddy said in an e-mail. “We continue to see new customers trying these freshly prepared items all the time.”

KEEPING IT FRESH

Warehouse retailer Costco also is addressing the demand, Assistant Jacksonville Warehouse Manager Mike Sinanian said.

At any given time, the retailer may offer in-house prepared heat- and-eat meals such as chicken parmigiana, chicken alfredo, stuffed tilapia, enchiladas, meat loaf, soup, chicken pot pie and chicken salad, he said.

Keeping the foods rotating and changing has been a key to success for the product, Sinanian said.

The shelf life displayed on packages is always half the actual shelf life to give the foods shelf life at home, too, he said. If a prepared food is good for six days, the store leaves it out only for three. That way, it’s good in the customer’s refrigerator for three days, he said.

“That gives you time to bring it home, eat half and eat half later,” he said.

Although many standalone Jacksonville delis close in the afternoon after lunch, World Deli offers prepared, take-home dinners, manager Olga Avetisova said. Most of the customers are regulars who know the European and American meals available to customers who call in and order them ahead of time, she said.

But for Brennock, the prepared meals save time and money, she said.

“It’s easier to eat out because you don’t have a lot of cleanup, but to just have family time, it’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s in the freezer when you need it. It saves a bunch of money for us.”kevin.turner@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4609WHERE YOU CAN BUY HOME MEAL REPLACEMENTSChain grocery stores throughout Jacksonville, including Publix and Winn-Dixie stores, carry fresh-made entrees and sides in their meat and deli sections. Some require cooking before serving.The Publix grocery on San Jose Boulevard north of Interstate 295 also has additional offerings through its Aprons cooking school and make-ahead meal program. Participants may buy prepared meals in bulk, based on the program’s menu. They may save money working on their own meals, or, if time-crunched, may have the meals entirely made by Publix chefs.Some free-standing delicatessens also offer home meal replacements, but typically require them to be ordered in advance.

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