Has the Frozen Dinner Become Frozen in Place?

As Consumers Move Toward Healthier Options, Sales for Former Grocery-List Staple Struggle

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With apologies to Mick Jagger, mother's little helper in the 1960s was actually the frozen dinner -- a convenient way for working women to put a hot meal on the table. But today, it's the frozen dinner that needs help.

As consumers gravitate to healthier, fresher options, the frozen dinner has become frozen in place. Frozen meals eked out a 0.6% increase in sales in 2011, rising to $7.9 billion, following two years of declines after peaking in 2008 at $8.2 billion, according to Mintel.

Women are now more likely to look in the freezer for a diet meal rather than hearty offerings to please the whole family. Weight-management brands are growing faster than non-diet brands. At Nestle -- the largest frozen-meal marketer -- four of five Stouffer's Lean Cuisine varieties gained market share in the 52 weeks that ended Feb. 19, according to Mintel. By comparison, the core Stouffer's brand lost 0.2 percentage points, although it remains the largest frozen-food brand, with a 12.5% share, or $432.5 million in sales.

And the category is getting less attention at supermarkets, with the brands that migrated from restaurants to retail losing steam. H.J. Heinz has ended its licensing agreement for Boston Market-branded frozen meals and is phasing out T.G.I. Friday's frozen entrees, although it still sells T.G.I. Friday's frozen appetizers. (Frozen-appetizers sales are still growing, having risen 2.46% in the year that ended Aug. 12, according to SymphonyIRI.)

CEO William Johnson recently blamed the frozen-entree decline on stores' putting more emphasis on the perimeter, where fresh foods are usually sold. "Consumers are walking in with a budget," he told analysts in May. "By the time they get out of the perimeter, their budget is gone."

Some brands are finding success through niche offerings with a healthier spin. Consider Amy's Kitchen , a family-run company specializing in handmade premium frozen meals with organic ingredients. Without any traditional advertising, sales of Amy's frozen single-serve entrees increased 2.37%, to $80.4 million, in the year ending Aug. 12; that 's in category whose sales declined 0.97%, excluding Walmart, according to SymphonyIRI. Entrees come in low-sodium and gluten-free versions. One of the newest meals is a veggie burger made with organic black beans. Which is a far cry from the old Swanson Salisbury steak.

How the Frozen Dinner Got Its Start

Created by C.A. Swanson & Sons in 1954, the frozen dinner brought multiple-course frozen meals into the mainstream, with offerings such as Salisbury steak and fried chicken packed neatly in aluminum trays stuffed with sides of mashed potatoes, apple cobbler and other items. The brand -- buoyed by the "TV dinner" name coined by Swanson -- went on to set the standard for kitchen convenience in the booming postwar era, helping women balance careers and family life as they entered the workforce in significant numbers. Or as a Swanson's ad from the period declared: "I'm late, but dinner won't be."

"It's odd for us now to look back on it and think about a tray of frozen peas and turkey as this major thing," said Christopher Holmes Smith, a professor at USC Annenberg's School for Communication and Journalism who contributed to the 2001 book "Kitchen Culture in America." "But at the time it really was."

Swanson no longer even sells frozen meals in the states. Campbell Soup Co., which controlled the brand in its heyday, still sells Swanson broths and soup stocks. But Pinnacle Foods, which took over the frozen-meal business years ago, discontinued the brand in the U.S. in 2010 to focus on its Hungry Man lineup. -- E.J. Schultz

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