Let’s be honest: frozen food does not have the best reputation. From French bread pizzas to bland microwaveable TV meals, the freezer section is usually full of meal options that are unhealthy, mass-produced, and overall subpar.
But lately a few companies are trying to reverse the frozen food stigma — and keep the convenience — with high-quality, healthy meal offerings.
It’s a good time to be in the frozen food market. According to RBC Capital markets, frozen food volume growth recently turned positive for the first time in 5 years. While the slump was blamed on millennials who tend to opt for whole, fresh foods, the rebound is most likely due to the exact same demographic.
“A lot of consumers, especially millennials and students, are looking for an easier [dining] option that they can stick in the microwave,” Zoe Lloyd, founder and CEO of Zoni Foods, told me over the phone. Her frozen meal kit company that offers three healthy, plant-based frozen meals.
Lloyd came up with the idea for Zoni Foods while a student herself at Yale business school. She wanted to find natural, easy to prepare food in the frozen aisle of the grocery store, and was struck by the whopping lack of innovation. So she developed a line of healthy, plant-based frozen meals with ingredients sourced from local farms.
This hits the sweet spot for busy millennials: the frozen meals are convenient, healthy, and offer nearly instant gratification. “People want to feel like they’re preparing a healthy dinner for themselves, but doing it in a way with no prep and very little cleanup,” explained Lloyd. They’re also capitalizing on rising demand for locally sourced ingredients. And at an average price of $6.99 for a single-serving meal, they’re cheaper than takeout or a shopping trip at most organic grocery stores.
Belgian Mealhero also makes frozen meal kits, but they’ve taken the operation a few steps further with a recipe app and connected countertop steamer. In our interview with their CEO Jeroen Spitaels for the Smart Kitchen Summit Europe blog (where they’ll be competing in the Startup Showcase), he emphasized the convenience of frozen food. “Because they’re starting with frozen food (with a long shelf life), our community is able to plug and play Mealhero food into their schedule whenever they need it the most,” he told me.
There are a few other companies edging into the high-end frozen meal market. Daily Harvest, a startup that delivers flash-frozen soups, smoothies, and meals, is putting a millennial-friendly face on frozen food. Eat Local stores provide gourmet, fresh-made frozen meals to Washingtonians. And just this week, Earth Fare announced that it will carry Seal the Seasons products, which sells frozen local produce from family farmers in North and South Carolina, all year round.
In addition to convenience and ease, frozen meals (or at least frozen produce) might be straight-up healthier for you. Studies have shown that it has the same amount or more nutrients than fresh food, especially if it’s flash-frozen. And while fresh food is often picked before it’s ripe to account for its shipping journey, frozen food can be harvested when it’s at its ripest.
As we start getting more and more of our groceries delivered, however, frozen foods can make things tricky. After all, you don’t want Amazon to leave your weekly shop in the car or on your kitchen table if it contains frozen meal kits or — god forbid — ice cream. This is where packaging insulation could come in handy, especially if it’s sustainable.
By capitalizing on the millennial-driven trend for convenient, home-cooked meals and adding new, local, and healthier options, frozen foods could be on the cusp of a Renaissance. No matter what, though, I’ll always have a soft spot for DiGiorno pizza.