New packages, increased functionality boost frozen prepared entrée appeal – and sales.

Editor’s note: How are refrigerated and frozen food processors packaging new entrees and meals to please consumers? Refrigerated & Frozen Foods puts that question and others to Brian McGlynn, a food packaging consultant with more than 30 years of entrée packaging experience across all material formats.

Refrigerated & Frozen Foods: What new retail meal or entree packages caught your eye last year? Why?

Brian McGlynn: I wouldn’t say there was one particular item. We did see more product extensions using steamer pouches and microwaveable venting films, which enhance product performance in specific frozen applications. These cooking film features have helped this market climb from “good to great.”

R&FF: More specifically, what are consumers looking for in entrée or meal packaging?

McGlynn: Market data show consumers embracing value-added products. This “value” includes price, quality and convenience. Economical, multi-serve family dinner packages have grown nicely. I also see freezercase shelves now stocked with more panini sandwiches and other hand-held offerings. We did not see these a few years ago.

I realize that this isn’t an entrée but I would note that premium, single-serve steam vegetable pouches have grown and gained market share. They are a popular complement to a meal and deliver convenient, ready-to-serve portions with extra nutrition.

R&FF: What’s been most interesting new development in rigid plastic meal or entrée packaging?

McGlynn: I’m actually involved with a group that’s developing microwavable, dual-compartment packages to address the specific cooking requirements of different products. I think this format will be truly innovative and significantly improve the texture of both food components. In the future, it will enable processors to create a broader range of menu-inspired, restaurant-quality foods with complementary pairings. Consumers will benefit because two is better than one.

R&FF: How about the most interesting new development in flexible plastic meal or entrée packaging?

McGlynn: Flexible pouches are growing significantly and gaining sales in the freezercase. Suppliers have made some significant structural improvements and these efforts have catapulted this package format to new heights. As a result, I expect to see a continuing conversion in package materials and a continuing drop in paperboard, seal-end cartons.

R&FF: You’ve mentioned paperboard. What’s happening there?

McGlynn: Renewable, paperboard-based trays continue to replace aluminum and plastic in club store product applications. A major feature involves paper’s ability to accommodate laminated susceptors for browning – particularly when applied to high-moisture bakery items. Even so, C-PET containers have a much larger market share of the entrée market. I’ll end, though, by noting that there’s increased pressure for petroleum-based products to recapture costs in this competitive environment.

R&FF: Let’s talk about wider market competition for “share of stomach.” Any new noteworthy meal packages in deli or foodservice applications?

McGlynn: This has been a period when you’ve seen many foodservice operators looking inward for operational enhancements to drive product improvement. Many benefits might not always be seen by the buyer.

That said, everyone is looking for the elusive, cost-efficient, sustainable package that can be recyclable and/or biodegradable. The problem is we cannot achieve the same precise distribution and performance characteristics with these new “miracle” coatings. Meanwhile, I see heavier-gauge printed films emerging to complete unitized tray packages. We also may see paper sleeves evolve and replace cartons in a “less-is-more” concept.

R&FF: A fearless entrée packaging forecast for 2012 and beyond? What’s coming next?

McGlynn: I’ve already mentioned one development involving a smarter, microwaveable dual-compartment package. I’ll note that this innovation involves changes to both the material composition as well as design.

Another interesting development involves consumers’ increased use of the Internet for home delivery meal service via Amazon, UPS, etc. This is a niche market but one that requires consideration. We will need to address structural upgrades to shipping units as well as film closure.

Although I cannot say where all the trends are going, I’ll end with my slogan, which is that I’m “always thinking inside the box.”

A 30-year-plus packaging industry veteran, Brian McGlynn is president of McGlynn & Associates, a package consulting and sales firm in Midlothian, Va. Readers may contact him at (804) 744-5484 or at