The toughest challenges in getting dinner ready? Here are the top five, according to supermarket retailerWegmans Food Markets Inc ., which recently surveyed 1,000 customers.
 
1.      Staying within the family food budget
2.      Figuring out what to serve
3.      Keeping meals varied and interesting
4.      Having little time to prepare meals
5.      Serving healthy meals
 
“Feeding the family is a big job and our customers deserve all the help we can give them in making that job a little easier,” says Jo Natale, Wegmans director of media relations. “In doing our research, we tried to listen with both ears. For example, we think customers are telling us two things when they mention the effort it takes to stay within the family food budget. They want our help in keeping food affordable, but they’re also saying they’d like to know what a meal will cost – without using a calculator as they plan menus or shop.”

Natale notes that Wegmans'  latestWegmans Menumagazine contains meal recipes and that each lists the cost-per-serving. Most importantly, half of the meals ring out at $3 or less per serving.
 
The research also revealed that dramatic changes in respondents’ meal consumption patterns had occurred, in part reflecting concerns about the economy. When asked if they were doing the following more often, less often, or if there had been no change:
 
·   30 percent of respondents said they were preparing more dinners at home from scratch;
·   33 percent were now using some partly prepared foods, like cleaned and chopped vegetables, to create a meal;
·   A 24 percent drop in take out meals was reported, as well as a 45 percent decline in meals eaten at restaurants.
 
After distilling all of the comments from the research, Wegmans settled on three words that best captured what customers wanted their meals to be: Easy - Healthy - Affordable. The research also showed that although patterns had changed, in real life, most customers use more than one strategy during the week to get dinner ready: Some nights they cook mostly from scratch; other nights, it’s a combination of prepared and semi-prepared foods or a frozen meal. Sometimes, it’s takeout or going to a restaurant.
 
Natale says Wegmans used the findings to refresh its approach to creating recipes for cooking at home, to expand prepared food offerings, and to come up with meals to keep on hand in the pantry or freezer. Meal ideas, videos, recipes, and other information are available on theCome Home to Dinner page on wegmans.com, including a one-page meal guide that can be printed and kept on hand for inspiration.
 
Natale adds that the research also spurred Wegmans’ meal development team to come up with recipes that would illustrate the principles of “easy, healthy, affordable.” Their efforts are ready to see in the Fall 2009 issue ofWegmans Menumagazine. Some highlights:
 
·        Braising, a slow-cook technique that turns less-expensive cuts of meat into fork-tender bites, has been updated to fit workday schedules.  Five new recipes use a slow-cooker (crock pot) to do nearly all of the cooking during “office hours,” with just 30 minutes or less of prep time.
 
·        Recipes shave minutes off prep time by using partially prepared items, like cleaned-and-cut bagged vegetables.
 
·        Each entree contains one or more cups of fruits and vegetables per serving.  In addition, every meal lists calories, saturated fat and sodium.  Per serving, at least half of the meals come in at or below 600 calories, 7 grams of saturated fat, and 1,000 mg of sodium – making them a healthy, satisfying alternative to fast food takeout. 
 
“We discovered a few tips in using slow cookers that we’ve shared in the magazine,” says Executive Chef Jim Schaeffer, Wegmans’ operations director of food preparation, “so customers can get all the rich, complex flavors that slow-cooking delivers along with variations in texture that make what you serve really delicious and satisfying.”
 
Convenience that’s cost-conscious, too
Wegmans’ research showed that 22 percent of respondents eat prepared foods at least once a week, other families less often. But nearly everyone opts now and then for the time savings and convenience of a meal that’s ready to eat – especially when it doesn’t strain the food budget. With that in mind, Wegmans has expanded its prepared foods offerings, adding new entrees, sizes, and combinations to the mix.
 
One of the new items, already a hit with customers, is the $6 meals for one. They include one entrée and two side dishes. There are nine entrees to choose from, and eight different side dishes. Examples: Dinner could be the Chicken Marsala, Boneless Brown Sugar BBQ Chicken or Meat Lasagna, along with two sides such as Butternut Squash, Spinach and Craisins, Seasoned Green Beans, or Red-Skin Smashed Potatoes.
 
Wegmans’ Asian Bowls and Pasta Bowls now come in single servings for $5 – and there are more varieties and combinations. Dinner, for example, could be the Sesame Chicken with Vegetable Lo Mein or the Asian BBQ with Udon Noodles, or Cheese Tortellini with Spinach or the Roasted Cauliflower and Vodka Blush Sauce.
 
For larger families, some of Wegmans’ most popular prepared foods entrees and new fall dishes are being packaged in Club Pack size. The label on the package shows the price for the whole package as well as the number of servings it offers – making it easier to see at a glance how the meal would fit into the family’s food budget.
 
“What we’ve tried to do with these changes,” says Natale, “is to give our customers more reasons than ever to Come Home to Dinner.”
 
Based in Rochester, N.Y., Wegmans is a 74-store supermarket chain with stores in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and Maryland.