Healthy, homemade and fast. It seems to be what everybody wants today - and hand-held foods are no exception. Consumers want their sandwiches portable packed with whole grains, ready-to-eat in minutes and to taste like Mom made them.

There’s a reason for this cocktail of requests. Consumers are more time-pressed and health-conscious than ever before.

“Sixty-five percent of Americans say they are trying to eat healthier foods these days, 33 percent say they don’t have the time to prepare or eat healthy meals. Over half of them claim they would cook at home more often but do not have the time,” says a recent report from Packaged Facts, a Rockville, Md., division of

In addition, consumers increasingly are dining behind-the-wheel. The number of meals consumed in the car is up 68 percent from 1984, according to the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., research group.

These and other demographic shifts have not been lost on food processors, who have bolstered their hand-held product lineups - with healthy, premium and portable products - at a steady pace. In a recent report from Mintel’s Global New Product Database (GNPD), “convenience” was named as one of the top five new product claims over the last year.

Much of the time, consumers are reaching for that old American stand-by - the sandwich. The average American consumes four sandwiches a week, according to the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association. Food processors are giving them several new options.

“Breakfast and snack day parts are the two most rapidly growing segments,” said Melanie Bandari, senior project manager, bakery for Sara Lee, Downers Grove, Ill. In fact, 44 percent of breakfast food servings are eaten outside of normal breakfast hours, according to the NPD Group.

With all the hand-held breakfast options out there, it’s not surprising that consumers are indulging behind-the-wheel.

Last year, Simplot Food Group, Boise, Idaho, launched Pancake Pods, two three-inch pancakes heat-sealed together and filled with fruit or crème. Offered to foodservice and c-store operators as a breakfast or snack item, Pancake Pods come in five different flavors - Chocolate, Strawberry, Blueberry, Maple and Cappuccino - four of which are low-fat.

“Pancake Pods put a unique, convenient spin on a comfort food classic ...” says Alan Kahn, Simplot’s vice president of marketing. “We love that we help operators grab their share of grab-and-go, all-day snacking with a product that’s healthier and just plain cool.”

Sara Lee recently added to its Jimmy Dean and Sara Lee foodservice and c-store offerings with Stuffins - a hand-held wrap made up of a pancake rolled up and stuffed with sweet or savory filling. Stuffins come frozen and are heated in the microwave. “Peel n’ Eat” packaging allows consumers to eat the product while on the move.

Launched in October 2007, Stuffins come in three Sara Lee varieties: Blueberries & Cream Cheese, Strawberries & Cream Cheese and Apples & Pecans, and three Jimmy Dean varieties: Sausage Egg & Cheese, Ham, Egg & Cheese with Red and Green Peppers and Bacon, Egg & Cheese.

Sara Lee also launched Jimmy Dean D-Lights breakfast sandwiches last year. These frozen breakfast sandwiches are all 7 grams of fat or less and have one-third fewer calories than the leading breakfast sandwich, the company says.

Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Pittsburg, Texas, also planned a foray into the healthy, hand-held breakfast segment early this year with Start Well microwaveable breakfast sandwiches.

“The breakfast sandwich retail category has experienced 20 percent growth over the past five years, making it one of the fastest-growing categories,” said Randy Meyers, senior vice president, consumer division with Pilgrim’s Pride.

Start Well sandwiches have less fat than traditional breakfast sandwiches and are fortified with Omega-3 fatty acids thanks to EggsPlus Eggs - another Pilgrim’s Pride product.

In the lunch category, Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill., launched Oscar Mayer Deli Creations Sub Sandwich kits last year, targeting the 70 percent of consumers who eat lunch at their desks. Deli Creations include everything needed to make a sub sandwich in one box - Oscar Mayer meats, a sub sandwich roll, Kraft cheeses and condiments, such as Grey Poupon mustard. Once assembled, sandwiches take just minutes to heat up in the microwave.

This year, Kraft will extend the line with Deli Creations Flatbread Sandwiches, which will be distributed in retail stores nationwide in May 2008, officials say.

“With the hectic, fast-paced work day, it seems that lunchtime continues to disappear, and many feel cheated when they don’t get to enjoy their lunch,” says Elizabeth Cron, an Oscar Mayer representative. “For most, it’s a better day when they can have a satisfying lunch - even for only a few minutes.”

Kraft says its new Deli Creations Flatbread Sandwiches will feature “high-quality deli meats, specialty sauces, natural cheeses and a flatbread that heats in the microwave in 60 seconds.” Varieties will include: Buffalo-Style Ranch, Chicken & Bacon Ranch, Sun-Dried Tomato Chicken, Fajita Beef & Salsa and Steakhouse Beef with Garlic Parmesan sauce.

Like Deli Creations sub sandwiches, the flatbread sandwiches are individually packaged and merchandised to grab-and-go shoppers in the supermarket’s refrigerated meat case.

While Kraft touts its sandwiches’ “fresh baked” and “restaurant-inspired” taste, the J.M. Smucker Co., Orville, Ohio, takes a different direction with its Uncrustables, a more portable version of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Launched in 2000, Uncrustables are pre-assembled, frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with no crusts. Instead, the sandwiches are sealed along the edges. The thaw-and-serve sandwiches offer busy parents a fast and easy way to give their children lunch or a snack to-go. Available in packages of four, 10 or 18 in the freezer aisle of retail stores, Uncrustables also are sold to foodservice operators and as school lunch products.

In 2006, two new varieties - Peanut Butter and Peanut Butter and Honey on Wheat Bread - were added to the existing line up of Grape Peanut Butter & Jelly, Strawberry Peanut Butter & Jelly and Grilled Cheese. Smucker said its homemade-style sandwiches saw a 29 percent sales increase in 2006.

Another hand-held contender, Nestlé USA, Glendale, Calif., purchased Hot Pockets purveyor Chef America in 2002, and has led the category ever since. The company’s newest market entry, Lean Pockets Made with Whole Grain, was set to launch in January 2008.

“We’re so pleased to announce that Lean Pockets brand is now the only sandwich in the frozen food aisle which features whole grains,” said Margaret Cate, marketing manager for Lean Pockets.

Nestlé says Lean Pockets Made with Whole Grain offer a convenient way to fit the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended three or more servings of whole grains per day. New varieties include: Turkey, Broccoli & Cheese, Turkey & Ham with Cheese, Three Cheese & Broccoli, Chicken and Broccoli & Cheddar.

Experts say consumers will continue to turn to the hand-held category to provide both convenience and nutrition.

“Products within Meal Centers, Pizzas & Pies (including frozen and chilled pizzas, savory pies, quiches and hand-held items) are often perceived as somewhat unhealthy, full of calories and with little nutritional value,” states a GNPD third quarter 2007 category review. “In order to counteract this unhealthy image, manufacturers are focusing on the benefits of products in the sub-category.” This includes all-natural, “low in” and premium ingredient claims, GNPD says.

Nestlé’s new Lean Cuisine Flatbread Melts - like its other Lean Cuisine hand-held offerings including Paninis and Brick Oven Style Pizza - are microwaveable, portable and designed for the health-conscious consumer.

The Flatbread melts combine melted cheeses and meats inside a soft, breaded shell, and contain no more than 9 grams of fat each, Nestlé says. In addition, “premium” ingredients include sun dried tomatoes, pepperocini and blue cheese.

Flatbread Melts give consumers “new meal variety and a more sophisticated experience,” adds Kristin Gibbs, director of marketing for Lean Cuisine. Four varieties will launch nationwide in January 2008, including: Chicken Ranch Club, Pesto Chicken, Chophouse Steak and Chicken Philly.

Other freezercase competitors include ConAgra Foods’ Healthy Choice Café Selections Panini, microwaveable sandwiches made on whole wheat bread, and a new entry from H.J. Heinz Co.’s SmartOnes Anytime Selections line. Formulated to Weight Watchers diets, these new varieties include: Calzone Italiano, low-fat mozzarella cheese, Italian sausage and hearty tomato sauce in oven baked bread, and Chicken & Cheese Quesadillas, grilled white meat chicken, a three-cheese blend, peppers and onions folded into a crispy flour tortilla.

It’s products like these - that offer convenience as well as health benefits - that experts predict will have staying power in the hand-held category.

“If manufacturers and retailers can address consumer hurdles to healthier eating, such as price, time constraints, taste, availability and information, they can help consumers get a jump start on healthy living, while growing brand, category and store sales,” says Andrew Salzman, global chief marketing officer at Information Resources Inc., Chicago. And what’s more convenient than a food in the hand?

The future of hand-held

What’s on the horizon for the hand-held sector? Mintel’s Global New Products Database weighs in with some predictions.

• Manufacturers could highlight natural health benefits present in some products/ingredients, such as lycopene found in tomatoes or calcium from cheese on pizzas. Processors also could add fiber or seeds in a pizza base to make it healthier.

• Health positionings are likely to remain very present, as consumers are increasingly using food, especially functional food, as a way to manage their health.

• Convenience should continue to dominate this sub-category.

• There is potential to develop locally sourced products for an image of freshness and better quality, as well as more “green” attributes.

• Because consumers are more conscious about increased fruit and vegetable consumption, some products could mention that they contain a full portion of vegetables.

• Premium ranges could serve to expand flavors available, using formulas that are perhaps more complicated to achieve from scratch.

• Packaging will be affected by the green movement, with more biodegradable and recycled packs.