While boxed meatloaf may no longer whet the appetite, there once was a time when frozen meals were the pinnacle of food manufacturing. It was the 1940s and home freezers were entering American homes, opening up a new market for frozen fruits and vegetables. “In grandfather’s day, it was canning. Our generation has made a mighty good start toward claiming a niche for freezing,” Nation’s Business wrote.
When Nestlé (NESN:VX) introduced Lean Cuisine in 1981 as a low-calorie version of its Stouffer’s frozen meals, the product received praise as a strong competitor to Weight Watchers, which had introduced its frozen meals back in in 1968. The difference was Lean Cuisine appealed not only to the overweight but also to the weight conscious. Two years later, about half of sales for the overall Stouffer’s category came from the Lean Cuisine line, according to Marketing News, far more than the company had anticipated. Within four years the fad for frozen diet meals had cooled, and Nestlé went back to developing new varieties to spark interest.
Today Nestlé is once again facing the decline of Lean Cuisine, and it’s not just the unpopularity of frozen food. Executives also blame price and a lack of brand innovation, which the company is now trying to address with a new, natural Lean Cuisine line called Honestly Good as well as new breakfast items and fillings for salads and wraps.
The company also wants to improve overall consumer perception of frozen meals. Nestlé spokeswoman Roz O’Hearn said in an e-mail that ideas about what constitutes healthy food are shifting again, just as they did in the early 1990s, when the focus went from simple calorie control to percentage of calories from fat. Consumers now emphasize freshness, quality ingredients, and easy-to-understand labels. “Our job is to help consumers understand that our meals are freshly made with quality ingredients, and then simply frozen,” she said.
It does seem that consumers’ appetite for the old guard of products marketed to dieters is fading fast. Nutrisystem (NTRI), founded in 1972, saw its revenue fall 10 percent last year, while Medifast (MED), founded in 1980, barely budged. Even Weight Watchers (WTW) saw both attendance and product sales fall in 2013.
Perhaps more consumers believe that if they have the will to eat well and exercise, they can still dine outside the diet meal box.