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Marketers see major growth prospects in budding children's meals category.

Marketers See Major Growth Prospects In Budding Children's Meals Category

First it was frozen food for babies as Growing Goumet, an upstart brand from Walnut Grove, Calif., began turning out "toddler casseroles" for yuppie kids on the West Coast. A year later the concept has evolved and moved into heartland America as one major packer and two entrepreneurial outfits are marketing microwaveable, shelfstable children's meals for today's crop of "post-baby boomers."

The battle for share of the growing kiddie market was joined in earnest last fall when a former Beatrice Foods executive, Mary Anne Jackson, began distributing a label called My Own Meal to supermarket retailers in Chicago, Ill., Milwaukee and Green Bay, Wis. Geared for youngsters aged 2-8, the five-item introduction ranges from 8 oz. (227g) pasta entrees to turkey meatballs and noodles with vegetables in sauce.

Ms. Jackson explained why she didn't have to invest in a lot of costly market research to reach the conclusion that the time had come for kids' meals to hit the stores: "As a working mother of two young children, I know first-hand about the guilt mothers suffer when they are not at home to feed the kids. After my daughter was born, I returned to my career in the food industry and realized that the availability of good, wholesome prepared meals for children was virtually nonexistent."

Lost Job, Found Future

She can credit necessity as the mother of invention in more ways than one as the 1985 takeover of Beatrice left her without a fulltime job. After freelancing as a consultant for several months, she began pursuing a more promising way to feed her family with the founding of My Own Meals Inc.

Aiming to cash in on a "neglected market," Ms. Jackson's Deerfield, Ill., company wasted no time in assembling a team of nutrition experts and food technologists to formulate lightly seasoned My Own Meals offerings boasting no MSG or preservatives. Packed in flexible plastic pouches, the products may be boiled in bag as well as microwaved. Available by mail order or through regional supermarkets, retail prices range from $2.39 to $2.99 per unit.

Hormel: Wait a Minute

Meanwhile, things were cooking in the kitchen of Geo. A. Hormel & Co., the large, Austin, Minn.-headquartered diversified food company. The outfit began testing its new Kid's Kitchen entrees in three markets only to find that an entrepreneurial firm -- Denver-based Great American Food Co. -- was busy in one of those markets undertaking concept tests of its own on a range of toddler meals called Kid's Kitchen. Not especially keen on the name similarity, Hormel persuaded Great American to re-name its product as Kid's Cupboard, according to a report in Advertising Age. The line is supposed to be launched within the next six months.

Hormel's Kid's Kitchen, which is being tested in Indianapolis and Phoenix as well as Denver, is also a shelf-stable range requiring no refrigeration. Packed in plastic oval bowls with mini handles, the 7-ounce food fare includes macaroni and chicken spaghetti rings, beef ravioli, and four other items -- each selling for about $1.10.

"They may not taste good to you or me," Rick Bross, Kid's Kitchen marketing manager, was quoted as saying, "but our children's taste panels and common sense showed that these are the foods kids like to eat."

Appreciative of the opportunities in a still growing $900 million microwaveable frozen food and shelf-stable market, as well as the fact that most parents allow their kids to use microwaves, Hormel Product Manager William Bernardo observed:

"Today's children are given greater responsibility for cooking at an earlier age, and we're meeting their needs in a nutritious, safe and convenient way."

Over at Great American Food, Chairman Nancy Markham Bugbee is betting that the movement toward prepared kiddie foods is no short-term fad, but rather a trend. "Demographics and lifestyle changes dictate a new way to feed families," she remarked. "And the focus will be on children well into the next century."

Not Really New

Of course kids have been eating foods custom-made for their taste buds for many years without the clamor of "new market" fanfare from the food industry. Frozen pizza and pot pies, for example, were essentially snack products born to serve the budding post-World War II American youth market. The mid-1970s saw more than one short-lived attempt to market frozen meals and products specifically for the pre-teen set. But these days the sub-category is getting more upscale as savvy marketers begin to employ greater sophistication in targeting guilt-ridden working moms.

"With the demands of our busy schedules, we don't always have the time to prepare the right meals," said working mom/food entrepreneur Mary Anne Jackson. "But now, whether we're running late, going out or facing different meal times, we no longer have to fall into the fast food trap out of sheer necessity."

Just how much could this "coming of age" sub-category be worth? Some food business watchers have estimated that frozen and shelf-stable microwaveable meals for children could eventually grow to represent more than a $300 million market.

PHOTO : While frozen kiddie chow was first with the Growing Gourmet range, shelfstable varieties

PHOTO : are starting to come on line with brands such as My Own Meal (above) and at least two

PHOTO : others
COPYRIGHT 1989 E.W. Williams Publications, Inc.
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Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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