CHICAGO -- If meals get any quicker to fix, you may have to set the table and call the family before you start them.
Meat loaf can be ready in four minutes; spaghetti and meat sauce in three. For people really in a hurry, there's pre-browned ground beef in a resealable bag and precooked, hickory-smoked bacon that reheats in all of 10 seconds.
All that's left is for meals to cook themselves, and those are coming, too, as soon as prices come down on new high-tech ovens that can read cooking instructions embedded in food packaging.
With profits stagnant, grocers are desperate to win shoppers back from fast-food and takeout. Food companies and meatpackers are responding with a widening array of convenience foods, called "home meal replacements," for time-pressed and kitchen-challenged cooks.
"Even minute rice is no longer quick enough," said Michael Sansolo, a senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute.
Three of every four consumers say they prepare home-cooked meals at least three times a week, but less than half make meals from scratch. Less than a third of people under 40 are scratch cooks, according to the trade group's annual poll of consumer trends.
Meanwhile, supermarket industry sales rose just 2 percent last year, after adjusting for inflation. Sixty percent of individual stores showed no growth at all.
Convenience used to mean condensed soup, TV dinners or ready-to-eat breakfast cereals. Then came Hamburger Helper. Now it's bagged salads to go with a pre-basted pork tenderloin that requires a little cooking, casseroles out of a box, or the no-refrigeration-needed spaghetti dish that heats in the microwave.
"There's a whole raft of products and they're basically aimed at the same trend -- convenience reigns," said John Lord, an expert on new product development at the St. Joseph's University Center for Food Marketing in Philadelphia.
Among the newest offerings featured at the supermarket industry's annual trade show this week:
-- Borden's Classico "It's Pasta Anytime" dishes that require no refrigeration and cook in the microwave in three minutes. Grocers are promised in Borden's promotional materials that the product will "Get 'em out of the restaurant and into your stores!"
-- Campbell's Supper Bakes casserole. The rice or pasta, sauce and seasoning come in a box. Add meat and, with 5 minutes of preparation, the casserole is supposed to be ready in half an hour.
-- Farmland Foods, a major meatpacker, has come out with Ribbits, smoked pork brisket tips that heat in the microwave. Farmland also has precooked bacon that claims to have "all the great taste, none of the fuss."
-- General Mills is launching a series of products aimed at women who eat in their offices: microwavable pasta called Bowl Appetit as well as Expresse yogurt, which can be frozen, thawed and squeezed from a tube.
"Food has to be quick and easy. It has to be healthy. It has to taste good," said Pam Becker, a spokeswoman for General Mills.
Hormel Foods has a line of precooked meat dishes including meat loaf with tomato sauce, beef brisket and sliced pork.
Suzanne Weeder Einspahr, a food industry consultant at the University of Nebraska, considers herself one of the last scratch cooks. But even she occasionally buys prepared meat dishes.
"I've tried a few. For the simplicity and ease, they're a good product," she said.
Mark Hutchison, a University of Nebraska colleague, says, "We have friends who have no idea how to cook. One friend in particular eats out five times a week."
Some of the convenience foods could be nutritionally questionable, depending on the fat and sodium content, and whether consumers eat plenty of fruit and vegetables along with them, nutritionists say.
On the Net: Food Marketing Institute: http://www.fmi.org
Cornell University nutrition information: http://www.cce.cornell.edu/food
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