Health and indulgence, the two watchwords for growth across many food categories, apply to chilled ready meals too. Indeed if it's not healthy or not a premium meal made from quality ingredients, then it's probably not worth stocking.
In the healthy chilled ready meal arena, Weight Watchers is the fastest growing brand in the UK. The range is currently worth £24m according to TNS data for the 52 weeks ending December 2007. Sales leapt by 55% in 2007 and Michael Evans, marketing controller at Greencore Prepared Meals, which makes the products under licence from Weight Watchers, puts this down to the fact that these are quality meals benchmarked against non-diet products.
The range was launched in 2005 with just six lines; today there are 22. Despite some of the exotic varieties available such as Mediterranean vegetable pasta, Weight Watchers' best seller is sausages in cider gravy with vegetable mash, and number two is cottage pie.
Evans comments: "The consumer trend is towards hearty British meals, with people on diets looking for comfort foods. So our sausage meal fits the bill."
Evans says another reason for the brand's success is portion size which, at 400g, is quite filling. He adds that all the meals are made from 'proper kitchen ingredients' and so have a 'clean back of pack'.
Recommended retail price is typically £2.29, although Evans says in c-stores the meals would probably sell for £2.49. A long-term 'two for £4' deal is running and has been a great success, with 70% of sales made via this offer. A benefit for c-store retailers is the meals' shelf life. The products undergo a heat treatment which means their life is extended to as much as four weeks.
The ready meals are expected to benefit from the £22m marketing budget behind the overall Weight Watchers brand this year.
Meanwhile, another healthy brand to watch is Rosemary Conley ready meals. These have been developed by Oriental chef Paul Kwok for Kwoks Foods. At the moment they are exclusively available in Asda stores but often, after a period of 'exclusivity', brands are rolled out to other areas of the market. There are currently three dishes: aromatic duck with pineapple rice; sweet chilli chicken & noodles; and king prawns with basmati egg rice.
When it comes to premium ready meals, own-label rules. Mintel's report on ready meals says this is because it delivers suppliers a bigger margin for profitability through added value. Quality ingredients and provenance are key to the success of premium ready meals and Mintel points to Marks & Spencer's 'over representation' in the category because consumers are confident of the brand's quality. However, own label within the convenience sector is catching up.
At Nisa, the current Heritage ready meal range will shortly be replaced by a new line-up of 17 premium meals under the Heritage 'Select' brand. There will be eight traditional British meals, four Indian, two Italian, two Chinese, and a chilli con carne, with pack sizes ranging from 400g to 500g. All meals will retail at £2.69 and have a permanent offer of 'any 2 for £4' flashed on pack.
Andy Cowin, Nisachill/Freeze buying controller says: "Every recipe has been developed individually and many have specific ingredients such as cottage pie made with Aberdeen Angus beef, and lasagne made with free range egg pasta and Chianti wine."
Mintel points to the use of 'hero' ingredients in meals that indicate to consumers that the product is rather special. Nisa's inclusion of Aberdeen Angus beef illustrates this, and Spar also offers a cottage pie made with the 'hero' meat. Nisa's Select meals will come in cases of four and have a guaranteed shelf life of 20 days.
Coinciding with the ready meal changes is the relaunch of the Heritage range of filled jacket potatoes, with new pack designs, improved recipes and a new variant - tuna & cheese.
There is other branded activity in the chilled ready meals market. The Food Doctor's Just Steam! range is now available from Budgens and Nisa. Each recipe has been specially created by nutritionists to provide the ideal combination of protein, carbohydrates, fibre and essential Omega fats. Recipes include tiger prawns with tomato & basil, Atlantic cod with wholegrain rice and broccoli, and Thai chicken with sesame rice.
New Covent Garden Food Co's ready to heat risottos come in three flavours: sundried tomato & mascarpone, and wild mushroom & parmesan, both in 250g and 500g pots; and four cheese in 500g pots only. The 250g size is marketed as a single serve while the 500g is for two. The products are listed by Budgens, Londis and Nisa Today's.
New Covent Garden reports 84% sales growth for the risottos in the past six months versus 2006 figures.
Nigel Parrott, the company's group marketing director, puts the strong growth down to discerning consumers who are no longer willing to sacrifice convenience
There are five varieties of tomato - salad, cherry, vine, plum and beef - and most are available in the UK nearly all the year round.
Salad tomatoes are the traditional, round tomato and are also available in a yellow variety. Bitish salad tomatoes are back in season in February.
Cherry tomatoes are small, round and sweet-tasting with either red or yellow skins. They're picked in the UK every month except December.
Vine tomatoes - a cluster of tomatoes still attached to a piece of the vine - are British, and are available from February to November.
UK plum tomatoes are available from March to October and come in medium and cherry sizes, with red skins. They are elongated in shape and are grown almost exclusively for canning.
Beef tomatoes have a large, flattened shape with thicker red skins and are picked in the UK from March to October.
Tomatoes should be kept chilled and handled with care to avoid bruising. They should be rotated by date code, but be aware that occasionally new deliveries might be riper - redder or softer - than the stock you already have on display.
All tomato varieties should be firm and have a good, bright colour. Vine tomatoes will be very aromatic and require careful handling so as not to dislodge the fruits from the stem.
Meet the supplier
Background: Since Henrik Tholstrup took over his father's dairy in Denmark, his prize-winning Castello cheese has been a firm favourite on cheese boards, selling 21 million packs per year across 50 countries worldwide.
The UK launch of Castello by Arla Foods has formed part of a global strategy for the brand and has been supported by a £2.1m marketing campaign for the final months of 2007.
The range comprises Castello Blue, a blue-veined gourmet cheese, and Castello White, a rich and creamy soft cheese with a white rind covering.
Recent launches: Following the international speciality cheese's launch in the UK via the supermarkets, the brand is now available to the independent convenience sector through Nisa Chill. Both Castello Blue and Castello White will be available in distinctive 150g half-moon packs with a rrp of around £1.69 to £1.79.
Distribution: Nisa Chill, and currently in talks with other convenience wholesalers.