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Targeting millennials, Big Food wants to make frozen meals cool again

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If platform shoes can make a comeback, why can’t TV dinners? 

That’s the hope of food manufacturers eager to lure health-conscious millennials back to the freezer section.

B&G Foods (BGS) wanted to inject some life into the wilting Green Giant when it purchased the brand from General Mills (GIS) last year for $765 million. Green Giant’s frozen vegetable sales have declined by 25 percent, to $477.6 million, since 2011, according to Euromonitor, but B&G wants to revive the brand and appeal to young consumers with new products like Riced Veggies, meant to replace carb-heavy rice or even pizza crusts. Its Sautés line has items that sound plucked from an upmarket fast-casual menu, with names like Thai Coconut, Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Indian Spiced Lentils.  

This photo provided by Green Giant shows a package of one of the company’s “Riced Veggies” products made with cauliflower.  AP

Brittany Weissman, consumer analyst at Edward Jones who covers the food industry, said companies are trying to stop the decline in frozen food sales by appealing to millennials. 

“I think a lot of big companies don’t think frozen foods would be a growth driver for them. But they’re trying to stop the bleed in sales, so you’re seeing innovation with key trends you’re seeing with millennial consumers,” she said. 

These trends include an emphasis on health and wellness and fresh and high-quality ingredients, while frozen food has suffered from a reputation for high calories and sodium.

“Now there’s packaging that points out protein benefits and fiber benefits -- there’s much more on the health and weight management side, which is where companies have gotten into trouble,” Weissman said. “And there are some that target the home-style, more indulgent-type meals. The biggest thing they’re trying to do is show that it’s real food, and just because it’s frozen doesn’t mean that it can’t be good for you.” 

Kraft Heinz Co. is jumping on the aforementioned comfort food trend with a new line called Devour, which markets rich, convenient meals to young men -- complete with raunchy commercials and hashtags. Devour has products such as Cheese Ravioli with Sun-Dried Tomato Cream Sauce and White Cheddar Mac & Cheese with Bacon. 

Many other frozen food brands have repackaged themselves with items printed in chalkboard cursive font and foodie buzzwords, like Lean Cuisine’s Marketplace collection, and stores like Whole Foods (WFM) carry niche brands like Evol that offer “healthy” frozen food.

Weissman said the “healthy” label is quite flexible.

“It’s different for different people,” she explained. “For some people, it’s simpler ingredients and for some, that’s fruits and vegetables. For some people it’s natural and organic. It doesn’t have to be ‘health’ -- it needs to feel like it fits whatever their personal definition of health and wellness is.” 

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