The overall prepared foods market has been growing in popularity the past several years. Besides shelf stable options that you would prepare at home, heat-and-eat options are readily available at grocery stores, and the meal kit industry (also called cook-and-eat) is booming. As the COVID-19 pandemic shifted how people shop and eat, the prepared foods industry has seen a spike in demand, while also being affected by labor shortages and supply chain issues.
Of all the prepared foods, the meal kit industry has become part of many families’ lifestyles these past few years. Typically, meal kits are purchased through an online subscription, offering cook-and-eat meals. A few brands have made their way to the grocery store aisles with kits to bring home and make as well. Essentially subscribers are able to shop for meals rather than shop for ingredients. The meal kit industry has filled the need for healthy and convenient meals for working professionals and busy families. The main demographic for meal kits are those who want a healthy, quick meal and do not mind minimal preparation. What once was a new industry now has a variety of competitors, and recipes, to offer interested parties.
As the COVID-19 pandemic set in, consumers tried to stay away from the grocery stores, worried that transmission can occur there. People were visiting restaurants less, but they found themselves not wanting to cook every night. These meals allow a healthy alternative to eating out while also saving time that they want to spend with their family or doing other activities. Even better – they don’t have to leave their houses.
Meal kit manufacturers now face challenges in their processing and production lines due to the exponential growth. Many manufacturers began their operations with minimal automated equipment and rely heavily on employees to prepare the meals. Keep in mind – many of these meal kits are fairly sophisticated when it comes to the ingredients that are included. A variety of processing equipment must be utilized for each meal, ranging from cooking, frying, grinding, mixing, heating, extracting, and packaging, to name a few.
As the meal kit market continues to grow, companies are encountering problems to attempt to keep up with demand while also keeping their workforce safe. The labor shortage issue that is across many industries has not skipped over the meal kit manufacturers. With the employees they do have, manufacturers are learning that workstations need to be separated to promote a healthier work environment. The pandemic has also caused manufacturers to rethink how workers’ interaction with raw or cooked foods should be limited, especially during the kitting or packaging step of the process.
Evaluating the plant layout and process equipment used can help streamline production lines and increase efficiency. Production efficiency, such as reducing product waste and utilizing raw materials to their full potential, is critical to keep up with supply chain shortages and price increases.
Automation is key, especially in times when there is a drastic need to reduce the number of employees, not necessarily because of cost but because the lack of availability. Automatic machinery can help simplify the process, decrease processing time, reduce labor cost, and increase production accuracy. Pre-measured and prepped ingredients that go into these kits go through intensive food processing steps at the facility that are labor intensive. Even reducing a few steps with automation can lead to time and cost savings.
With demand for these meals projected to grow even more in the coming years, it is an ideal time to evaluate the process and upgrade your facility that will only help production in the future.