Steve Smitha and daughter Emma were shopping in the produce section at Kroger last week for their favorite side dish to go with shrimp on the grill. Smitha picked up a bag of fresh broccoli and cauliflower florets, ready to microwave in 3½ minutes.
Smitha chose the packaged vegetables because: "It's easy to fix and healthy. She likes cauliflower and the other two children like broccoli," Smitha said. "There's no boiling water and cooking on the stove."
Smitha joins the growing number of shoppers who grab packaged vegetables in the produce section that are chopped, and sometimes already seasoned, to help get dinner on the table in a hurry.
Kathy Means, vice president of industry relations for the Produce Marketing Association, said that area in the supermarket continues to grow. "We know that consumers value convenience — whether it's to help them prepare their own recipes, such as fresh-cut onions to use in a recipe, or, increasingly, to help them assemble meals quickly at home," Means said.
"Just as food suppliers and retailers have convenience main dishes (rotisserie chickens, heat-and-serve meat items), we are seeing a strong interest in fresh, convenient sides dishes," she said. "This makes meal prep easy and it allows spur-of-the-moment meal 'planning' while shopping."
Grab-and-go fresh-cut produce is an important component of the convenience trend, and consumers are demanding single-serve packaging and sizes.
The produce section has a variety of single-ingredient items, such as green beans, and multi-ingredient items, such as a fajita mix that has yellow onions and green and red bell peppers, and a broccoli medley that also has zucchini and yellow squash in the bag. Some packages also contain a sauce or fresh herbs.
Kroger has stocked grab-and-go ready-to-eat or cook vegetables for about a year and a half, said Tim McGurk, public affairs manager for Kroger's Louisville division.
The Garden Highway brand is produced overnight in a plant in Indianapolis and shipped immediately. "We get it a day after it's packaged," said Jeff Disponette, manager of the Kroger in Beaumont Centre.
"The packaging is getting ready to change in about a month to what we call clamshells," Disponette said. They're resealable and more friendly to the consumer."
Other supermarkets such as Meijer carry similar fresh cut vegetables, along with the Green Giant Fresh line which offers side dish-type packages of sweet carrot slaw and tri-color slaws which are combinations of cabbage and other vegetables.
The top-selling produce at Meijer last year was kale, said Meijer's national produce buyer, Scott Calandra.
Even though kale is packed with nutrients, most of us don't like the task of washing and trimming and cooking. Buying it fresh and chopped in a package that's microwaveable is a plus for any cook.
Health-conscious shoppers also are looking in the produce aisles for fresh-cut veggies for snacks. Packs of carrots, celery, broccoli, and grape tomatoes, once considered only for party trays, now are available in smaller packs for snacking.
"It's all about convenience," McGurk said.
Less time spent washing, trimming, and chopping kale, broccoli and cabbage, allows busy cooks more time for other, more fun, things to do.