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Upward momentum continues in the ready-to-eat category, with industry researcher IBISWorld reporting that revenue grew by three per cent in 2015-16, to reach around $900 million.

The growth of this category will continue, it predicts, at an annualised 2.7 per cent over the five years through 2020-21, to total $1 billion.

Consumer demand for convenient and competitively priced goods which help them save time has been, and will continue to be, the driving force behind growth in the prepared meals sector, according to the researcher, especially in the healthier-for-you, diet and premium segments.

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These segments have helped boost the industry’s appeal, and resulted in a growing niches such as in low-fat prepared meals and high-value, pre-cooked and pre-marinated meat varieties.

Tough competition remains, however from substitute products such as takeaway foods and fast-food restaurants, according to IBISWorld.

In addition, the increasing prevalence of private labels has hurt some industry operators, which find it difficult to compete with similar products launched by supermarket chains such as Coles and Woolworths.

However, continuing demand from time-poor consumers is expected to buoy the industry, and manufacturers are in turn tweaking their offerings to appeal to new niches.

IBISWorld predicts that as a result, we will continue to see increasing product sophistication in Australia, with high-value prepared meals tasting better, costing less and becoming even easier to prepare.

Large industry operators are likely to continue building economies of scale, while smaller industry operators are expected to continue specialising in niche products, particularly special dietary prepared meals and premium meals.

Here are some of the predominant trends.

Healthy choice

With nutritional meals a growing priority for Australians, many companies are providing calorie-controlled food that is either ready-made or in the form of a meal kit.

Caveman Kitchen, for instance, is a Brisbane-based ready-made meal delivery service helping consumers with their fitness.

The philosophy behind its meal plans, it says are to: “eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar.

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Keep intake to levels that will support exercise, but not body fat.”

Caveman Kitchen also serves up whole and unprocessed foods with no preservatives.

Operating out of the Gold Coast is Lean Meals, which caters for sportspeople and elite athletes, as well as busy people wanting healthier meals. It delivers to Southeast Queensland and Byron Bay.

At a premium

Demand has also increased for home-delivered meals that are well-balanced and prepared by chefs – or portioned out with recipes attached for consumers to cook at home.

Hello Fresh, Marley Spoon, Thomas Farms Kitchen, and MyFoodBag are among those operating in the budding meal solutions category.

The premise behind the movement is that by packaging up fresh, premium ingredients in the right quantities, and the right time, with a recipe, everyday consumers can cook restaurant-quality meals themselves, rather than heating up something pre-prepared or frozen.

Fresh Meals 2 U is a Gold Coast business that’s providing traditional frozen meal of a “restaurant quality and taste” without the use of preservative or additives.

Along a similar vein is Gourmet Meals, a company that delivers diet-focused, individually portion-controlled frozen meals which are also found in IGA and Foodworks.

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Global influence

Looking forward, diversity is expected to abound, with gluten-free, vegan and non-dairy meal options, Halal-certified, Kosher-certified, organic, and functional offerings coming down the line.

The introduction of exotic new flavours from around the globe is another strong trend, especially in the meal kit category.

From the traditional frozen Italian-style pasta meals to ‘add-meat’ sauces in shelf-stable retort pouches, options now include Pad Thai curries and Vietnamese lemongrass chicken varieties, and this growing demand for authentic global cuisine also looks set to expand the range of fresh meal offerings.

On trend cuisines, according to the 2016 McCormick Flavour Forecast, are flavours from two spots in Southeast Asia – Malaysia and the Philippines − which offer distinctive ingredients and signature recipes like Rendang Curry and Pinoy BBQ respectively.

Australian manufacturers will also increasingly look to Asia as a new market for their ready meal offerings, tweaked to suit local tastes and textures, and trading on their reputation for innovative and reliable high-quality ‘clean and green’ processed food.