Recent research confirms a deepening trend in consumer behavior regarding food purchases: convenience of meal preparation has become one of the most important considerations for grocery shoppers. One way in which this demand has manifested itself in shopping habits is emphasis by consumers on buying items that save them time in the kitchen.

This should hardly come as a surprise, with working families increasingly on-the-go. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the average American worker spends approximately 50 minutes per day in the roundtrip work commute. That number rises to nearly 70 minutes for major population centers such as New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. Compare this with the average of around 40 minutes most Americans spend preparing the family meal, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. With more time dedicated to getting to work and returning home than to cooking, it’s no wonder convenience of meal preparation is so top of mind for shoppers.

The annual Power of Meat study, published by the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute and funded by Sealed Air’s Cryovac® Food Packaging Division, shows meals that can be prepared in under 20 minutes have gained significantly in popularity during the past five years. This is particularly true for shoppers in the 18-25 age range and those 65 and older, as well as higher income shoppers (those earning more than $100,000 in household income). One-pot meals and complete meal solutions are other categories consumers now utilize more frequently than five years ago.

How can food manufacturers and marketers rise to the challenge of providing grocery items that reduce the amount of time consumers spend in the home kitchen? Some answers can be found in packaging innovations for meat and other food items. Items pre-seasoned or pre-marinated and packaged in material that can go from the freezer or refrigerator straight into the oven are gaining in popularity. Such packaging enables processors to ensure consistency of flavor, and saves consumers time for both preparation and cleanup, as simple cooking instructions can be printed onto packaging labels and consumers avoid using multiple packages or cleaning up cookware after the meal. Packaging advancements that enable combination of proteins, marinades/sauces and vegetables or other side dishes within one easy to prepare and clean up package give consumers more opportunities to enjoy flavorful homemade meals without the investment of time scratch cooking requires.

Pre-portioned meal solutions are popular not only because today’s consumers recognize the health benefits of portion control, but also because these products save health-conscious consumers the time otherwise spent determining proper portions by weighing, measuring, trimming and other methods. Microwaveable packaging for heat and eat meals also is gaining momentum, particularly as packaging innovations improve processors’ ability to provide on-the-go consumers truly gourmet foods with more appealing appearance and presentation.

Yet another way in which packaging can impact food preparation for time-crunched consumers is by simplifying or even eliminating the learning curve for inexperienced home cooks. People unfamiliar with cooking techniques and without the time to research recipes and develop understanding of how to prepare different types of food can benefit from pre-prepared, pre-portioned gourmet food in packaging that goes straight from the refrigerator or freezer to the microwave or conventional oven. Such packaging almost always includes precise heating or cooking instructions, as well, making it easier and less time-consuming for consumers to prepare a variety of meals.

Of course packaging must continue to perform its primary function of protecting food products during transportation and storage, but with time savings of such utmost importance to consumers, adopting packaging that offers product protectionAND shaves precious minutes off meal preparation and cleanup is a consideration that cannot be ignored.