The traditional role of meat as a center-of-the-plate entrée may be changing. That is not necessarily a bad thing either, as long as processors continue to evolve to meet the needs of consumers. Younger shoppers who want something more than a 14-ounce steak for dinner can still get their meat intake by utilizing meat as an ingredient.

“Trends indicate that consumers, particularly younger generations, are looking for more variety, eating more often during the course of the day but with smaller serving sizes, and are looking for foods that provide the right nutritional value that they can incorporate easily into these new eating plans,” says Michael Uetz, principal at Midan Marketing. “Ingredient use of fresh meat protein is an area that we as an industry need to be focused on.”

The meat-as-ingredient trend is strongest among younger shoppers for a couple of reasons. First, Millennial and Gen Z consumers look for more variety in their meals. Secondly, the high price of some proteins like beef creates an opportunity to offer consumers a cheaper way to include them in a meal by reducing the portion size. Additionally, people who identify as “flexitarians” prefer to get their protein intake from a variety of sources.

“If we hope to attract them to fresh meat proteins, we need to provide them with ideas of how to incorporate fresh meat items in their meal planning as an ingredient item,” Uetz adds.

According to Mintel data from last year, 75 percent of consumers say they’ve tried to incorporate more protein into meals or are interested in doing so, but 58 percent also said they’re actively trying to eat less meat. This indicates a chance for vegetable forms of protein to gain share and a need for fresh meat to highlight the quality of its protein.

What will the future of portion sizes look like for the meat industry? Steve Hixon, Strategy and Business Services Director for Midan Marketing, says that mainstream 4, 6 and 8-ounce portion steaks from various protein segments can and will continue to be a consistent volume category. Additionally, beef and poultry will continue to be sliced and portioned for sandwiches, wraps and more.

“However, processors need to identify new opportunities either using current equipment or new equipment to win flexitarian and meat dominate diets,” Hixon points out. “Snack size portions has been a growing trend over the last three years or so and will only continue to increase in demand.”

Hixon points to the growth of the meat snack category as one way that consumers are including more protein in their diets through smaller portions of meat, in the form of jerky or snack mixes.

“Just when you thought the category was saturated, more options were launched from boutique grass-fed, organic beef to bison,” he says.

While the portion size of the meat may be shrinking, the good news is that consumers still want to include protein in their meals.

“We need to suggest and/or provide smaller portioned fresh meat offerings, either raw or fully cooked, in the meat case,” Uetz explains. “Suggestions on how to cook, cut up and use different cuts for different meat use will encourage shoppers to use fresh meats. Offering cuts of fresh protein in strips, cubes, grinds, etc. will provide cooking and menu ideas for consumers who are looking to enhance smaller portioned meal options with fresh meat protein for flavor and nutritional value.”