Streamlining Microwave Packaging

By Sandy Parlin

Hurried consumers want convenience, simplicity, speed, and quality in heat-and-eat entreés. And no mess, please!

Suppliers participating in this feature include:
• Associated Packaging Technologies, phone (561) 746-2414, fax (561) 746-2414, e-mail, or log on to
• Cryovac/Sealed Air Corp., phone (864) 433-2000 or (800) 845-7551,
fax (864) 433-2134, e-mail, or log on to
With the economy capricious and everyone pressed for time, suppliers seek ways to improve heat-and-eat technology. Time-starved consumers want packaging that improves preparation and cleanup and adds simplicity to heat-and-eat entrées. That means products designed for one-handed opening, quick heating, and no-spill disposal.
Consumers want to avoid slitting or puncturing plastic covers and other activities that require time, implements, and decisions. (Do I need a paring knife or a scissors? How hot is this container? Will it leak in the microwave or on the trip to the table or trash?).
Associated Packaging Technologies, based in Jupiter, FL, provides packaging for microwavable meals. John L. Giordani, vice president of sales, marketing and technical sales in Exton, PA, for Associated Packaging, says the current trend in heat-and-eat entrées is toward improved meal quality and faster delivery to the consumer’s table. He attributes this to the continued expansion of two-income families, workforce reduction, and people working longer hours. Giordani notes that Nestle, ConAgra, and Pinnacle use proprietary crystalline polyethylene terephthalate (CPET) trays supplied by APT for entrées that can be consumed right from the packaging.
At Cryovac Food Packaging Division, Sealed Air Corp. in Duncan, SC, Jay Wilson, marketing director for Smoked & Processed Meats, also sees consumers’ needs for convenience, preparation, and cleanup because of their busy lives. He hasn’t seen much recent change in this area.
Sealed Air Corp., based in Saddle Brook, NJ, is a leading global manufacturer of a wide range of protective, presentation, and fresh-foods packaging materials and systems. Cryovac/ Sealed Air developed a revolutionary heat-and-serve package to give consumers convenience without compromising quality. Unlike other heat-and-serve formats that can require handling and cutting open a hot and steamy package, Cryovac® Simple Steps™ heat-and-serve package permits customers to complete product preparation in three simple steps: They remove the tray from its outer packaging, heat for the designated time (usually about four minutes) and let cool, pull the easy-open tab to remove the film, and serve. Simple Steps eliminates the need to puncture ventilation holes in the package before heating. Instead, the ­vacuum-skin film “tents up” as the product reheats, then self-vents and relaxes over the food. The “stay cool” side handle reduces the risk of burns or spills as the tray is removed from the microwave.
Focus group re-search conducted by Cryovac indicates consumers like the faster, easier, and cleaner cooking process afforded by Simple Steps, especially the ease of handling after the product is heated. The focus group participants observed that there was no steam coming out of the package when they peeled back the film after heating. “It’s not going to burn your hands,” stated a participant.
Focus-group members also indicated that entrées packaged in Simple Steps are much easier to prepare and create less mess while preparing. “I like the fact that you don’t have to deal with opening packages and making a mess. You just peel the film back after heating and you’re done,” observed another participant.
With Simple Steps, ­center-of-the-plate entrées can be fully cooked, distributed, and sold in the same package. The cook-in technology is more efficient for processors and gives consumers a high-quality product that has undergone minimal handling. The ­vacuum-skin film contours to the product, giving the food its most appetizing presentation and making it easier for shoppers to identify their dinnertime selection. It also keeps meat looking juicy and fresh, and it enables the product to be frozen in its original packaging and reheated later. The product’s total seal helps to keep food stationary in the tray, and its large seal area reduces the risk of burns or spills as the tray is removed from the microwave. The seal area also reduces leaks, so shrinkage is of less concern to retailers.
For the future, Wilson expects to see more versatility in the packaging of heat-and-eat entrées, trending toward more dual ’ovenability.’ “Appliances may drive changes … that might affect package design,” he states.
Topps Meat Co. in Elizabeth, NJ, manufacturer of the nation’s ­number-one-selling selling frozen Pure Ground Beef Hamburgers, has modernized the graphics on all retail packaging while maintaining its popular, quickly recognizable brand look. The new packaging accentuates new product photos with the use of shaded graphics, making them an integral part of the design. The new subtly textured wallpaper background and bright yellow border tie the elements together, creating an inviting, up-to-date look for Topps Meat Co. A national rollout is planned with the new packaging.
Sporting the new packaging are two reformulated products: Marinated Sirloin Beef Kabobs and Marinated Chicken Kabobs. The kabobs are individually quick frozen, then vacuum packed with a skin-tight protective film. This gives the products a superior layer of protection from freezer burn or discoloration.
Huston Keith, principal of Keymark Associates in Marietta GA, states that recent trends in heat-and-eat entrée packaging include CPET and polypropylene (PP) microwavable trays and release/venting lidding films. He notes that Smithfield’s Simple Steps with Cryovac materials won packaging awards. Browning/ crisping microwave susceptor films cover handheld items, including burritos, pizza rolls, and breakfast items such as Hot Pockets. Retort pouch entrées and sides wraps used by Uncle Ben’s, Zatarain’s, Sweet Sue meats, and Rip-N-Ready make “home- cooked” meals in minutes.
“Eating on the run while driving or shopping, multitasking, having no time to cook, and [dealing with] divergent family schedules preclude set mealtimes,” says Keith. “One- and two-person households make full meal preparation impractical.”
These issues combine to inspire the development of new packaging devices that streamline getting a meal on the table.
Keith says these trends have been in place for the past 10 years. “Delayed marriages, smaller families, and high divorce rates have diminished the dominance of the traditional two-parent nuclear family,” he explains, adding, “Even these families have busy schedules with lots of child-based activities.”
Keith believes that handheld entrées will transition from frozen to retort pouches as microwavable films become available. He notes that more products such as Hot Pockets can be eaten right from their packages.
Sandy Parlin is a freelance writer in the Chicago area.