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Food retailers come together at the dinner table during FMI Connect

FMI President and CEO Leslie Sarasin presents her keynote at FMI Connect

From technology to fresh foods to branding strategy, Food Marketing Institute‘s FMI Connect had food retailers buzzing about industry hot topics. Among those topics was a focus on meals, which was a theme carried through keynote addresses, education sessions and the show floor.

At the center of the focus on meals at FMI Connect was FMI’s upcoming National Family Meals Month initiative, which will take place in September and employ retailers to help with the goal of getting families to share one more meal per week at home with food from home eaten together, FMI President and CEO Leslie Sarasin said during her keynote on Wednesday. According to recent research she presented, there have been major demographic, economic and culture shifts that have all led to significant changes in what American households look like.

“The concept of the family has shifted,” Sarasin said. “We have to broaden the scope of what we as an industry imagine a family to be.”

For example, there are fewer households with children now, and more households of one. And the American population has shifted into what Sarasin called a “shared shopper paradigm” in which household members are sharing more of the grocery shopping responsibility.

The grilling category has also seen some significant shifts recently, Ed Hernandez, marketing manager for McCormick’s Grill Mates, said during a session at the Fresh Pavillion on the show floor.

According to Hernandez, shoppers have not only shifted to sharing responsibilities for grilling, but they are also turning to produce and different proteins like ground beef and poultry when they make plans for grilled meals. To take advantage of this, retailers can simplify shoppers’ grilling choices and purchases by creating grilling centers that feature special displays and end caps within their stores that prompt the shoppers to create a whole meal on the grill.

Some examples Hernandez gave of what successful retail efforts in this category might look like include putting a Grill Mates display near the corn in the produce section to encourage shoppers to consider jazzing up their grilled corn on the cob, or shifting the positioning of McCormick products within stores so that when shoppers who pick up the McCormick products run right into the ground beef or poultry section.

When appealing to shoppers’ tastes for grilled meals, Hernandez said retailers should take advantage of grillers’ desire to explore new flavors.

“New products, new ideas are really how to stoke interest in this space,” he said.

The mascot for National Family Meals Month watches a demonstration on the show floor at FMI Connect

In particular, Sarasin said during her keynote that today’s multiperson households need help with things like food planning, list making and developing overall food strategies, which are all things they would be willing to turn to retailers for. And retailers, in turn, can help shoppers make healthier fresh food choices, especially through initiatives like National Family Meals Month. Sarasin pointed out that kids who participate in family mealtime are more likely to report having better relationships with their parents and to eat healthier, and they are less likely to be overweight, have eating disorders or participate in dangerous behavior. She also talked about the health benefits of family mealtime, as eating at home is healthier than eating out, and consumers said in the research Sarasin presented that support from family members is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

“Regardless of the shape of your family, there are benefits to family meals,” she said.

Allison Liefer, director of foundation relationships for the nonprofit Common Threads, also talked about the power of family meals at the Health and Wellness Pavilion on the show floor. Through its programs that include after-school cooking programs, teacher trainings and parent workshops, Common Threads aims to end childhood obesity by teaching kids what to cook and how to cook.

According to Liefer, cooking is a key life skill and the hands-on experience that Common Threads provides makes kids more likely to try and eat healthy foods, and it also makes kids excited about cooking both at school and after they leave the program and are at home in the kitchen with their parents. Kids who participate in Common Threads are more likely to ask their parents to buy the foods they work with through the after-school program and they are more likely to want to grocery shop with their parents, the organization’s research has shown.

“We connect the kids to themselves…we connect the kids with their peers…and we connect the kids with their parents and communities,” Liefer said.

At ShopRite and Price Rite parent Wakefern Food Corporation, Retail Dietitian Supervisor Melanie Dwornik and Manager of Health and Wellness Natalie Menza talked about how the retailer helps influence consumers’ meal choices through its dietitian program. Through the program’s efforts targeting kids, Wakefern’s dietitians encourage trying new foods and helping with meal prep at home. And through the program’s culinary nutrition efforts, dietitians host in-store workshops and demonstrations to encourage shoppers to cook healthy meals at home, Dwornik said during a session in the show floor’s Learning Lounge.

Wakefern’s dietitians communicate with their customers through print and digital media, as well as in person, and one of their priorities is to give shoppers new food ideas on a regular basis, Menza said.

“The easier you make it for customers, the more likely they are to take your recommendations,” she said.

For Menza, one of the most important things is for retail dietitians to know the stores and the customers so they can “connect the dots” and really encourage healthy meal choices.

As Sarasin pointed out in her keynote, putting a bigger emphasis on meals also allows retailers to appeal to consumers who are increasingly seeking convenience. Ready-to-eat foods and meal preparation kits present opportunities for retailers to position themselves as a healthier alternative to quickservice takeout, especially if they use all eating occasions, including breakfast, to try to draw consumers in.

“The first step is committing to the concept,” Sarasin said. “Clearly in this case the real money is there.”

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