A selection of Amy's frozen burritos on a wooden plate

Changing Families, Changing Freezers

How shifts in household structure are focusing attention on handheld frozen options

American households are changing—and so is their approach to shopping the frozen aisle. How so? Nontraditional families and “live-alones” are making jumbo-sized frozen SKUs less relevant than handheld options that let consumers savor global flavors in fun, single-serving form. So retailers take note: Changing times mean changing your freezer mix!

The American family sure doesn’t look like it used to. Case in point: The share of one-person households more than doubled from 13% in 1960 to 28% in 2020, according to a report from the Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

And when you account for how younger Americans are redefining what constitutes a “household,” the changing face of the family comes into even starker focus. Consider that among households headed by adults younger than 25, fully 33% consist of unrelated roommates—not blood relatives—while an additional 28% of under-25 householders live alone.

So it should come as no surprise that when these “fluid” families steer their shopping carts to the freezer aisle, they’re not looking for extra-large lasagnas or a stack of T.V. dinners tall enough to feed a family of six. (Although they are still looking for ice cream.)

Rather, contemporary households are in the market for handheld frozen foods that deliver single-servings of convenience and snackability. And if those snacky selections can sport a global culinary pedigree and recognizable, “clean” ingredients, too—does a bean-and-cheese burrito really need microcrystalline cellulose anyway?—more’s the better.

So the message to retailers is this: Just like the American family, your frozen-food selection is due for an update.

Owning optionality

It’s difficult to overstate how much American family dynamics are evolving. And it’s equally difficult to overstate the role that younger generations play in this evolution.

Millennials and Gen Zers aren’t like their forebears. Even as they age, have children and build families of their own, they maintain their inimitable capacity to “disrupt”—a capacity that applies as much to how they shop for groceries as it does to how they communicate, consume media and approach the world around them.

“These younger consumers really are rewriting the rulebook,” says, Karen Jobb, Chief Customer and Consumer Officer at Amy’s Kitchen. “They’ve grown up expecting—and receiving—‘optionality’ everywhere, especially in the supermarket. So if you offer them three flavors of something, I can promise you that won’t be enough.”

And why should it? Given their lifelong immersion in cultural and commercial diversity, younger consumers don’t have to settle for the factory model, so to speak. And they know how to locate alternatives when a first choice falls short.

“The upshot,” Karen concludes, “is that their maturation as consumers just amplifies their spending power. So it’s important for brands and retailers to understand inside and out what makes them such a force for change in the supermarket, and beyond.”

From sit-down to snacks

But Millennial and Gen Z consumers aren’t the only forces changing how American families eat and shop. The events of the past few years also amplified an evolution that was already moving toward less structured, more snack-centered eating.

“During the pandemic, it was sometimes hard to tell what time of day it was,” Karen observes. “And obviously, the eat-at-home occasion became much more prevalent. So with pandemic-related habits and disrupted schedules likely to stick around in the ‘new’ normal, consumers will be looking for quick, convenient at-home solutions that they can feel good about eating.”

Ritu Mathur, VP of Marketing at Amy’s Kitchen, agrees, adding that the trend merely underscores the fact that we’re officially living in the era of the snack.

“The pandemic’s changed the way people eat in so many ways,” Ritu says, “and one way we’ve noticed is the blurring of boundaries between mealtime and snacking, especially among younger consumers.”

Whether it’s thanks to shifting schedules, cooking fatigue or the relentless pursuit of variety, “The result is that easy-to-eat snacks, like frozen burritos and wraps, are getting a real boost.”

Snackable options also offer a “commitment-lite” vehicle for satisfying younger consumers’ appetites for global flavor exploration, Jobb adds. “So by making sure the freezer case also carries handheld SKUs with bold flavors and international roots, retailers can keep Millennial and Gen Z shoppers coming back to the frozen aisle.”

Frozen on fire

And coming back to the frozen aisle is exactly what they’ve been doing. “The frozen category is on fire,” Jobb says, “and frozen snacks are helping fuel that growth.”

All of which is another reminder that COVID-19 reawakened consumers to the freezer case—a renaissance that Amy’s sees as a cross-section of two trends.

One centers on the innovation and improvement within the category itself, where SKUs are increasingly sophisticated, culinary-driven and formulated “with higher-quality, ‘real’ ingredients,” Jobb says.

“And the other trend,” Jobb continues, “is that consumers especially in these younger demographics demand convenience—but not at the expense of quality or flavor. Just because they may not be dining out as much as they used to doesn’t mean they don’t crave the adventure of trying something new, like a global street snack. The way we see it, a strategically built freezer mix can provide that adventure.”

Values proposition

A strategically built freezer mix will also provide products that reflect younger households’ values around real, organic, sustainable and often plant-based ingredients.

“In the frozen section, ingredients are really important,” says Ritu Mathur. “And savvy consumers are doing their research and asking questions to understand what they’re getting.”

“We see this a lot with plant-based products,” Ritu continues, “where consumers are reading labels on more recent innovations and questioning what’s in there, why it’s in there and what kind of processing it went through.”

After all, frozen snacks don’t need extensive processing or ingredient-based preservation and stabilization—because freezing preserves and stabilizes the product itself.

“So by filling products with all those ingredients, a brand is essentially cutting corners and saving costs,” Ritu says. “And consumers know that. That’s why we’ve always gone a different route at Amy’s. We make our foods the way consumers would. We cook them with real ingredients and then pop them in the freezer. The only real difference is that we do it on a larger scale.”

And if such products cost a little more, so be it. Studies show that younger consumers put their grocery budgets where their values are. “Nine in 10 Gen Z consumers would switch brands associated with an important cause,” Mathur says, “and 73% percent of Gen Zers would pay more for sustainable items. So we’re seeing the data to back that up.”

Families of the future

That spells an opportunity retailers can ill-afford to miss. In fact, Karen says, “Retailers have a huge opportunity now that there’s more traffic in the frozen aisle than possibly ever—and consumers are repeating purchases.”

By increasing variety, tapping into global influences, keeping labels clean and delivering it all in a no-stress, handheld package, “Retailers play into just what consumers are looking for across the store—while playing to the freezer section’s advantage, and that’s smart both now and for the future.”