With this article I intend to detail some designs as alternatives for vending machines, as I promised in my previous article. But there is a second outlet for which these designs are a perfect fit.
In more and more urban areas you see companies with an industrial kitchen preparing daily meals for customers somewhere in the town. They deliver the meals according to instructions and the customer only has to put the complete meal in a microwave.
Targeting the affluent busy health-conscious and calorie-counting careerists with no time for cooking, these companies launch their premium ready meals in a packaging that enables the food to be prepared, blast-chilled to preserve flavour and quality, shipped, and at the customer’s heated in and consumed from the same packaging.
In other words they are not interested in the consumer looking for a quick simple meal or snack on-the-go. Their target is the affluent customer returning home from a busy working day and expecting to find a ready-to-eat, freshly-prepared healthy complete meal including a salad and a protein shot at his doorstep, just for him/her to put in the microwave and enjoy.
Like selling healthy and freshly prepared meals via vending machines, it’s obvious that this segment of the food industry requires special packaging technologies and design structures. Not only is convenience the important requirement of the customer, but the meal has to be packaged in such a way that it stays fresh, and maintains its texture and flavour during the day from the moment it is prepared by the chefs of the company till the moment the customer, when returned home, sees fit to put it in the microwave.
For the company it is of utmost importance that the complete meal with all its different parts and side-dishes can be supplied in just one packaging. This also is of importance to the customer, as he wants to put just one packaging in the microwave without much hassle, even so, without having to remove any outer packaging (if any is used) and place the packaging the way he received it in the microwave. There is a little problem here. A recent market survey pointed out that the Millennium and beyond (the so called Z-Gen) prefers the conventional oven instead of the microwave. Consequently the packaging has to be able to face the microwave as well as the conventional oven.
So, this is what we are looking for. There are a lot more requirements from both parties and not all alternatives I give here are always fulfilling satisfactory, but you must see the samples I give as basics, which needs personal adjustments and improvements. See it as a starting point from which you can, by making combinations of various packaging designs, come up with the perfect one fitting the requirements of your company and your customers.
It’s worth a while to take it a step further and also make the packaging suitable for vending machines. I know it has to be a special vending machine (chilled) and depending where it is situated, it might need to incorporate a microwave, like the baguettes machines in France. This type of future vending machine is targeting the high-end consumer looking for a high-quality, freshly-prepared meal and doesn’t care for the cheap mini-meals and snacks.
I selected some examples which might be perfect points-of-departure.
All the same, in general, air travellers complain about the quality of the food during a flight, the fact is that the airline industry is a good example of efficient packaging of meals. The first example here is from Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). In this article I included two slide shows with inflight meals. Of course this article is not about the quality of the inflight food, but about the packaging the airliners are using. It’s clear that here in this market segment a lot of improvement in packaging can be achieved. Maybe I will spend another article discussing the packaging of inflight meals. At this moment we talk about packaging for home-delivered high-quality meals and freshly prepared ready-to-eat meals for vending machines.
The typical requirements for inflight meals are very similar to the ones for vending machines or the distribution of exclusive meals. It has to be easy to use, has a low weight and presents the food in an elegant way. The colour, the surface coating and the feel of the material have to match the visual impact of quality, freshness and healthy. And importantly the food has to be covered by a transparent film that captures a minimum of condensation in order to create the best possible visual impression of the food and the film has to withstand the heat in the microwave or oven. I will explain that in a minute.
And of course it must preserve the intentions of the kitchen chefs up until the food is consumed.
To meet its requirements SAS introduced sturdy folding boxes for its inflight meals. The new food box is made of Incada folding paperboard from Iggesund Paperboard. SAS chose Incada, because of its stiffness and the option to coat the inside with a barrier of black-dyed polyethylene.
The packaging was developed by Elanders, which previously developed compostable packaging for Malmö Aviation that was far lighter in weight.
The food packaging is now being used for evening meals for passengers in SAS Plus (premium economy) on almost all routes outside the Nordic region.
When you look at this packaging carefully, you have to conclude that it is much more efficient and attractive than the plastic jars from the Farmers’ Fridge vending machines, we saw in my previous article. Furthermore this folding box has the advantage that several (side-) dishes can be presented in just one packaging.
Putting several dishes from salads to meat, fish or chicken alongside vegetables and maybe even a dessert in one (overall) packaging and expecting the consumer to put it in its entirety in the microwave or conventional oven, requires a range of special measurements in the choice of packaging material as well as separation. But it can be done. It is feasible that a fresh salad goes into the microwave alongside the protein parts and the to-be-cooked vegetables and returns to the table still fresh and cool.
Let’s have a look at that technology. The CuliDish design allows simultaneous microwave heating of food that requires high heat and food that does not (such as salads) in the same tray. Some time ago I wrote about this technology (see here), that has the extraordinary property of being able to control the amount of microwave energy that can reach the different meal components, as a result of which it is possible to prepare salads, vegetables, sauces and meat/fish in the microwave at the same time, on a single dish, bringing each component to exactly the desired temperature.
The control over the microwaves is achieved by means of shielding technology. During the production process (injection moulded/in-mould labelling) a specially engineered label is incorporated into the wall of the food packaging containers. Shieltronics Meta-Grid flexible multi-layer foils then control the microwave energy intensity explicitly per compartment (0 – 100%), ensuring that each meal component will reach its own optimal temperature.
It’s clear that this system has many advantages for ready-to-eat meals with a variety of dishes. When each dish is stored in small trays, following a modular design system each dish meets the requirement of individual heating. Now the only problem left is the film that has to cover the assembly of small trays. This is of utmost importance as the perforation pattern of the film decides the level of heating of the underlying dish in the microwave.
After all we are proposing a modular multi-tray assembly, of which each and every injection-moulded PP-tray is filled with either vegetables, raw or partially cooked fish, chicken, or meat, a fresh green salad and maybe even a dessert. As a cluster they need to be covered by a lidding film that is necessarily laser perforated in accordance to the microwave heat to be needed for the prepared product in each (small) compartment.
Furthermore it is feasible that at least the protein compartment has to be evacuated and back-flushed with a gas mix that prolongs refrigerated shelf life.
The laser perforated lidding film is then covering all of the assembled trays and heat sealed on the rims of each tray.
To conclude the process pressure-sensitive labels about 10 mm in diameter probably have to be applied over one perforation of the vegetable compartment and over the perforation of the protein compartment. These labels function as valves and open slightly to release some of the internal pressure that builds up when the consumer heats the meal in the microwave oven. The valve on the protein compartment also ensures that the modified atmosphere environment is maintained.
Of the vegetable compartment not all perforations are covered, at least one remains uncovered, to allow the fresh vegetables to respire (oxygen in, carbon dioxide out). Without this controlled exchange of gases, the vegetables would spoil fast.
This technology lets dissimilar foods requiring very different cooking times in a single package that can be conveniently cooked in the microwave without requiring the consumer to cook them separately.
So, we have a cluster of trays with a variety of products which together form a complete meal. For the vending machine the cluster has to have an attractive and inviting presentation in some sort of (secondary) packaging. The offering has to appeal as much to the eye as to the palate. This is also the case with the companies which supply a complete meal to the home of their customers, as it is to be expected that their customers require the convenience to put the meal, as they receive it, in the microwave.
There are some beautiful examples for this goal.
Of course the first example is the SAS box I wrote about in the beginning of this article. It can be made a perfect fit for a cluster of trays in a vending machine and is easy to handle in distribution of complete meals.
The second example comes from French catering company Saveurs d’événements, which specialises in meetings, seminars and training days supplying lunch-, breakfast- and cocktail trays. Its trays have a beautiful presentation, although no window to show the food, which is essential for a vending machine.
The box offers a clever solution. Once people have finished eating and want to continue working at their desk. They simply slide the tray back into the cover it came in: no mess, no fuss. Everything is cleaned up in a blink of the eye.
The boxes are made of Frövi White (320 and 410 g/m²) from Korsnäs. Frövi White is a high-quality white paperboard with a unique combination of extreme plasticity and a first-class printing surface, developed especially for luxury products with exclusive, creatively designed packaging. It is a four-layer virgin-fibre board, coated on both the top and reverse sides, which results in high whiteness and excellent printing results on both sides. It is produced in grammages ranging from 240 to 410 g/m².
The examples might look expensive, but be aware that we tend to forget about the subconscious signal it sends to customers – the hand feel – when they pick up the packaging. It has to feel solid to do justice to the product, even if a thinner and cheaper design would do from a purely functional standpoint.
There is one more sales outlet in this same market segment that I like to describe and that’s the room service in hotels. An activity in decline in many a hotel, but perfectly serviceable and profitable with pre-packaged fresh ready-meals. Next article.