Meal starter kits get a fresh twist

Campbell’s Skillet Sauces can be mixed with fresh meat and veggies. It takes 15 minutes to prepare the meals.

Mel Evans/Associated Press

Campbell’s Skillet Sauces can be mixed with fresh meat and veggies. It takes 15 minutes to prepare the meals.

NEW YORK — There’s nothing more satisfying than a home-cooked meal, especially if it comes out of a can or a pouch.

As more people try their hand at mimicking sophisticated recipes from cooking shows and blogs, food companies are rolling out meal kits and starters that make amateur chefs feel like Emeril Lagasse or ­Rachael Ray in the kitchen.


Call it the next generation of dinner-in-box sets like Rice-A-Roni and Hamburger Helper that were rolled out as moms flooded the workforce in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. But the new kits go beyond just browning meat and throwing evaporated cheese and seasonings into boiling water — the idea is to make people feel like they’re making meals from scratch.

General Mills Inc. has a line of ‘‘Progresso Recipe Starters,’’ which are premade sauces in flavors such as ‘‘Fire-Roasted Tomato’’ and ‘‘Creamy Portabella Mushroom’’ that can be a base for a variety of dishes. Kraft Food Group’s ‘‘Sizzling Salads’’ dinner kits pair a meat marinade with salad dressing: you provide all the other ingredients. And Campbell Soup Co. has ‘‘Skillet Sauces’’ that can be mixed with fresh meat and veggies. Prep time: 15 minutes.

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Scott Jones, a public relations specialist in Fort Worth uses Kraft’s Velveeta Skillets, a deluxe version of mac-n-cheese in a box with flavors such as chicken alfredo and lasagna.

Jones likes that the box suggests ways to customize the recipe by doing things like using different types of meats. He says the creamy cheese packets are a step up from powder mixes. And he likes adding personal touches (Think: diced tomatoes and peppers).

It’s not the same as the pot roasts that he cooks on Sundays, but on weekdays it allows him to give his family a ‘‘satisfying meal, quickly.’’


Cooking shortcuts long have been an American way of life, of course. But demand has grown for time-saving recipes as busy Americans eat more meals at home to save money. The NPD Group estimates the average number of meals eaten at home at 902 last year, up from 870 four years earlier.

At the same time, there’s a growing foodie culture that values authenticity and fresh ingredients. It may be why sales of Rice-A-Roni have dropped 16 percent from five years ago, according to market researcher Euromonitor International.

The companies that make the new starters say it’s too early to make sales projections but the hope is to appeal to the people who want it both ways: a home-cooked meal that doesn’t require much time and labor. In particular, companies are aiming for those in their 20s and 30s whose cooking skills may be outmatched by their increasingly sophisticated tastes.

‘‘Their definition of cooking is different,’’ says Darren Serrao, who heads innovation for Campbell Soup. ‘‘Assembly is cooking.’’

Indeed, Kraft Sizzling Salads dinner kits aren’t exactly your mother’s ‘‘made from scratch’’ recipes. They direct people to heat up some chicken with the marinade and toss a salad with the dressing. But in case aspiring home cooks need some extra guidance, Kraft provides cooking tutorials online.

In a video for the chicken Caesar kit, a woman shows how to squeeze marinade over chicken breasts in a frying pan. She then guides viewers through adding croutons and shredded cheese to a bowl of lettuce. The finishing touch? Squirting in Kraft dressing.

Progresso’s sauces involve a little more work. For example, let’s say you want beef stroganoff. All you need is 2 pounds of boneless beef sirloin, an onion, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and a can of Progresso’s Recipe Starters in Creamy Portabella Mushroom flavor. The dish takes 35 minutes.

Making beef stroganoff from scratch, by contrast, would be a deeply involved ordeal, in large part because of the sauce, says Brendan Walsh, dean of culinary education at the Culinary Institute of America.

‘‘You’re dealing with stocks and reductions. It’s a good 12-hour process,’’ he says.

Although Walsh wouldn’t put Progresso’s version of beef stroganoff ‘‘in the realm of chef-dom,’’ he notes that companies have gotten better at making products with improved taste and nutritional content.

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