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    Meals to Go

    The busy lives of most Americans has meant that family mealtime has suffered under the weight of work, school and assorted activities.

    The busy lives of most Americans has meant that family mealtime has suffered under the weight of work, school and assorted activities. With families trying to recapture the traditional dinnertime routine, supermarkets stepped in to offer relief with prepared meals that just need to be heated up at home. Even that scenario has changed as the family "table" has expanded to include the family car and even the ballfield. Further changes are ahead as the impact of the nation's financial slowdown impacts the household food bill.

    According to researcher NPD, purchases of prepared meals are up 5 percent for the year ended May 2007, compared to a gain of 3 percent at restaurants. These meals, like the weekly groceries, are purchased at stores consumers "always go" to or where they "like going." Convenience plays a role, too. And now, increasingly, so will price.

    At stake is the meal dollars of time-pressed families, and retailers will have to keep adjusting their menus for broadest appeal.

    Giant Eagle's Express format offers meal solutions with about 45 hand-prepared, complete meal options, some, like sushi and panini sandwiches, can be consumed with just one hand if necessary.

    Food Emporium last summer launched a "Picnic in the Park," program that featured four store-prepared gourmet picnic lunches, at its 59th Street unit in Manhattan. Each meal included a sandwich, chips, seasonal fresh fruit, a dessert choice and a beverage for $15.99 per person for one to six people. The order was packed in a branded Food Emporium shopping tote so onlookers knew exactly who prepared the made-to-order meal.

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