The American prepared and pre-cooked meal industry is undergoing explosive growth. Theorists guess that fewer people are cooking at home because of the rise of dual income and single person households. Others remark that Americans have more sophisticated tastes than they used to and crave ingredients and flavor combinations that are difficult to prepare in a home kitchen under time limitations. Whatever the reason, Americans, in their homes and work places, are avid consumers of foods and even complete meals prepared by others.
Frozen meals have long been an American staple, though they have progressed from the prosaic TV-Dinners of the fifties and sixties and the airline-type meals of the seventies to now include a wide array of meals, often health or diet oriented, representing many ethnicities as well. With the advent of the microwave oven, pre-cooked frozen entrees came into their own. Sophisticated manufacturing technologies using special metal trays now allow microwave meals to brown and develop tasty crusts, while the simple laws of supply and demand have increased the variety of these foods. Grocery chains that concentrate on healthy foods, like Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe’s, sell health-oriented, vegetarian and vegan frozen read-to-eat meals, as well as side dishes. Frozen pizza, of course, in varieties for regular as well as microwave ovens, has long been an American home favorite.
Food markets in America also now commonly offered prepared fresh (non-frozen) meals in three major ways. The store may have a salad or hot foods bar. The customer will choose among a wide variety of foods, paying by the pound. In some cases, tables will be available right in the market for customers to use to enjoy their meals. The typical supermarket deli counter sells prepared meats, side orders, and specialties like fried chicken; the deli clerk will pack the foods the customer asks for. Many markets also have cases in which they sell fresh prepared foods and salads in pre-packed plastic containers. These foods are usually ready to eat or they may be warmed (or “nuked”, in the case of microwaved items) at home. For at-work or in-vehicle eating, plastic kinves, forks, and spoons are often available, typically pre-wrapped in a paper napkin for convenience. A typical salad may contain greens overlaid with slices of grilled chicken breast, with a plastic cup containing dressing. Prepackaged sandwiches are ubiquitous, perhaps using a tortilla-like wrap or Middle Eastern pita bread, and often, in health stores, with unusual ingredients: alfalfa sprouts, roasted eggplant, goat cheese. Since Japanese sushi is very popular (and almost difficult to prepare at home elegantly) American supermarkets and gourmet stores do a brisk business selling prepackaged “California rolls” and other hybrid American sushi variations. Gourmet and specialty foods stores count on prepared meals for a large part of their business.