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Saturday, Nov 22, 2014
Business News

Prepackaged lunches not just for kids anymore

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As millions of parents start packing lunches for their kids to go back to school this month, there’s great news for those who desperately need a fast-fix for their own lunch.

We are living in a veritable boom of innovation for grown-up style Lunchables.

On a recent stroll through Sweetbay and Walmart last week, I counted no less than 20 new, single-serve and prepackaged lunch doodads for grown-ups — everything from Adult Lunch Combos to Nutella-On-the-Go packs with crackers, and Campbell’s soup bags with quirky graphics of hungry hipsters.

The crystallization of this trend for me is the new Go Picnic brand of lunches that are starting to show up at Target stores across town, and they’ll be in Publix later this autumn.

Consider Go Picnic varieties like the BBQ Beef Stick & Cheese Cracker meal, with “organic, fair-trade and non-GMO verified ingredients wherever possible,” and the Edamame Kale Dip & Plantain Chip box with Ginger Zip fruit & nut mix, or the gluten-free Salmon & Cracker pack with Brown & Haley Almond Roca Buttercrunch Toffee Candy for a dessert. These are Lunchables if Food Network took over the production line.

To be sure, kids lunch items were the driver of this prepackaged amazingness, and Lunchables are the patriarch of that movement. But the lines are blurring between kids and adult. On the shelf next to Dannon Danimals fruit smoothie bottles at Sweetbay are identically packaged Dannon DanActive smoothies for grown-ups that help “support your immune system,” presumably from your germy co-workers.

That joins a growing horde of grown-up lunch-on-the-go items: Jif To Go packs of peanut butter, tiny cups of microwavable Minute rice, upgraded Barilla penne pasta dishes (sauce included), Spam with roasted potato dishes and a growing lineup of individually wrapped cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches. Need dessert on your desk? Presto, there’s Ben & Jerry’s single-serve ice cream, frozen cups of fruit from Dole or Goya-brand flan packs. Yes, flan on the go.

For me, the product that signaled that the gold rush was on with single-serve packaging was Wholly Guacamole 100-calorie packs, freeing us all from the bonds of enjoying guac only in our own kitchens. Portable guac is America in a package.

There are those parents who toil countless hours creating all-natural-organic-perfected-photo-ready-Pinterest-worthy lunch boxes for their progeny. Just the other day I received a nauseating news release from a kitchen gadget company with recipes for lunches that would rival anything served at the White House or on “Iron Chef.” Who has time to whip up peanut butter-coated bananas on a stick covered in hand-crushed peanuts?

Scoff at and heap scorn upon those parents who buy Lunchables or combos for themselves, but I say let those cast the first stone who have never staggered bleary-eyed through the kitchen at 1:30 a.m. (after five hours of office work at home) trying to put together lunch boxes for the next day. It’s a wonder more kids don’t find a Keurig cartridge and a Tide stain stick in their lunch.

Big leaps forward in food trends like these tend to come in fits and starts, and mirror deeper demographic changes afoot. When America’s cities started flooding with office workers, along came the super-fast automat restaurant where workers could nearly run by at a sprint and plunk coins into a slot and out would pop an instant lunch.

When people started living in expansive subdivisions, along came the drive-through. When people started working in cubicles, along came the ready-to-make desktop lunch.

Fast-forwarding to present day, the most powerful trends in food are in direct contrast with each other. On one side, you have the craving for ever-faster, easier and portable grub like single-serve frozen cheesecake slices. On the other side, you have the craving for farm-to-table authenticity in ingredients, where patrons want to know that food’s pedigree from dirt to plate.

Go Picnic wraps together those divergent trends into a cohesive package. Because we may want all-organic and fair-trade turkey jerky and sunflower-seed spread for lunch, and sometimes it’s 2 a.m. and we just need to throw together lunches before we pass out.

Other retail, restaurant and trend news town:

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One more word on food innovations. I marvel at the variety of products coming out of the Goldfish cracker empire. First there was cheddar, then ranch, then more and more flavors and colors. You should start seeing even more varieties on the shelf. There’s graham-cracker flavors, Flavor Blasted Queso Fiesta, fudge brownie flavored and pretzel-style crackers. I say charge onward, Pepperidge Farms (its the parent company) and deploy your spice scientists. Launch ever-more exotic goldfish, say, buffalo spice, cinnamon sugar, cinnamon bun, Nutella-filled, and on and on. Odds are, we’ll buy it.

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If you know a teacher, then you probably know someone who spends countless hours scrolling Pinterest for ideas on lesson plans and worksheets because the social media site has become the go-to resource for teachers who work in districts that lack curriculum materials for the kids. Need ideas to teach rhyming words or decimal addition or multivariable calculus? Just type that into Pinterest, and some teacher somewhere has probably uploaded 20 amazing worksheets, if not more. Here’s the great news. Pinterest just started a special page that gathers all that stuff under one header: Pinterest.com/teachers. Even better, the wizards there organized everything by grade ­— kindergarten, third grade, art, science, home school, classroom management, Montessori and so on. The niche site is likely the first of a string that Pinterest will launch. My guess is the next few will likely be cooking, fashion, parenting and pets.

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One detail that was perhaps lost in the onslaught of publicity about the soon-to-open Epicurean hotel in South Tampa is this: They’re starting to take reservations. The online booking system just went live, and hotel officials note they’re going to start by offering rooms in March, even though the hotel will probably open in December/January. I tested one date in late March and found a single room priced at about $250, pretax. Given that construction can always come with snags, hotel owners want to be careful in opening the foodie floodgates. As they get closer to knowing the opening date for sure, they’ll move the reservation window earlier. As for the biggest social event *ever* in South Tampa, Gasparilla 2014, if you want a room at the Epicurean to retreat/party, you’d better know one of the owners.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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