Since 2015, Helen Flower has been an NPD chef for a number of well-known brands, including Bakkavor and Lola’s Cupcakes.
Currently based in Kent with a large-scale ready meal manufacturer, she specializes in the designing and testing of recipes for clients such as Waitrose, Asda and Sainsbury’s, with a strong focus on holistic health and vegan meals.
“Growing up in New Zealand, convenience was buying a pre-made pizza which came in two flavours!” she told me.
“Ready meals just weren’t as much of a ‘thing’ – so I found my career path led me here, bringing in my knowledge of nutrition alongside my chef skills and creativity.”
Helen (or Hellie to her friends) started out in the UK as a restaurant/catering chef in 2008, following a degree in food & nutrition at the University of Otago, with her interest in healthy eating and eye for dish design soon leading her towards the world of product development.
“I first worked developing new products at Bad Brownie [in 2015], introducing the likes of Millionaire’s Brownie and fusing popular desserts with the brownie element,” she explained.
“I then moved to Bakkavor in 2016, which was my real first experience of large-scale ready meal manufacturing, developing every different type of hummus under the sun!
“Before moving to Kent in 2018, I worked for the likes of Tesco and M&S creating a range of various different ready-made meals, ensuring all recipes met manufacturing capabilities.”
With the world starting to open up again, Helen is very much back in the swing of things at work, telling Pure NPD that keeping on top of changing consumer eating habits due to COVID (and the food trends directly effected by them) remains right at the top of the agenda.
What food trends have caught your eye over the past year (and what’s here to stay)?
“COVID has come along and thrown the food trend predictions out of the park. But in ready meals specifically, traditionally there’s been a lot of cross-over between restaurants and food markets within the ready-meals sphere. The journey going from food truck, to restaurants, to retail – but this journey has been disrupted.
“People were spending more time at home and learning how to cook (especially with the panic buy of the first lockdown of 2020) learning how to get creative with recipes.
“That’s one good thing to come out of COVID, in that food has more appreciation and not just a rushed evening meal after a long commute – there is more time for food, with it being that real excitement at the end of the day as you physically couldn’t go out to a restaurant to eat.
“Snacking has also had greater appeal, if you’re at home all day snacking gives you something else to do. Food is what punctuated the day – acting as a real event.
“Comfort foods were a must, when the world decided to change, we looked to those slow-cooked and comforting eats. I for one tended to make more European dishes and curries, but when cooking these dishes, I’d make the best possible curry with all the ‘bells and whistles’ adding home-made pakoras and naan breads.
“Cooking from home (and learning how to cook) will stay post-COVID trend, partly through finances and convenience (bulk cooking).”
How has the concept of home cooking changed over the past year?
“As we haven’t been able to have celebratory meals for special occasions in restaurants, we’ve seen the growth of meal kits at home – bringing the DIY empowerment element to the experience.
“This has also appeared in retail, it’s combining convenience (cooking doesn’t have to all be from scratch) and boosting-confidence. If a well-known chef or expert designed this meal kit for you, you know it’s going to be good.
“One can also make the meal bespoke at home, if you know your young child doesn’t like the ingredients touching – you can still have a ‘fancy’ restaurant meal and then tailor it yourself, so your little one can also eat it!
“I’ve also seen more of a ‘fakeaway’ trend, which is set to stay, as seen from the likes of Tesco launching their restaurant-quality meal kits – creating that restaurant experience at-home, but for a lot cheaper!
“There’s also a lot more happening around heritage cooking, realising our own heritage can bring world-class flavours to dishes – take Georgia and orange wine, delivering a more astringent flavour profile for example, or the appeal of Levantine cuisine (beyond hummus).
“Virtual cooking classes have also grown massively during the pandemic, which feeds again into convenience meals through the appeal of semi-scratch cooking.”
What is the post-COVID consumer looking for in a meal?
“There’s a real focus on novel cuisine – COVID has shifted some of the trends away from ‘what is the latest country’ to ‘what is food giving me’, i.e. the health benefits and how food can protect/inhibit your health.
“The everyday consumer is now asking ‘how much veg will I be getting’, ‘how much fibre’ or ‘how many omegas’ particularly with the link between the risk between obesity and increasing risk of fighting COVID.
“With consumers being more health conscious there’s the growing awareness of the importance of consuming the right macro-nutrients, as seen from the likes of Gym Kitchen or Joe Wick’s fitness and diet plans – if a fitness influencer was to partner with a retailer that would be huge!
“Vegan foods have also come along way. The meat analogue movement and plant-based alternatives such as banana blossom fish lending itself through texture as a plant-based offering, as well as being more natural when compared to heavily processed and long ingredient-list faux meats.
“I’ve seen popular culture, with shows like ‘Rotten’ or ‘Seaspiracy’, influencing consumer behaviours towards vegan and ethical shopping behaviours.”