Pre-prepared food is big business in a modern society where demanding work and social activities have put the squeeze on meal times. For ready meal producers, product integrity and an appetising look is key to success in this market. Consumers demand first class appearance, even spread of ingredients and product integrity and, according to many producers, a ‘smashed up’ ready meal is the biggest driver of lost custom.
A ready meal line can be made up of many processing and packaging options as the diverse range of ingredients, either fresh or frozen, are handled and then presented to the consumer. In terms of processing, pumps can be deployed for operations such as transfer and mixing to produce powerful suction with low shear, low pulsation and gentle handling for such products as mashed potato. Also, depositors have to cope with filling multi-component meals and deposit precise portions of product into trays, cartons or pouches. Browning grills can then be used to give a baked-like finish to ready meals.
In terms of packaging, the tray as been one of the most popular formats for ready meals which use either a modified atmosphere or gas flushing on fresh ingredients. Once the trays have been filled, they are sealed and then tested for any leaks to ensure product integrity at all times. Many meals are then placed in cartons to provide optimum shelf impact.
In recent times, there has been a plethora of other packaging formats used for ‘fresh meal kits’ including pouches and rigid plastics pots but the traditional, more high volume ready meal continues to be packed in trays.
A line can compose of tray denesters that feed trays to single or twin lane conveyors and arrive at a volumetric filler which can be used for bulky ingredients such as rice and pasta. Filled trays can then move to another filling station which applies a pre-mixed sauce.
Trays are then vibrated, to help settle the contents, before moving on to the distribution system below a multihead weigher, through which the most costly ingredients are generally added. These are often the main protein content of the meal such as meat, poultry or seafood.
Trays can then pass on to other ingredient adding stations or straight to the traysealer, where they are sealed under vacuum before then being checkweighed. Often, trays then proceed to an autoclave for retorting to provide a shelf life of three months.