Business Insights says that the displacement of regular mealtimes by quick snacking occasions looks set to continue throughout Europe.
The average UK meal preparation time has gone down from two hours two generations ago to 20 minutes today.
Similarly, in the US, the NPD Groups Eating in America Study found that 44 per cent of all weekly meals are prepared in less than 30 minutes.
But food makers hoping to cash in on this trend must also take into account growing concerns over health. Business Insights found that 70 per cent of respondents to a consumer survey in 2005 claimed that the unhealthy features of prepared meals makes them limit their consumption.
Rising health awareness among consumers has therefore become a key factor in fuelling the market for more innovative and nutritious ready meals.
Another point that the report makes is that ethnicity is increasingly playing a crucial role in the targeting of ready meals. Of the food and drinks experts surveyed for Business Insights report, only 6 per cent did not consider ethnic minority consumers to be an important group to target.
Unsurprisingly the largest market for ethnic foods is the US, with its mixed ethnic population. Spending on ethnic food in the US has grown at an average annual rate of 4.9 per cent over the last five years, and is forecast to continue growing well above the overall food market's growth.
Ethnic foods now account for 11.8 per cent of all retail food sales in the US, and this proportion is forecast to grow to 12.4 per cent by 2009.
By far the most popular ethnic cuisine in the US is Mexican, accounting for 42 per cent of total ethnic food sales. The fastest-growing cuisine over the last five years has been kosher, which has grown to become a $7.5bn market.
Total ready meal sales in Europe were $4.9bn in 2004, a little over 10 per cent of the US market despite Europes larger population. However, ethnic food has seen enormous growth in Europe over the last five years: average annual growth has been running at 14 per cent, far higher than the US 5 per cent, and is expected to continue at a fast rate between now and 2009.
But the only European country where ethnic foods currently account for more than 1 per cent of retail packaged food sales is the UK, whose ethnic food sales of $2.6bn make up more than half the entire European market. The leading ethnic cuisine in Europe is Chinese food, which is popular across all ofEurope.
Indian food is the second most popular, driven largely by its enormouspopularity in the UK. Other Asian food, including Thai, Vietnamese andJapanese food, accounts for a small proportion of the market, but it is this segment that is growing fastest of all.
Manufacturers looking to gain a firm toehold in this market therefore need to take into account these two factors. They also need to distance themselves from fad diets and acknowledge that the product fits into a healthy eating balanced diet.
Developing trust is therefore especially important for prepared meals manufacturers, on account of the high level of scepticism over the ready meals sector. One way of achieving this would be to extend brands that already have a healthy image into ready meals.
The ready meals market across Europe and the US has grown steadily in recent years, from a combined total of $24.6 billion in 1999 to reach $28.3 billion in 2004.
According to Business Insights, the drive towards convenience will push sales of ready meals in Europe and the US at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 2.9 per cent between 2004 and 2009 to reach $32.6bn at the end of the period.