Little Dish was founded in 2006 with the mission of providing fresh, nutritious and convenient meals for toddlers. The business concept was a reaction to something missing in stores. After the birth of her first child, Little Dish founder Hillary Graves couldn’t find a range of meals targeting children that were ‘home-cooked’ in style and utilised high quality ingredients.
Even today, 12 years later, Little Dish chief executive Dean Brown believes that the food industry has failed to provide appropriate meal solutions targeting children.
“The food industry has been guilty of taking shortcuts in quality and nutrition in order to increase profit,” he suggested.
“The baby category is not immune – there are many snacks and purees for very young children made entirely from fruit puree and concentrate. These are extremely high in sugar, developing a preference for overly sweet tastes among the very young – and yet parents are reassured by claims such as ‘1 of 5 a day’ and indeed are under the mistaken belief that what is available in the supermarket baby aisle can be trusted to be good for their baby or toddler.”
Green shoots of change
“To date, the scrutiny of packaged food for pre-school children has been limited, and many inappropriate products have been cynically marketed to the parents of very young children,” Brown argued.
Attitudes are shifting, however, as consumers become increasingly aware of the link between early years nutrition and health in later life. The broader demand for ‘clean label’ products that utilise pantry cupboard ingredients also feed into this trend.
“We see this beginning to change, bringing an ever-increasing need for convenient fresh food like parents would make from scratch when they have the time.”
Little Dish, which was acquired by private equity group Profile Capital last year, has also seen a shift in the attitude of retailers to its proposition, especially in the US, a market the UK-based business entered earlier this year. In particular, Brown explained, Little Dish’s retail customers view a strong presence in fresh food categories as a means to fend off the assault from online retailer such as Amazon.
“There is a trend, especially in the US, for retailers to see ‘fresh’ as the route to differentiating themselves from the likes of Amazon. Long life baby and toddler food is ripe to be sold in bulk online at heavy discounts, fresh food is not. We believe the future of baby and toddler food is fresh.”
‘Proper food’ promoting healthy choices
The highly processed, often ultra-sweet, nature of most food targeted at infants is something of a challenge for Little Dish. The company is left having to win over children who have been conditioned to have sweet teeth.
“It is difficult to launch truly healthy products which necessarily have less sweet tastes,” Brown conceded. “We believe it’s vital to accustom toddler palates to the tastes of real, natural ingredients from an early age, thereby improving their chances of having a healthy relationship with food as they grow.”
Little Dish’s commitment to providing fresh and healthy food also serves as its unique selling point. And it means parents view the group’s convenient meals as ‘proper food’ versus ‘baby food’.
Brown explained: “Little Dish toddler meals are fresh – this means they have the tastes and textures of food parents cook themselves at home. We often ask parents to taste our meals alongside the long life meals available in the baby aisle and there is, in fact, no comparison. Parents see our meals as ‘proper food’, whereas the other products are ‘baby food’, i.e. something you wouldn’t choose to eat yourself.”
All of the company’s recipes are also approved by a qualified dietitian, Lucy Jones, to ensure they are “perfectly nutritionally balanced main meal for a toddler”, Brown added. “We know that parents who have discovered Little Dish value the combination of convenience with freshness, taste and best in class nutrition.”
Moving to ‘transformational growth’
According to Brown, it is an “exciting time” for Little Dish as it expands its business at home in the UK and overseas.
The company is entering the “next phase of transformational growth” in the UK, where it has appointed Shonagh Primrose into the newly created role of UK managing director.
Brown is bullish on Little Dish’s ability to increase penetration and reach additional consumers. “The transformation will come once every parent of a one-year-old is aware of Little Dish and understands the care that goes into preparing each meal. If the next generation grows up on good, fresh food (whether homemade or from Little Dish) they’ll be set up for success.”
Growth, Little Dish believes, will come from “raising awareness” of the brand among parents.
The brand is already widely distributed in most large UK supermarkets. However, Brown said, awareness remains “low” and the range is often “hard to find”.
“It is usually merchandised next to chilled ready meals, not a natural part of the store for a mum to shop for her toddler. At the same time, we know that families who have discovered our meals find them indispensable. So we see great potential to grow the brand via marketing activity.
“In 2019 we will start to invest more in digital and social media to engage our audience and identify the most effective ways to guide them into this new category of fresh toddler food.”
Alongside marketing, Little Dish continues to invest in innovation to expand the brand’s reach. “We are working on new concepts to build out our fixture in the chilled meals aisle with a range of formats for different mealtimes and types and indeed for slightly older children.
“We are also working on making our nutritionally tailored fresh toddler food available to families on the go in Food Service outlets, where the current offering is often inappropriate.”