Smaller portions and single-serve products are still on the rise. Between work, family and personal life, consumers have gravitated toward on-the-go meals, snacks and treats.

“So the demand for health, portable and convenient food options continues to increase,” says Cindy Blish, associated brand and communications director for Shelton, Connecticut-based Inline Plastics Corp.

With that growth in demand comes new demands for packaging. Single-serve packaging options play an integral role in the success of single-serve foods.

“This packaging gives the consumer a quick choice and a quick decision,” Blish says. “The container then becomes the clean dish consumers use.”

Consumer needs

Single-serve packaging is most often used in grab-and-go applications, when consumers will consume their food directly from the vessel.  That emphasizes the need for the packaging to be sturdy, reliable and clean.

“Since single-serve packages are typically used on the go, they need to seal securely to prevent leaks and spills,” Blish says. “Consumers will eat from the container, so the design also needs to be easy to hold, resealable and sturdy for stacking and transporting.”

D&W Fine Pack emphasizes convenience with its line of Grab ‘N Go containers and lids, noting that busy consumers want their food served faster than ever and that high-quality choices can prompt grab-and-go purchases. To answer these needs, the Grab ‘N Go line features quick-fisl-and-close containers and lids, clear plastic that showcases the package’s contents, and sturdy, stackable containers that keep food intact during transport.

Healthy eating is also a key factor in the growth of single-serve containers, Blish says. Fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, proteins, wraps and other healthy foods can now be packaged safely and securely for easy transport. “Single-serve containers offer the ability to meet this growing trend and provide easy solutions that encourage healthy eating habits,” she says.

Blish notes Inline’s patented tamper-evident Safe-T-Fresh line, which includes a number of container options for single servings of yogurts and parfaits, cut fruits and vegetables, nuts, candies and more.

“Also, CrystalFresh is ideal for single servings of baked goods, and VisiblyFresh makes the perfect containers for salads and prepared meals,” Blish says. “Our recently launched SnackWare line includes multi-compartment options to mix-and-match snacks and dips; and we also offer a wrap container.”

But it doesn’t all come down to health and wellness and shopping convenience. It also helps if the packaging is easily recyclable, allowing consumers to quickly dispose of the waste in an environmentally responsible way.

“Environmental responsibility is an integral component of single-serve packaging,” Blish says. “Inline Plastics addresses this from two fronts. First, single-serve packages eliminate food waste. Consumers only buy the right-size, perfectly portioned amount of food they need. Secondly, the container needs to be easily recycled. All Inline Plastics packages are 100 percent curbside recyclable.”

Retailer needs

A wider variety of single-serve packaging is allowing retailers to create attractive and engaging displays to grab the attention of consumers looking for a quick and easy meal.

Selecting packaging that makes those merchandising decisions easier for retailers can help commissaries maintain strong relationships. Inline’s line of Safe-T-Fresh Hangables packaging is an example. The small packaging includes a built-in, molded hang tab that allows retailers to hang product for a more enticing presentation.

“Inline Plastics offers a multitude of merchandising-friendly containers that are also crystal clear,” she says. “This catches a consumer’s eye, as they can easily see the freshness of the food inside, promoting these single-serve purchases.”

And with the growing emphasis on healthy foods, consumers are looking for options beyond carrot sticks and grapes. In addition, retailers are also catering to specific dietary needs, like gluten-free, organic and vegan. They’re also branching out with unique and ethnic flavor combinations.

“This has prompted single-serve options like artisanal salads and sandwiches, or protein-packed plant-based combinations like spiced chickpeas and flavored hummus,” says Blish.

Producer needs

While commissaries or intermediate bakeries have a lot of decisions when it comes to the actual single-serve packaging they’ll use, they must also think about working with the single servings themselves. Smaller food items can be trickier to manipulate and package by themselves than those in bulk.

Advances in robotic software combined with new gripping technology have made pick-and-place machines attractive options for miniature products not going through a vertical form/fill/seal machine.

Cavanna Packaging recently developed a new tool that can lift a flaky croissant without crushing it, then load it into an infeeder for a wrapper. The gentle method uses vision technology to locate the baked food on a belt, then a Delta robot reaches over and grabs it with a specially designed tool that uses both a combination of suction and proprietary light grip technology. This tool can select small muffins, cupcakes, Danish and more. The Delta-armed robot operates at about 86 delicate pieces per minute.

“The robot rotates around to match an item, picks it up and rotates it again as it goes to place it,” Bill Kehrli, vice-president of sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging, told Baking & Snack. “It uses electronic tracking of the belt of the flowwrapper to guarantee it puts it in the exact same spot every time while the belt is moving.”

Also, vision systems provide a key element of quality control. Today’s robots not only keep products in control during the pick-and-place process, but they also perform quality control, says Eric Aasen, product sales manager, Bosch Packaging Technology.

“Since the robots are instructed to only pick products that meet certain dimensional requirements, any product that does not fit these dimensions will be discarded,” he told Baking & Snack.

Bosch launched an enhanced version of its stand-alone Presto D3 top-loading collator. For improved quality protection and accurate filling, the Presto D3 collator is equipped with an air-blow ejection system that rejects products that are out of specification. For non-stop machine operation, the reject station is followed by a new automatic unjamming device.

“This way, without any operator intervention, it actively controls product jams while the machine continues to run at full speed,” Aasen says.