Think of the hottest current trends when it comes to the fresh perimeter: better-for-you, cleaner labels, bold flavors, ethnic foods, fresh takes on classic items.

All of those trends have impacted breads, side dishes, salads, cheeses and more. Their impact on prepared entrees — the centerpiece of a meal — is even more dramatic.

“All of the current trends around food in general are definitely in line with what is big in prepared entrees,” says Jonathan Stack, president of Baltimore-based Fresh Creative Cuisine, a supplier of cuisine to go and prepared foods programs. “Our products anchor the meal, and consumers want that flavor and healthfulness or bold indulgence in the main course.”

Fresh Creative would know. The company produces fully-cooked, heat-and-eat style entrees. Its stable of products ranges from a core line of signature salads and entrees to fresh fruit and parfaits, snacks, sides, customizable boxed lunches, breakfast items and desserts.

Bolder can be better

Like many other foods, new and exciting flavors are key in prepared entrees right now. Stack says there is a continued interest in the global and ethnic cuisine styles — think Mediterranean, Asian and Indian foods.

“You also see a lot of different things and new flavor profiles coming from South American and Latino-style products,” he says. “There’s definitely a continued interest and we see a lot of growth there. People are always looking for new and interesting items.”

Ontario, California-based Five Star Gourmet Foods has taken notice of these trends, both with its fully prepared entrees and its MiniMeals2Go line. The line includes items like Asian Cashew salad, Sriracha BBQ with Chicken, Mediterranean Falafel + Hummus, Artichoke Dip + Genoa Salami, Thai Noodle Salad, and Honey Ginger Veggie Stir Fry.

Bold flavors can also be incorporated into time-tested classics.

“There is a fair amount of infusion with staples like mac’n’cheese,” Stack says. “That’s still one of the homestyle favorites for many age demographics, but we’re doing different things with flavor profiles within those classics.”

Think bold sauces like Sriracha or Caribbean spices, or unexpected proteins added where chicken or beef typically exists.

“You still have the base product that everyone is used to, but you’re seeing chorizo and other ethnic and global profiles mixed in with it as well,” Stack says. “I think the key is to continuously put a lot innovation from a culinary standpoint.”

Those bold and savory flavors are also typically a bigger hit with consumers during this time of the year — starting with early fall and continuing through the cold winter months.

“The big things we see in terms of cyclical trends is that going into spring and summer, lighter fare like chicken and fish, as opposed to heavier pastas and things like that, are very popular,” Stack says. “And then, as you go into fall and winter, we continue to see trends in the more savory-type of items. People really start looking for those homestyle type of products, but with the bolder, exciting flavors.”

Health, of course

It wouldn’t be a product trends discussion if health and better-for-you ingredients weren’t on the table, so to speak. Consumers are also mixing and matching indulgence and healthy decisions when it comes to entrees.

“We are still seeing the trend for more healthful or more health-positive, if you will,” Stack says. “When you say ‘healthy’ it’s a little different, but a lot of the more health-positive items are big.”

Fresh Creative has moved toward using several better-for-you grains, like quinoa and bulgur wheats. Those rains can be infused into countless dishes to provide a boost of nutrition and some extra protein.

The company also uses vegetable and fruit flavorings — a simple way to clean up a label and provide an attractive ingredient panel while adding an appealing natural flavor. “We continue to see that trending upward and people are always looking for new flavor profiles in grab-and-go products,” Stack says.

Stack also says this particular time of the year is also big in better-for-you entrees, whether that’s with dietary-restricted types of foods — low-sodium or gluten-free, for example — or just the straight better-for-you options.  “There’s a lot of interest in those items heading into the beginning of the year,” he says. “There’s the diet season, if you will, right after the holidays.”

But it ranges far beyond just consumers looking to take off a little bit of holiday weight. Consumers, as a whole, are just more aware of what they’re eating.

“They’re looking for clean label, they’re looking for low or no preservatives, or keeping things all-natural,” he says. “Those continue to be very prominent trends and requirements. People are definitely not interested in things with a lot of preservatives or extended shelf life items.”

And that compounds the challenge of presenting the freshest possible prepared entrees with the cleanest of labels. It’s impossible to fake fresh, he says.

“Fresh is fresh. That’s the challenge,” Stack says. “It can’t be perceived to have been on the shelf for a long time. That’s particularly true with millennials. They’re driving a lot of that. They’re very label-conscious and very ingredient-conscious.”

Packaging matters

While the ingredients and flavor are the most vital parts of the prepared entrée, packaging is not fare behind in importance. After all, if a pre-packaged entrée doesn’t look appealing, the consumer may never find out just how good it tastes.

It has to look good and taste good.

“We kind of have an approach that we want to make ‘sexy’ food, if you will. We want something that is very eye-appealing,” Stack says. “We look for ways to use different kinds of color presentations with different vegetables and new ways of preparing and presenting foods.”

And packaging, he says, plays a major role in that.

“The challenge on that front is just a continual search for new and innovative ways of presenting the product and getting it in from of the consumer’s eye,” Stack says.

But packaging’s role goes beyond just being pretty and functional. The growing list of regulations regarding food labels has made it hard to include information while remaining aesthetically pleasing.

“Creative packaging, in and of itself, is so important,” Stack says. “You want to showcase the food, but with a lot of the labeling requirements, that’s been an ongoing challenge.”

Suppliers must continuously consider how and where they can meet new labeling requirements. Instead of just a small product description, packages must now include a bevy of information, including ingredient lists and nutritional information.

“More and more information needs to be put on the package,” Stack says. “It’s an ongoing challenge, but certainly one that’s not impossible to overcome. It’s a matter of always keeping in mind unique approaches. The innovation isn’t just important from the culinary standpoint. Packaging is right there as well. People are eating with their eyes, particularly in the prepared foods arena.”