Long relegated to a split-second decision after planning out the main course of a meal, side dishes are becoming more important than ever.

Time-strapped consumers want every component of their meals to be clean, reliable and as exciting as possible.

“Most Americans don’t know what they’re having for dinner at 4 o’clock or 3:30 and a lot of them hit a retailer on the way home in hopes of finding something and being inspired,” says Carl Cappelli, senior vice president of sales and business development for Schwenksville, Pennsylvania-based Don’s Food Products.

Brenda Donahe-Stevens, director of sales and marketing for Mrs. Gerry’s Kitchen, echoes those sentiments.

“With everyone’s busy lifestyles these days, consumers are craving simplicity that tastes good and that their family loves,” she says.

Spicing it up

Among the big moves made by Don’s Food Products over the past year was the introduction of five gourmet, globally inspired sides.

The new products were supposed to debut in January, but the company got such strong feedback at last year’s IDDBA and Fancy Food shows — which led to paring down the line from nine to five products — that the company decided to roll them out in September.

“These are really edgy and really cool,” Cappelli says. “We hired an executive chef and she came up with some great ideas that led to a three-pronged approach of global cultures, flavors and trends.”

It resulted in dishes like Beets with Tahini, Carrots & Chickpeas with Chermoula, and Korean BBQ Green Beans. Unique flavors like this are key, Cappelli says, in staying ahead of other retailers and fast casual restaurants.

“Casual dining, they all have quinoa now and they’ve had it for a few years,” he says. “Nobody has this kind of stuff.”

Clean is king

Donahe-Stevens says that Mrs. Gerry’s commitment last year to transition a majority of its products to a clean label was vital.

“Customers continue to look for clean labels which can vary based on the type of product you are purchasing,” she says. “At. Mrs. Gerry’s the majority of our products are clean label — no MSG, no artificial colors, no artificial flavors, no high fructose corn syrup. We believe this trend will continue.”

Cappelli says that Don’s Food Products offers a portfolio of more than 140 products and that the company has been able to move 35 percent of that to the clean label category.

“Everything new that we come out with now, our goal, for the most part, is to have it go out clean,” he says.

That was the case with the new Artisan Deli line the company recently released. It includes classic tuna salads, seafood salads and chicken salads, all of which are free of artificial preservatives, flavors or colors.

The products, as with all of Don’s portfolio, are available in branded packages or in bulk to be served behind the glass.

“It’s really important to meet those clean requirements,” Cappelli says. “We’ve been able to get our products in Publix GreenWise formats and we’re doing private label cream cheese for Whole Foods. Places like that have high standards.”

The cozy classics

While trendy, exciting flavors are essential to driving new business, you can’t ignore the classics.

“Side dishes such as mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese continue to be the top sellers,” says Donahe-Stevens. Consumers are just looking for updated versions of these products as well.

“They’re requesting variations of those two products,” she says. For example, Mrs. Gerry’s offers mac’n’cheese in smoked, pub style, truffle and spicy variations and they add a sour cream and chive option to their mashed potatoes.

“Our goal is to take all the work out for the consumer while providing them with products that taste homemade that they are proud to serve their family,” Donahe-Stevens says.