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What your mother-in-law, Auntie Marge, your granny, or whoever is coming to dinner, probably doesn’t appreciate, is how the pace of modern life means that people in full-time jobs often simply don’t have time for traditional home cooking. And while popping a plastic ready-meal in the microwave might satisfy your hunger pangs, it’s hardly a gourmet experience — and it’s certainly not going to impress the mother-in-law.

It's a fact that meats and poultry look and taste more appetizing when cooked in a conventional oven. And most of us would actually like to have the time to do some real home cooking, even if it’s only by stirring the sauce or putting the chicken in the oven.

Enter the smooth-walled aluminium tray – a product that’s producing some mouth-watering sales figures for its English innovators, Nicholl Food Packaging. But what’s so clever about an aluminium tray?

Firstly, the tray is made from a special alloy of aluminium that means it can be deep-drawn with smooth sides, keeping the sides of the packaging much stronger — and more attractive — than traditional wrinkle-wall trays. That means that the product doesn’t need additional wasteful layers packaging such as cardboard – and best of all, it can go straight in the oven when you get home. Ideal for those of us that don’t enjoy massaging cold chicken...

But the advantages don’t stop there. Instead of a board lid, the tray can be hermetically-sealed with film and gas-flushed with carbon dioxide in the factory, ensuring that the food you buy is as fresh as can be, extending its sell-by date and saving on food waste. What’s more, it’s tamper-proof and you can see exactly what you’re getting – important when it comes to choosing those nice cuts of meat to impress your guests.

Finally, the new solution is more environmentally-friendly. Although the gauge of metal used is thicker than wrinkle-wall packaging, aluminium is far easier to recycle than plastic – and has likely been recycled at least once before.

Recognizing these facts has enabled Nicholl to enjoy growth of 20% a year in the UK – impressive in a mature market segment. But making smooth-wall trays isn’t all plain sailing. “It’s a much more challenging product,” says Andrew Dent, chief executive officer in Nicholl's. “It’s an ongoing development process; we’re really stretching the limits of the things you can do with a foil container,” he says.

That’s where a good relationship with Hydro is worth its weight in aluminium.

“It’s more of a partnership than anything else,” says Dent. “Hydro has a strength and depth of technical competence that not everyone has, and the size of the organization is reassuring.”

The number of units supplied is now counted in billions – and the rest of Europe has yet to catch on to the new trend. Nicholl are now designing new shapes of smooth-wall tray and promoting them to food wholesalers, who are showing great interest in innovative new solutions.

So next time you’re clearing away the dishes after that delicious home-cooked meal, spare a little thought for the aluminium that’s making your everyday life a little bit easier and more convenient. It could well have come from Hydro – and if you put it in the recycle bin, it might be going back.

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