Sweet potatoes continue to make progress moving past being just a Thanksgiving side dish, marketers say.

As recently as 2011, 20% of U.S. retail sweet potato volume sold during a two-week period around the holiday. But that figure is falling, sliding to 15.4% in 2016, according to Nielsen Perishables Group.

"Sweet potato sales have grown each of the past five years in part because of a shift away from its reliance on Thanksgiving sales to more everyday sales," said Matt Lally, client manager for Nielsen's Fresh Growth & Strategy Team.

"In order to take sales growth to the next level, sweet potatoes need to capitalize on the growing trend of prepared and value-added vegetables. Opportunities also exist to market and communicate the diverse uses of sweet potatoes as people look to substitute items with healthier alternatives."

Marketers already are capitalizing on the shift toward convenience items. J.D. Wyborny, marketing director, Ham Produce Co. Inc., Snow Hill, N.C., said consumers, including millennials, are hungry for grab-and-go food options.

"The microwaveable sweet potato is perfect because it satisfies the demand for a convenient and healthy food option," he said.

Kelley Precythe, vice president of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C., said demand continues to grow for both individually wrapped, microwavable sweet potatoes and microwave steamer bags.

"People want faster and easier," he said. "They want convenience. There's good business for that."

How good? According to the Nielsen Perishables Group, U.S. sweet potato retail sales were valued at $354 million last year, up from $275 million in 2012.

George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C., said his company's sales of steamer bags have grown by "thousands of percent" during the last five years.

"Growth has been phenomenal," Wooten said, who added that convenience items account for 15% of the company's retail business. "It hits on fast, flavorful, value and healthy."

Domestic consumption of sweet potatoes has increased from 4.2 pounds per capita in 2000 to 7.5 pounds in 2015, according to the USDA. But convenience doesn't tell the whole story. Autumn Campbell, sales for Matthews Ridgeview Farms, Wynne, Arkansas, said a growing number of consumers also are looking for something healthy.

"Always be ready to offer promotional prices, offer recipes and brochures for your customers' shelves, and nutritional info is also beneficial," Campbell said, whose employer sells steamer bags of Petite Sweets.

Laura Hearn, marketing and business development director for Nash Produce, Nashville, N.C., said being able to cook healthy food in eight minutes or less is a huge benefit for consumers.

"There is increased demand for all quick, no-fuss produce items," she said. "I do not see this trend slowing down. However, in my opinion when there is enough time, you cannot beat a traditionally baked sweet potato."

Hearn isn't alone, and the demand for a variety of choices is reflected in retail stores across the country. Wooten said the category has grown from two stock-keeping units - white or orange sweet potatoes - to much more in recent years.

"You go to most major chain stores, and you might see five SKUs," said Wooten, who noted that those choices could include bulk, steamer bags, individually wrapped microwavable potatoes, tray packs, organics, fresh-cut items and bags.The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, Benson, offers resources to inform retail store dietitians, who in turn educate consumers about the health aspects and versatility of sweet potatoes, executive director Kelly McIver said.

Consumers are starting to think differently about how sweet potatoes can be prepared, said Leah Brakke, director of new business development for Black Gold Farms, Grand Forks, N.D.

"It's no longer just the basic sweet potato casserole from Thanksgiving," she said. "They are used as a staple now in many family meals - as a side, a main or even a dessert."

It helps that food and nutrition professionals continue to promote the health and versatility virtues of the sweet potato, said Duane Hutton, manager for Yagi Bros. Produce Inc., Livingston, Calif.

"It has become an item that is consumed 52 weeks a year in all areas of the country and among all age groups," he said.