Meal Kits by Mail Make Dinner Prep a Snap, but Do They Make Sense?

A Look at What Meal-Kit Delivery Is Serving Up

Picture this: While you’re at the office, running errands, working out at the gym, shuttling your kids to lessons and practices, or otherwise living your life, all the fixings for a delicious dinner have been delivered to your doorstep.

“In just a few short years, more than 100 companies have jumped into the meal-kit game.”

A well-timed gift from a kind and generous lasagna-baking neighbor? No, actually you’re the cook, and that well-insulated carton on the front porch holds the keys to unleashing your inner Iron Chef, or, at the very least, putting a lovely meal on the table for your family. Welcome to the world of meal-kit delivery. Join me as we tear open that box and take a peek inside at the inner workings of this phenomenon that’s making chefs out of even the most reluctant dicer, slicer, and mincer among us.

First Course: How It All Works

A relatively new option for time-strapped cooks, meal-kit delivery takes the guesswork out of dinner preparation by providing everything needed to make a full meal right in one box. The big players in the game—Blue Apron, Plated, and HelloFresh—operate under essentially the same subscription model. Customers visit a website; peruse recipes; check out nutrition information, calorie counts, and prep-time estimates; salivate a bit over the artfully executed food photos; and, ultimately, make their selections. They can customize their orders based on how many dinners they want to serve each week, how many people each meal will serve, and what day they would like their package to be delivered.

Meal Kit delivery marketing - ingredients

What arrives with a ceremonious thud (or maybe just a gentle kerplunk if your UPS delivery person is little less zealous than mine) on your doorstep on the designated day is an insulated box containing a well-illustrated recipe card and dry and liquid ingredients that have been carefully premeasured, packaged, and sealed. Also nestled among the dry-ice packs are fresh produce, which is typically packed whole, and meat, poultry, or fish components, which are generally individually wrapped and sealed. Pull out the Ginsu knife, go to town on those veggies, pop your creation in the oven (or sauté, steam, or stir-fry, as the case might be), and before you know it, you’ve got a delightful, if not quite Jamie Oliver–quality, meal.

Let There Be Dinner Peace

We have an enterprising Swedish company to thank for the burgeoning meal-kit-delivery phenomenon. In 2007, Middagsfrid—which translates roughly to dinner peace—started offering its version of cook-it-yourself dinner kits. A German company, HelloFresh, joined the fray in 2011, and by 2012, American startups Blue Apron and Plated were offering up some dinner peace of their own. Other names in the fast-growing meal-delivery business include Munchery, Sprig, Maple, and Chef’d. And then we have niche companies like Sun Basket, with its northern California sensibilities; Just Add Cooking, specializing in New England recipes; PeachDish, featuring Southern-style offerings; and Purple Carrot, which caters to vegans. “In just a few short years, more than 100 companies have jumped into the meal-kit game,” the New York Times reported in April.

The likes of the New York Times and popular TV cooking shows have joined forces with meal-kit companies to spotlight their recipes—and gain exposure.

While convenience is the clear draw of the dinner-prep kits, freshness is a close second. Fresh and locally sourced ingredients are highly touted. Plated’s website boasts “meat [from] animals raised without antibiotics, seafood domestically and sustainably sourced, and produce always fresh from partners we trust.” Blue Apron prides itself on its “specialty ingredients that are fresher than [those sold in] the supermarket and meats [from livestock] naturally raised on antibiotic- and hormone-free diets.” A Forbes article described an exchange between Matt Wadiak, Blue Apron’s master chef, and Oakley, California, farmer Patrick Johnston, in which Wadiak and one of his Blue Apron partners, Matt Salzberg, on a quest for fresh zucchini, struck out on that front but negotiated a deal with Johnston for the plants’ blossoms. Yes, blossoms. For garnish. Now that’s a specialty ingredient. (That was pretty much Johnston’s reaction, too, according to the Forbes story.)

Cross-Branding Opportunities

Meal kits have caught the eye of more than just the harried dinner preparers among us. The likes of the New York Times and popular TV cooking shows have joined forces with meal-kit companies to spotlight their recipes—and gain exposure. Chief among the kit-delivery companies teaming up with others is Chef’d, which has exclusive partnerships with over 90 chefs, companies, and brands, like the James Beard Foundation and the website Allrecipes. This summer the Times came on board, and now Chef’d customers have the opportunity to order packs that include all the ingredients to recreate an individual NYT Cooking recipe or lock down a multimeal subscription. Bloomberg writer Gerry Smith summed up the marriage: “The Times’ foray into meal delivery is another example of how the publisher is looking for new ways to make money from its content, brand, and journalists to hedge against the uncertain future of newspapers.”

Convenience Comes at a Cost

The kits are convenient, the ingredients are fresh and sustainably sourced, and the resulting meals are delectable and home-cooked. So what’s the catch? Well, for starters, there’s the cost. Averaging between $8.74 and $12 per person, the meal kits are beyond the reach of many. Even as an occasional splurge, that’s a chunk of change, especially considering you typically purchase a multimeal subscription, not a single meal. Blogger Ali Brown Pinkerton, who tried Blue Apron for three weeks (her one-week trial subscription turned into a three-week commitment when she didn’t cancel on time—buyer beware), came away from her experience with this impression: “I suspect most people are like me and spend far less than $10 per meal per person with grocery shopping and meal planning. I spend about $80 to $90 per week on groceries to cover all of our meals, except for the two that we eat out each week, so spending $60 on three dinners doesn’t make sense for us financially.”

Fresh Greens, but Not-So-Green Packaging

Another downside that’s received a fair amount of attention is the copious volume of waste the kits produce. From the outer box to the numerous individual cartons and shrink-wrapped packages, a typical meal, while tasty and timesaving, can easily send a dozen or more pieces of packaging material to the landfill. Meal-kit proponents counter with the argument that grocery stores are also responsible for a great deal of shipping refuse—something most of us don’t see, because it’s handled behind the scenes.

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Writing for the Kitchn, Jill Moorhead summed up the environmental issue: “Most meal-kit companies ship multiple meals in one box. Three seems to be the magic number, and this makes sense—the financial (and carbon) footprint of shipping each meal separately would be enormous. Still, nearly every ingredient contains its own packaging. Garlic clove? Tiny plastic bag. Half an onion? Slightly bigger plastic bag. A recent kit from Green Chef generated more than 25 separate bags and containers, including a cardboard box filled with tissue paper and a plastic caddy to ensure the safe arrival of a single egg.”

While convenience is the clear draw of dinner-prep kits, freshness is a close second.

It’s an issue that meal-kit companies are well aware of and that they have begun to address. HelloFresh CEO Adrian Frenzel recently announced, ”We are making a concerted effort to reduce our carbon footprint.” He said the company has introduced new eco-friendly packaging that eliminates Styrofoam and reduces total packaging waste by up to 50 percent. Hello Fresh encourages subscribers to ship back their packaging for credit, and many meal-kit companies urge customers to reuse the ice blocks that come with each kit. It takes a bit of searching, but Blue Apron’s website informs its customers how to recycle its packaging, too.

And in a move that’s exceptionally eco-friendly, Freshly listened to complaints from its customers and did away with Styrofoam insulation in favor of a product made from recycled denim. “Because millions of people are getting meal kits in boxes, as an industry we’re gaining the purchasing power to go to major packaging concerns and say we want better solutions,” said Michael Wystrach, a founder and the chief executive of Freshly. “Styrofoam is no longer the best or even the most economic choice.”

A Win for the Kits: Less Food Waste

On the flip side of the packaging-waste argument is the fact that with the kits less food should be wasted. You get exactly what is needed to make a meal, no more, no less. A recipe that calls for two stalks of celery comes with just that—two stalks of celery. You’re not left with the rest of the bunch, destined to go limp and lifeless in the far recesses of your fridge (yes, I speak from experience). Meanwhile, back at company headquarters, what happens to fresh leftovers that don’t make it into a kit? Hungry employees to the rescue! At Green Chef, at least, the company cafeteria uses as much of the leftover produce as possible. What isn’t turned into a lunchroom offering is generally composted. Michael Joseph, Green Chef’s CEO, explained, “When it comes to the ends of … onions, or even seeds and stems of a bell pepper, all of those are diverted to commercial composting facilities to be used as healthy biomass, instead of being sent to a landfill.”

What Would Julia Think?

Are meal kits by mail the wave of the future? Judging from the looks of things, and considering the popularity of subscription boxes in general, as described in a 2015 Hypergraphia blog by Amanda Luedeke, Britton Marketing & Design Group copywriter, they’re probably here to stay, in one form or another. We’re not sure how the illustrious chef Julia Child would feel about this newfangled culinary concept, but we like to think she might agree that some manner of cooking is better than no cooking. Child is credited with saying, “In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

So open that box, tie on your apron, and channel your inner Julia Child. You just might hear the echo of her immortal words as you sit down to eat: “Bon appétit!”

Photos: Shutterstock

Chip Compton

Chip Compton

Chip Compton has written on a variety of marketing and design topics and personalities, including Stefan Sagmeister, female creative directors, and luxury brands. His work has appeared on “Get with the Confusion,” Medium, and Pop Matters.

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