Do You Really Need a Meal Kit in a Box Delivered to Your Doorstep?


“To me, meal kits feel like cheating, not cooking,” chef Amanda Cohen wrote in a New York Times op-ed titled “You Don’t Need Blue Apron to Teach You to Turn On Your Oven.” But despite the hack for quicker, simpler homemade meals, Cohen found some good in the existence of these minimal-assembly-required cooking phenomenons.

“I started writing that article and I thought I was going to be so against meal kits and by the end, I truly was like, you know what, I’ve been proved wrong,” Amanda Cohen told me in the dining room of her Lower East Side restaurant, Dirt Candy. “I think they’re great for first-time cooks.”

While preparing food used to be essential to survival, a TV dinner-raised generation followed by a takeout-everything generation mostly erased the tradition of parents teaching their kids to feed themselves. College students often find nourishment through a pre-paid meal plan entitling them to unlimited cafeteria buffets and grilled specialties, and recent grads put their salaries toward Seamless and UberEats (or eat for free at startups that provide catered meals) and dining out in actual restaurants, rather than enrolling in cooking class. A recent study found that millenials typically eat out five times a week, and many are also in the habit of buying brewed coffee out of the house as well as drinking in bars, rather than at home.

In 2016, Americans broke a record, spending more money going out to eat than on groceries. And while millenials have been found to spend more on groceries than any other generation, they also make more impulse purchases and use fewer coupons than previous generations, shop at convenience stores (which typically sell food at higher prices than traditional grocery stores) and extend the prioritizing of convenience to purchase products like pre-spiralized turnip noodles and blend-and-go smoothie cups.

Enter, meal kits, a pre-measured, packaged compromise between takeout and grocery shopping that lets subscribers prepare a tasty, often healthy meal at home with minimal planning ahead, nominal cooking skill (if you can read directions, you can follow the steps to a successful pasta bake) and nearly effort-free prep and clean up.

Blue Apron, perhaps the most iconic meal kit in the U.S., debuted in 2012, reaching a $2 billion valuation by 2015. The concept, similar to the U.K.’s HelloFresh (now available stateside) and countless other spin-offs inspired by Blue Apron’s rapid success, is this: A collection of perfectly proportioned—in some cases pre-peeled and chopped—perishable and dry ingredients is shipped to a subscriber’s doorstep in a box that contains ingredients for generally three meals a week, feeding two people.

Illustrated step-by-step instructions for the recipes are included and the ingredients are often individually packaged and wrapped, which has led to some criticism of the amount of non-recyclable waste created by these already carbon footprint-inducing kits. While food waste is minimized by having the exact proportions of everything one needs (including, oftentimes, a single bay leaf packaged in a tiny plastic bag), disposable plastic, Styrofoam and cardboard is abundant in these packages.

Some meal kits, like Terra’s Kitchen, are delivered in reusable plastic cartons that are then shipped back to the supplier, but still, how sustainable are these subscription kits? How many tiny bottles of balsamic vinegar does one need before one realizes an average size bottle should be a kitchen staple? 

One study showed that 75 percent of meal kit subscribers quit the service within the first year, and Blue Apron’s extremely disappointing IPO in summer 2017 (albeit, poorly overlapping with Amazon’s announcement of acquiring Whole Foods) raises a red flag about the future of meal kits.

Still, Cohen, who admitted feeling bad for Blue Apron, thinks meal kits can be an important tool in helping millennials learn to cook. “Meal kits really do teach you how to cook, how to explore ingredients and how not to be scared,” Cohen said. “Everybody I talk to who has used them says they’re more adventurous [after using them].”

Paging through a cookbook can be intimidating and time consuming. Not only do you have to choose what to cook, but you have to shop for the right ingredients (some of which you may have never used before), clean and chop them, measure them and focus on following the steps of the recipe. Meal kits alleviate some of the choice and stress of learning new recipes and techniques.

A Hello Fresh kit sent as a gift from my girlfriend’s mom taught me how to make fish tacos, a recipe I never would have considered making at home. A Marley Spoon Thanksgiving Box walked me through the steps of cooking my own turkey, all while preparing cream cheese-filled mashed potatoes and baked stuffing. Another meal kit taught me how to make steak salad on pre-charred corn. Another one, from Sun Basket, guided me through making a Middle Eastern-style turkey burger with homemade yogurt sauce and pre-cooked tomatillo sauce. This delicious experience encouraged me to buy fresh tomatillos from my local market and try the entire process from scratch, weeks after enjoying my original meal kit.

Cohen said that repeating the recipes from a meal kit is a great way to learn to cook and figure out what and how you like to cook. While I haven’t verbatim repeated a meal kit recipe to date, I’ve broiled fresh fish, made steaks in a cast iron skillet and tasted new glazes and sauces for chicken since cooking from meal kits. While I’ve always been interested in cooking, and started college with an already steady set of kitchen skills, the meal kits I tried forced me to break out of my comfort zone (pasta, homemade sauces and soups, and more pasta, some of it homemade) and play with new ingredients, seasonings and techniques I wouldn’t default to after a Whole Foods run. On occasion, I haven’t been able to use all the ingredients in my meal kit (a spontaneous after-work dinner or plan coinciding with a meal kit week) and have frozen or repurposed them in new recipes, a skill that hopefully other meal kit users will pick up.

The need to use fresh ingredients, immediately, is not inherently American. This is both a symptom of most neighborhoods not having wet markets, like in Asia, or fresh fruit stands, like in Europe or Latin America, where you can pick up the day’s dinner necessities. “American fridges are so big, they feel so empty if they’re not filled up,” Cohen said, noting that she has only a tiny fridge at home (she also has an entire restaurant, so there’s that). Still, she advocates for only buying what you need, preventing waste and cooking what is locally fresh and available, but still, that’s not always realistic, even in cities like New York.

Despite her belief in the helpfulness of meal kits to nervous first-time adult cooks, Cohen isn’t sure the trend will last, especially as novices grow out of the boxes and into their own kitchens. “Trends never last,” Cohen said, speculating that “something else we haven’t thought of” will be the next big food thing. We're already seeing a surge of food and kitchen products targeted to millennials just starting to navigate their own kitchens, like the new cookbook The Hot Mess Kitchen (with recipes for “Chicken breasts that don’t suck”) and gourmet-seeming pre-cooked sous vide kits from startups like RealEats, and even cookware, like the Kickstarter-backed Misen.

Amanda Cohen’s half-satirical guess at the product that will disrupt the meal kit surge? A drone wet market that comes to your door: Choose the produce you want and a recipe suggestion will print out based on your selection. “It’s a billion-dollar idea,” Cohen declared, with a laugh. 

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