Meal Kits with Mark, Part 1
Updated: Aug 12, 2019
Meal kits aren’t exactly a new food trend in Canada, but with some relatively recent industry shakeups like HelloFresh Canada buying Chef’s Plate and Metro partnering with Miss Fresh, consumers and foodies are keeping a close watch to see what new offerings come to our plates.
If you don’t know anything about meal kits – don’t worry – I was in your shoes about a month ago. A meal kit is a box that comes with the basic ingredients and instructions to make a meal. They are marketed as a time-saving solution because you don’t have to plan OR shop. Most will ship the meal kit directly to you, while some programs will have consumers go to a central location to pick it up themselves.
For a while, I would get promotions in the mail for a variety of meal kit companies. I would always be a little offended by the thought of using one because I consider myself to be a pretty good cook and meal-planning has never been that big of a chore for me. Moreover, I always thought the price point of $50-$70 for the smaller packages was just too much for only a few meals.
The thing is, meal kit companies typically discount the first week quite heavily due to their retention issues and I love a good deal. So I signed up for as many meal kits as I could to see what all the fuss was about.
When you sign up for a meal kit program, at least the larger ones, you have a few different decisions to make. Generally, it goes a little like this:
Choose between omnivore meals, vegetarian meals, or put in other dietary restrictions like seafood allergies
Choose which weeks you want to receive meals and delivery dates
Choose how many servings you want, usually the only options are 2 or 4, there are some particular companies that will go as high as 24
Choose how many meals you want for a given week, usually you will select 2-3 meals from among 5-6 options
Some programs will have further options like a ‘smoothie add-on’ for breakfast or ‘quick meal’ bundles which take less time to prepare
I can see how all of these options could create a little bit of decision anxiety, especially for households with multiple children, busy schedules, and different dietary restrictions. Luckily, my household is fairly simple. There is only me, my girlfriend, and our cat (who as of yet does not subscribe to any meal kits).
My girlfriend and I both eat strict vegetarian diets and eat almost exclusively vegan meals at home. This quickly limited the variety of meals offered to us as every company I subscribed to only had three vegetarian meals in their weekly menu.
We were able to sign up for four different meal kits over four weeks with the same type of bundle, two servings of three vegetarian meals. The particular bundles cost anywhere from $60-$70 CAD per week without discounts.
Over the course of four weeks I documented the process of incorporating these products into my life. At the end of it all, I realized that my notes fit into just four areas of discussion:
Packaging and Waste
Meal Variety and Food Skills
The Betty Crocker Paradox
Utilities of Food
I will spend the rest of this post discussing my thoughts on meal kit waste and will tackle the rest in later posts.
Unless you’re new here, you know that one of the areas of research for Food Focus is waste, particularly food waste. Some of my first interactions with Molly and Mike were actually spent sorting and weighing food scraps.
The most common criticism of meal kits that I hear is that they have a lot of packaging waste. If you can’t tell from the photo above, I have to agree. Each meal kit delivery program will use a huge box by necessity, which works out to be about 2.6 kg of cardboard waste per month that you wouldn’t otherwise be producing. There is also the myriad of loose plastics and cutesy containers used to house the ingredients. Naturally, consumers are encouraged to reuse these containers by the companies.
I think these encouragements are a little more than disingenuous, this may have more impact if you know a little bit about me. I’m a sucker for tiny Rubbermaid containers. Almost all of the meals I eat at home are cooked from scratch. My girlfriend and I meal prep most Sundays. If I ever eat out and the take-away container is firm plastic, I will gleefully add it to my stash. Which is to say that I’m probably one of the more likely people to reuse these things. However, only one of the numerous plastics bags has found a second life as my designated frozen banana bag. Not to mention that I have only reused two of the small sauce containers. Once each, that’s it.
After only four weeks of meal kits, I have a drawer of plastic which I otherwise would not have that I don’t want to throw away because I would feel guilty. The thing is that the people who would reuse these containers likely already have enough.
With this said, I don’t think the boxes or plastics are actually the most contentious issue of waste for meal kits. My biggest gripe was actually the ice packs contained in each box. Here’s a Mother Jones article from a couple years ago which, in my opinion, does a great job of laying out in detail everything wrong with meal kit ice packs. In short, they are not as safe or as recyclable as companies insist they are and at best I’m skeptical of the efficacy of the ice pack return program of some of the companies.
HelloFresh and Chef’s Plate were my first two deliveries and in my naïveté I thought their 0.9 kg ice packs were a little much. Needless to say, GoodFood’s 1.9 kg and Miss Fresh’s 3.8 kg ice packs blew me away, especially since I am not getting raw meat in my vegetarian kits.
Whether it’s anxious self-awareness or heartfelt marketing, each of the meal kit companies included some type of promotional messaging around sustainability. One key component of the messaging is “exactly what you need”, meaning you won’t be wasting excess food because you bought too much. I actually think this is something that the meal kits did well. I had issues with some instructions being ambiguous about peeling certain vegetables that don’t need to be peeled. This passes the buck onto the consumer, but the recipes frequently had me use even more of the produce than I typically would, e.g. mince the stems of herbs not just the leaves.
I think this point leads back to established discussions of where food wastage occurs along the food value chain. The reality behind “exactly what you need” is that it means “we already took out the bits you won’t like”. This may not be that bad though. There can be a lot of uses for food refuse at an industrial scale, such as supplements or livestock feed. Whereas, in a home there are certainly uses for many types of food scraps but the cost and onus of labor is on the individual to follow through.
There are limitations to what companies can and can’t do in order to get you a box of ready-to-cook food. Meal kits aren’t new, neither are these criticisms. The amount of packaging and ice packs used are unlikely to change a whole lot beyond additional greenwashing. But I do think that this has been an opportunity for other actors in the food world to capitalize. We already see Community Supported Agriculture groups running harvest box subscriptions with minimal packaging.
I wager that in the short-run we will see more food retailer and meal kit partnerships as it cuts delivery costs for meal kits and its great way to promote flagship products for retailers. In the long-run however, I think it’s inevitable that food retailers will offer their own form of meal kits to bridge the apparent product offering gap between on-the-shelf and take-away hot meals. Most retailers already offer weekly menus and recipes free of charge anyway.
But I’ll get into that more next time.
Recommended citation format: Wickson, M. “Meal kits with Mark: Part 1”. Food Focus Guelph (22), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, April 18th, 2019.