Meal Kits with Mark, Part 2
Updated: Aug 12, 2019
The last time I shared part of my meal kit experience with you, it was focused on perhaps the biggest criticism facing meal kits: packaging and waste. This time, I want to talk a bit about ‘Meal Variety and Food Skills’, but before that I thought I would briefly discuss a journal article I came across about a week ago. You can find several news articles referencing the same journal article, but I recommend skipping those and instead reading the study itself if you have access, as it’s straightforward and relatively concise.
The goal of the study was to compare the environmental impacts of food preparation done in the traditional manner, to food preparation done using a meal kit service. The authors compared emissions from production, processing, transportation, food waste, etc. to generate a holistic perspective of the environmental impacts of either approach.
The gist of the study’s results is that although meal kits create more packaging waste, the environmental impact is potentially offset by the reduction in food waste because of pre-portioning (corroborated by other studies) combined with the reduction of ‘dedicated’ grocery store trips. There are some assumptions around the ‘dedicated’ grocery store trips which I think are problematic, but generally I am not surprised at all by the findings of this study. Clearly there are gains to be had from economics of scale and reworking our food distribution networks to reduce the impact of the last mile.
With this said, people should be skeptical of the clickbait-styled news articles that are being generated around this study as they omit the key limitations of the analysis and do not discuss the shifting food paradigm in a critical fashion. As the awareness of food waste grows, we’re going to see more studies like this which apply different methods for evaluation of the impact that our food system has on the environment.
Meal Variety and Food Skills
Recall that I ordered three vegetarian meals with two servings each from four meal kit companies. From what I have gleaned from the internet, choosing the vegetarian meals has skewed my opinions of the breadth of recipes that these companies tend to offer. My experience was that there wasn’t stellar variety in the meals I received but as a lot of vegetarians and vegans will tell you, we’re used to it. Of the twelve meals, we had four ambiguously South-East Asian curries (one from each company), three tortilla/naan ‘pizzas’ and two gnocchi dishes, while the last three were a quinoa salad, a squash dahl, and a tofu ‘ribs’ platter. Let’s just say that if our meals showed up to a fancy event, several of them would have to change.
The first week was fun and interesting; the dishes were on the fringe of our diets. They were the kinds of meals we would eat sometimes but by no means on a weekly basis. By the beginning of week three, however, my girlfriend and I had already begun to joke that we predictably ate the tortilla/naan dish first, then the gnocchi dish second, then the stir-fry/curry last.
I consider myself a bit of a foodie so it might be my fault that I felt like we did not get a lot of variety. As the weeks went on, it was actually kind of boring and eventually became a chore to prepare the meals. One of the obstacles facing meal kit companies is the intersection of food preferences and dietary restrictions. If you specify vegetarian meals, it will almost always limit your available selection of recipes to three per week. Not to mention whether or not your household has any restrictions based on food preferences. Even though I had four weeks and four companies to work with, I only had two possible combinations that worked for my household due to my girlfriend's preferences. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for households with children.
If you have dietary restrictions and strong food preferences you’re not going to get the kind of variety that you’re being sold on. Keep in mind that this is likely not the case for an omnivore. The issues around eating something you actually want to eat intensify when you consider your own food skills and cooking a recipe you’re never seen until it arrived in a refrigerated cardboard box.
Typically, if you wanted to try a new dish you would go out to eat at a restaurant you had never been to before, to taste something completely different made by somebody who has made it numerous times. Meal kits will never be able to fully replicate this kind of food exploration. What they were able to do was smaller moments of food exploration, where maybe I had eaten that kind of meal before but never with purple brussel sprouts, for example.
Even when you do get a meal kit that is completely new to you, it’s bittersweet. On one hand, you feel like you are trying out that new restaurant in town. While on the other hand, that restaurant clearly needs to hire a better chef because you have never made that recipe before.
Even when you’re kitchen-confident, if you’re making something you’ve never made before there's probably going to be some bumps in the road. There’s a trade-off between the novelty of a meal and your ability to make it. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, most people at some point will see a cool recipe online and try their damnedest to recreate it, but that doesn’t cost $60-$70 per subscription week. There is more at stake in nailing the execution of a meal kit than there is spending an afternoon on the weekend trying to make a souffle for the first time. Honestly, I’ve seen a wider variety and more practical selection of recipes on a retailer’s online menu than I have on the meal kit websites.
There’s a trade-off between the novelty of a meal and your ability to make it.
Furthermore, this bittersweet feeling won’t fade as the weeks go on. Whether intentionally or not, the recipes for meal kits don’t do a good job of teaching you new food skills. The recipes will tell you what to do, but not why or how. For example, a recipe will read “dice onions” but won’t discuss how to safely and efficiently dice onions. Or a recipe will say “cook veggies until tender-crisp” but won’t discuss why it’s important to not over-sauté vegetables so they won’t get soggy when adding in sauces later.
This kind of knowledge-transfer is really important given these subscriptions are being marketed as good jumping points for amateur cooks. This is another one of the big obstacles facing meal kits, you have to offer recipes that are simple enough for most people to think they can make at home BUT not so simple that people think they can make them at home without your meal kit service. This gets into the area that some call the Betty Crocker Paradox, so I’ll save the rest of this discussion of food skills and marketing for the next blog post.
I had the opportunity to visit a Longo’s store and happened upon a meal kit station that has modular components that you can mix and match. Notably they’re using the term ‘meal kit’ to piggy-back on the word-of-mouth marketing going on. It should also be noted that theirs are about half the price per serving of an actual meal kit subscription. I was just passing through when I saw these so I wasn’t able to pick one up, but I definitely will next time.
Recommended citation format: Wickson, M. “Meal kits with Mark, Part 2”. Food Focus Guelph (26), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, May 6th, 2019.