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  • Writer's pictureMark Wickson

Meal Kits with Mark, Part 3

Updated: Aug 12, 2019


As discussed in my last blog post, meal kits will always have issues with variety. They need to be familiar enough that most people are comfortable with them, but they need to do something different from traditional meal-making in order to be novel. In my view, this treading of fine lines is emblematic of the meal kit industry. Not only are there issues around the novelty of meals and the food skills necessary to cook them, there are also interesting points concerning the time spent preparing a meal and an individual's enjoyment of that meal.

The intersection of an individual's time-investment and enjoyment of a product is not a new concept. Nowadays, it's usually referred to as the 'IKEA Effect' but I first learned of it years ago in a marketing context as the 'Betty Crocker Paradox', which sounds a lot cooler and is actually related to food.

Bear with me.

The story goes that Betty Crocker released a boxed cake-mix which did not require any additional ingredients other than water. Sales of this line were low and a consultant was brought in to help. Their recommendation was to instruct consumers to add a fresh egg to the mix. Sales of the product improved greatly and to this day most boxed mixes still require us to add at least one additional ingredient. Despite the dried version of these ingredients being industrially available for many decades...

The reason that sales of the cake-mixes improved is simple: individuals will place an irrationally high amount of value on products they feel they had a hand in making.

The connection between meal kits and the Betty Crocker Paradox should be obvious. It is the part of human psychology that meal kit companies are trying to capitalize on. Selling the experience of preparing your own food. Although a company can't bottle the positive feelings you get when you cook, it can offer a meal subscription service which has you put in some of the work. But this is a pretty blunt proposition to put out in the market.

You can tell from the marketing lines and presentations how different meal kit companies try to market themselves. Some of the companies try to position themselves as healthy/organic/local/natural which are all implied to be better than your current way of eating. However, most of the big names in the industry position themselves as saving you time. Whether it's time spent at the grocery store, time spent meal-planning, or time spent preparing food.

If the underlying meal kit proposition was truly about health, time-saving, or variety, the meals could come completely prepared. But they don't. Instead they come in a 'kit' that is ready-to-make not ready-to-eat. This doesn't mean that they don't have to negotiate consumer expectations around health, time, variety, etc... They do, they just have to juggle those things in the context of creating a positive food preparation experience for the consumer.

If the underlying meal kit proposition was truly about health, time-saving, or variety, the meals could come completely prepared. But they don't.

The positive aspects of the meal preparation experience are that you may feel connected to your food, family, nostalgic memories, culture, etc... Meal preparation can also give you a sense of pride, especially in circumstances where food traditions are disappearing and/or homogenizing. It's these positive feelings that meal kits are trying to create while avoiding the potential negatives of meal preparation. There are a few different negative aspects of the experience but for the most part they can be summed up as: you could be doing literally anything else with your time/money/effort.

The challenge facing companies is that the positive aspects are linked to the negative aspects. That's the fine line being tread by meal kits; how to maximize the positive feelings individuals get from meal preparation while mitigating or minimizing the negative aspects. To have the consumer be involved in making the product enough so they value it greatly, but not so much that they see it as work. This push and pull is what results in the discussions of my two previous posts: lack of variety and excessive packaging.

In order to minimize the negatives around meal preparation, meal kit companies have eliminated the boring work and the higher-order work in order to leave the customer with the streamlined middle-of-the-road work. The higher-order work of thinking about what you want to eat, can eat, and should eat has already been done thanks to the curated menus. The boring work of shopping, pantry management, and portioning has also already been done for you. All that's left is a streamlined process where you get to do the fun stuff like mixing different ingredients together.

Eliminating the higher-order work of meal preparation will limit the variety of the recipes through two mechanisms. Firstly, the ingredients used will have to be relatively common as to not offend tastes. Secondly, the recipes will shy away from dishes that require planning ahead on the consumer's part, like marinating or leavening.

Eliminating the boring work of meal preparation is trickier as it's usually the kinaesthetic stuff like cutting and peeling vegetables which really connects us to each and every meal. So meal kits have to tread lightly as to eliminate the truly boring work while leaving us with something to feel like we're actually part of the process. In my opinion, this shift from boring work to busywork is responsible for the excessive packaging problem. Take the picture below as an example:

An image of instructions to mix a small bottle of chipotle sauce with a small bottle of mayonnaise.
This isn't the only silly instruction I received, but it is the silliest.

This recipe actually had you do more of the boring work than most of the others, however it must not have been enough before adding Step 4. Unless a condiments company has never thought to bottle chipotle mayo this recipe's sauce could have come in just one container. But it was busywork to scoop two sauces together and it would be pretty hard for a consumer to mess that up. Moreover, it served its purpose of making me feel like I was more involved in the process. All for the low-low cost of more plastic. I'm just thankful they didn't include individually packaged spices for me to make my own spice mix.

The Betty Crocker Paradox can help us to understand that in many different scenarios we're not buying a food item itself, we're buying a collection of product attributes which provide us with an emotional response. In this case, a streamlined positive feeling from preparing food. Which isn't a bad thing, it's just something I think we should be aware of.

Needless to say, I haven't been won over by the idea of meal kits. I personally think they're a bit of a contrived product and have a poor value proposition. But that's just for me and my circumstances, after many conversations with all sorts of people I've learned of many situations in which I could see meal kits having a lot of utility for certain people, but I'll save that for my last blog post on meal kits.


Recommended citation format: Wickson, M. “Meal kits with Mark, Part 3”. Food Focus Guelph (30), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, May 27th, 2019.

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