A meal kit won’t save us

Meal kits, illustration by Annalisa Papagna
Almost a year ago I was sitting in the metro and my eye was caught by an advertising billboard: it took me a while to understand what product was being advertised. A couple in a kitchen, surrounded by lots of vegetables and cookware, glancing at each other with a languid gaze. “Our secret? We do it several times a week”.

Once clarified that it wasn’t a service of sexy personal chefs – which I’m sure already exist – I started to gather information on the trend of meal kits. Born roughly at the same time as the food-delivery boom (Deliveroo, Foodora, etc), meal-kit companies sell and deliver the ingredients and the recipes to cook at home for a certain number of servings. All the ingredients are pre-weighted to cook by yourself avoiding waste and leftovers. You can choose how many meals do you want to receive, for how many people, and there are options for vegetarians and vegans.

At a first impact, one could say “Wow, it’s super cool! No more time wasted at the supermarket or wondering what to cook tonight”. The concept seemed so revolutionary that the main companies selling meal-kits in the US raised a lot of fundings, with enthusiastic projections for the future, and many others followed the trend, increasing the competition. Blue Apron, the biggest meal-kit company in the US, was valued 1,9 billion dollars in 2017. But just one year later, their stock had lost around 80% of the value.

As many analysts pointed out, the business model of nearly all meal-kit companies was unsustainable, despite seeming like an interesting concept. Try to imagine the complexity and the logistics chain needed to weight, pre-package and deliver a parcel containing an array of perishable items, with dozens of different combinations in the content of the parcel (because the customer can choose which recipes they want).
On top of that, since the competition is high, meal-kit companies have to spend a lot of money on advertising to attract new customers, offering coupons and heavy discounts, but in the end people cancel their subscription after 6 months – on average – which results in a very high acquisition rate (the investment a company has to make to get a new customer).

At the time of this post, in June 2019, many of the biggest meal-kit companies have been acquired by big grocery retailers: joining forces with them was the only way to stay in business, but to do so, they had to lower even more their profits.
It’s quite ironical that the same meal-kits originally created to avoid the chore of going to supermarkets ended out to be sold… in supermarkets. Some of the companies changed their business model altogether and started to deliver ready-made meals, certainly easier to sell but surely not a groundbreaking innovation.

Besides these marketing considerations – well explained in this article on Forbes – I couldn’t help but adding my grain of salt (no pun intended) to this topic.

It’s just food, but we have to deal with it

Food is our fuel to stay alive and it’s intimately related to our health but also to our planet’s health. There can be people who find food an uninteresting activity or topic but, bad news, it’s not something we can skip. On a lifespan of 80 years, with 2-3 meals a day, 365 days per year, it makes something around 73.000 meals. That’s a lot.

Now, unless you have someone who cooks for you every day (or unless you have a permanent disease or physical impairment who makes it impossible), preparing a meal is something you’ll have to deal with, sooner or later. An ordinary activity, boring for some people and enjoyable for others, as ordinary as showering or sleeping.

I love to cook and I could talk about food for hours, so I would have never thought to agree so much to this comment on a Wall Street Journal’s article, “It’s just food people. Stop obsessing over food”. One of the reasons why some people think that meal-kits are a good idea is because of the misconception of what “cooking” means. You don’t need to learn complicated techniques or to follow a recipe very strictly to create a simple, healthy meal for yourself. If you are making yourself a bowl of rice with some random veggies and one or two boiled eggs on the side, you are technically cooking. It may not be the fanciest meal in the world, but it’s rather balanced. Obsessing over recipes, ingredients or presenting your food in an Instagrammable way adds unnecessary pressure on a simple and ordinary task like cooking. So the first problem I see in meal-kits is that they reinforce this perception of “cooking” equals “following a recipe” equals “complicated/intimidating/not for me”. As if cooking tv-shows, blogs, books, cronuts, paleo diet, and mukbang were not enough, some people are also intimidated by cooking because they grew up with a parent or member of the family who was an excellent cook. Or they don’t cook because they grew up in traditional environments, with strict gender roles, where men didn’t cook at all. It was really interesting to read about this topic on Quora.

The serving price is too high for something you have to cook yourself

I browsed the websites of different meal-kits companies: the average price per serving, per person, is 7-8 €, quite expensive for a meal you still have to cook yourself, spending around 30 minutes. With a price so close to a ready-made or takeout meal, the possible outcomes are two: people who enjoyed trying a meal-kit will eventually be able to cook by themselves (and thus cancel their subscription); the others will continue to dislike cooking, they’ll get tired of the kits and switch to ready-made meals at a similar – or cheaper – price.
I’ve excluded people who have the budget to eat out every day, who don’t have time to cook at all or who employ some kind of personal chef at home: they’re clearly out of the target of meal-kit companies.
As an example, I live with my husband in an expensive European city – Paris – and our monthly expense for groceries is around 320€, including fresh vegetables, fruits, a little meat, cheese and dairies, fish, basic household cleaning products and pantry items. We do not have any dietary restrictions or allergies and we purchase very few snacks/chips/biscuits or soft drinks. Considering a 30-days month, and subtracting 8 days (eating out, takeaways), it makes around 14,5€ per day to feed two people for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Both on the customer side and the company side, meal-kits are unsustainable in the long term. And that’s a problem when the business model is based on subscriptions (who need customers to stay as long as possible).

Single-use packages and delivery issues

Receiving a meal kit involve a lot of small plastic bags and boxes. Even if in some households this is balanced by a reduction of food waste (because everything is pre-weighted and you don’t risk over-buying), do we really need individual plastic packets containing two tablespoons of mayonnaise? Wouldn’t it make more sense to gradually learn to adjust the quantities of purchased food to your family’s needs and schedule? Many sauces and preserves last months, once opened, in the fridge. For all fresh products, freezers were invented some time ago. In most meal-kit services, you have to choose your recipes and the servings around a week in advance: oh, wait, I have to check my schedule for next week, see if I or some member of my family will be away, and so on… I bet it takes the same amount of time to do a rough meal planning coming back from the supermarket.
Last but not least, even the most efficient delivery service involves waiting for a parcel to arrive, with its lot of possible delays and errors ending in food wastage, especially in hot weather.

If a meal kit won’t save us from cooking, what will?

I like to think that learning to cook is like learning to speak: you start with syllables, you repeat them many times, then you start composing words and phrases. Once you’ve learnt to speak your native language, you will never unlearn it. There will be some expressions and slang that you’ll use more frequently than others: these are your staple meals and ingredients, the ones you can prepare even without thinking. Encountering a new word is like tasting a new ingredient: you can choose to integrate it into your vocabulary or not. Not everyone will become a proficient lecturer or a super chef, but that’s fine!

That being said, here is some advice that could make your daily cooking less daunting:

Learn the basics of what makes a balanced meal (carbs, fats, vegetables and fruits, animal or vegetal proteins) and cook single dishes who contain a bit of everything. Stay away from self-proclaimed “miraculous diets”, mono-diets, DIY diets, and “light” products. If you don’t want to be a vegetarian, eat meat no more than 2-3 times a week.

Unless you are baking or preparing desserts – who need precise weighting – learn to measure servings by eye. This is also super useful to buy groceries and avoid waste: once you have an idea of your weekly volume of fresh veggies/dairies/meat/etc, it’s very unlikely that you’ll buy too much by mistake. If it happens, freeze the leftovers, raw or cooked. Unless you are following a special regimen under medical control, weighting every ingredient is unrealistic on a day-to-day basis.

Pre-cut and preserved veggies can be life-savers if you are in a rush, but try to use raw and fresh ones most of the time: they taste better (if it’s the right seasons) and are less expensive.

We are not superheroes: it’s perfectly fine to eat takeaways and ready-made meals, from time to time. It’s ok to eat the same meal for two or three days in a row if you have leftovers: your kitchen is not a restaurant.

You can’t make an omelette without eggs, but most of the time you can replace or eliminate an ingredient if you don’t have it on hand. Recipes are not engraved on stone! If you’re not familiar with an ingredient, do not buy it, especially if it’s fresh or it comes in a very big package: it will probably die all alone on the last shelf of the fridge. Taste it next time you eat out, and if you like it, Google it to know out more.

If you are getting tired of cooking the same meals over and over, challenge yourself to try a new dish or a new ingredient once a month: seek inspiration online, on food magazines, books or blogs and have fun! As an alternative, try a new restaurant. You’ll quickly expand your “vocabulary” of food.

If you live in couple, with or without kids, split the tasks: if one cooks, the other does the dishes. Kids can help with the smaller tasks: they’ll be more likely to learn to cook by themselves later if they see someone doing it on a regular basis.

Some basic equipment will be more than enough for everyday cooking: a big knife and a small one – well sharpened! – a cutting board, two wooden spoons, some saucepans and frying pans, a strainer, one or two baking trays. C’est tout! If you hate doing dishes as I do, there are plenty of recipes who need one single saucepan (or a single pan).

Even if I’m sceptical about meal kits, I recognize that they can be useful to discover new ingredients or to serve as training for a certain period of time, providing the instant gratification to cook a tasty and visually appealing meal. But again, this is not sustainable in the long run. As another comment I’ve read on the topic, “A well-stocked fridge and pantry, and a little experience and imagination, are the ultimate meal kit. ”

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