Food at Work: Are Meal Kits the Answer?
The first time I used a meal kit delivery service, I was mortified. Not by how the meal turned out. Not by my ignorance of some of the spices involved. But by the pile of packaging that had been required to get all the ingredients to my house. As a San Francisco Bay Area resident, I waited till dark to take it all out to the garbage bin so my neighbors wouldn't see.
I felt ridiculous receiving these little pre-portioned baggies of paprika and two leaves of basil.* Is it really that difficult to just walk to the grocery store and ferry everything home in my reusable bag?
My concerns were about much more than environmental sustainability, though. I was—and still am—trying to imagine if meal kits are the future. Can services like Plated, Blue Apron, Sun Basket, and HelloFresh be the training wheels of cooking, helping Americans gain confidence in the kitchen? Or are they just another temporary fix for getting through a busy week? Can they help us take more control over our food choices, or might they leave us manacled in perpetual reliance on professionals in order to feed ourselves?
At the time, 2013, I was among the first in Northern California to trial the meal kit company Plated. I had met the cofounder, Nick Taranto, and he asked me to give his service a whirl. He wanted my honest feedback, which went something like this: Yes, the meal came together in 30 minutes, as promised in the visual step-by-step instructions. No, not everyone knows what a Microplane is. Yes, it tasted delicious. No, it wasn’t nearly enough food for my hungry husband (then boyfriend). Yes, the local sourcing was a big sell. No, the service was not affordable for me as a graduate student or for millions of Americans to use on a regular basis.
Let’s just say a meal kit lover that first experience did not make.
But you know what? The meal kit market has evolved since then, and so has my thinking.
* I buy the argument that you waste less because you don’t buy the whole box of paprika and forget to use it in another dish, or that maybe you don't have another opportunity to use an entire container of basil before it turns brown. But still, the cooling packs, the huge cardboard box, and all the silver, space-like insulated liners were a deal-breaker for me.
As explored in the first three parts of this year-long series on food and work—“Food at Work: The Lifeblood of San Francisco’s Tech Boom,” “Secular Church: Will Brunch Save Your Soul?” and “All Work and No Breakfast: Food as Fuel”—there are some pretty pesky problems getting in the way of an ideal food culture in the United States. Compared to the rest of the major developed countries, Americans spend the least amount of time each day eating. We also spend the least amount of time cooking. It’s one of the great contradictions of the food movement, that for all our apparently heightened interest in food (interest that’s a chief content provider to Instagram, Food Network, Yelp, and the like), we actually haven’t matched that enthusiasm by making more of our food at home. We eat out at restaurants more, order delivery more, and generally outsource more of our meal-making to the food and food-service industries. Most often, what we order away from home isn’t nearly as good for us as what we might put into our bodies when preparing a meal ourselves. Compared with about a generation ago, we don’t take lunch breaks as often, so we eat at our desks; we snack more, so we eat alone more often; we feel busier than we used to, so we skip breakfast or eat on the run; and we eat more packaged foods. There are many drivers of our current culinary reality, but one big one is that we work more than we used to.
All told, we’re eating more total calories than we used to, and millions of Americans suffer both reduced life expectancy and quality of life due to diet-related disease, while our healthcare system gets buried under the consequences. The list goes on.
Are you depressed yet? The purpose of this exercise is not to place blame or engender guilt; trust me, if there’s one thing I know about the American food psyche after writing a book about it, it’s that we supply plenty of guilt on our own. Instead, the purpose is to point out that information alone will not dig us out of this hole. It won’t empower people to find joy and health and an easy conscience in their daily relationships with food.
Information and education aren’t useless by any stretch, but what we really need are better tools. Many of us lack command of a kitchen. Culinary literacy. An intuition about what ingredients go with what, what’s in season when, and how on earth to use the broiler. Given the circumstances, I welcome all comers to the innovation table. And despite my skepticism, there are a lot of things these meal kit services are doing right.
1. EMPOWERING HOME COOKS
In my book, meal kits have a leg up on some other purported solutions to our public health and food system ails because they offer more than a quick fix or a Band-Aid for the acute condition. (i.e. Ahh! Hangry! Must eat now!) They offer tools and training, which can help alleviate the chronic condition. (i.e. How can I feel good about what I’m feeding myself and my family each day?)
All these years later, I checked back in with Nick Taranto, to get his reflections on Plated’s stated role in the lives of its users: “We believe that meal kits are a part of refamiliarizing Americans with the art of cooking.”
That familiarity is key, as meal kits can be great vehicles for culinary education. For example, I love hearing that someone first made a dish through Plated, was so pleased with how it turned out, they went out and bought all the ingredients themselves, and made it by memory a second time. It’s now in their repertoire.
Take it from Sally Rogers, Slow Food San Francisco’s board chair, who shared her thoughts via email: “Meal kits, like grandma’s handwritten recipe card, a food blogger with beautifully styled food photos, or a local chef’s new cookbook, can be a form of inspiration for people who don’t have confidence in the kitchen. But unlike all those other forms of inspiration, meal kits are inherently enabling tangible discovery and learnings because they are the food.” She adds: “I think the training wheels will eventually come off and people will continue to discover and learn on their own.”
2. EXPANDING PALATES
Globally inspired menus can be found across the various meal kit platforms, and they provide a roadmap for preparing foods that many folks never knew existed or wouldn’t otherwise have known how to make on their own. (Shakshuka, anyone?) “Plated encourages discovery in the kitchen,” Taranto told me. “It's a great feeling to see customers share social posts or reach out and tell us about how excited they were to cook a new dish or try new ingredients and flavors.” By being continuous sources of inspiration and novel flavors to experience, meal kits might actually help us sustain cooking as a long-term lifestyle by avoiding the home cook’s dreaded rut.
3. INSPIRING HEALTHIER EATING HABITS
Unique to the San Francisco Bay Area, and touting a chef with Slanted Door credentials, Sun Basket is a meal kit company whose CEO finds that many of its users do make a consistent habit of the service.
“There is a huge disconnect in people's lives today,” said Adam Zbar, CEO of Sun Basket, in an email. “They want to live better, healthier lives, but they're also busy; millennials in particular often have little differentiation between their work and personal lives. At Sun Basket, we work to help users to the parts of cooking which are really fun and gratifying—the act of cooking and eating delicious, healthy food—without expending time and energy on the parts they don't always have time for, namely planning and grocery shopping.”
(And it turns out, I wasn’t the only one concerned about the environmental angle: Sun Basket first got my attention for its compostable and recyclable packaging and its sustainable sourcing.)
As with anything related to diet, in evaluating whether something is “good” or “bad,” healthy or not, you have to ask, Instead of what? If subscribing to a meal kit service means you’re forgoing crappy frozen pizza or the drive-thru for a burger and fries, then great. Safe to say, you’re trading up. But surprisingly, meal kit companies may be doing more than replacing less optimal options in the moment: they may indirectly be nudging people to shift toward healthier, more environmentally friendly eating patterns over the long run.
One HelloFresh user told me that seeing the vegetarian-themed option appear in her account interface enabled her and her meat-loving husband to go meatless the three nights a week they use the service. Having successfully cooked weeks of delicious dinners while in HelloFresh’s hands, before they had reached a level of trust where they felt that, no matter the type of cuisine, the meal would turn out great.
The bottom line is that meal kits aren’t the answer, but for many people, they’re one of the answers. Because they extend a compelling invitation into the kitchen.
However, amid growing sales of meal-replacement products like Soylent, along with food delivery companies and automated meals-in-a-minute like Eatsa, food as fuel and instant gratification are still thriving. The larger question remains how we as a people will value food, and how much time we’ll collectively deem is worth spending in a given day thinking about, obtaining, consuming, and cleaning up after it.
The idealist in me longs for a time when being well-rounded was a virtue. The notion of Renaissance men and women, who have multiple dimensions outside of work—they read for pleasure, play music and sports, teach their kids gardening and baking, volunteer at their community center, and so on. But gone are the days of the 40-hour work week, when that work “week” even had such a clear-cut start (Monday) and finish (Friday). Today, overwork has edged out a lot of the time that might have been spent on other elements of living. So the realist in me acknowledges that chopping the butternut squash by hand doesn’t make you a better person than someone who feels just fine using the little baggie of prechopped squash. At least you’re eating squash.
Everything about the highly specialized nature of our economy is telling us that meal planning, shopping—and definitely chopping—are grunt work. When you’re a well-paid engineer at Facebook and one hour of your time carries a sky-high market value, why bother with 15 minutes at a cutting board?
Yet, the more we see these elements of cooking as chores not worth our time, the more dependent we remain. Then, the not purchasing the squash, or the not chopping the squash—those are the tethers that keep meal kit companies from becoming obsolete.
Because only when the tethers are cut, when the training wheels come off, will we see a true shift in our food culture. And I can’t help but wonder: Why would these companies be in this business unless they don’t think we’ll ever get there?
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Food at Work: Are Meal Kits the Answer? was originally published in the Fall issue © 2017 Edible San Francisco.