You’d think that with so many decades of cooking under my belt, my meal planning would consist of finding the easiest possible dishes to put on the dinner table. And that is generally the case, unless company is coming. Every once in a while I jump in and make a big pot of chili, or my husband’s beloved meatloaf, or I see a new recipe I just have to try. But broiled trout, steamed asparagus, and a baked potato require practically no preparation.
But within the last couple of years something new has appeared on the horizon, meal kits, dinner in a box, which is delivered to your front door ready to be opened, its contents examined like the trinkets in a Christmas stocking.
Little bottles of flavorings and little plastic bags of veggies and herbs arrive along with step-by-step illustrated directions for the dish you’ve selected – meat, fish, chicken, vegetarian or gluten-free.
The first meal kit service that penetrated my consciousness was Blue Apron, which has by now become the No. 1 ready-to-cook meal company in this country, grossing $2 billion dollars a year, and growing. By now you’ve probably received a Blue Apron coupon in the mail or seen a commercial on television.
Since the founding of Blue Apron, a good many other meal kit services have jumped into the fray, among them Hello Fresh, Terra’s Kitchen, Home Chef, Fresh Diet, Green Chef, and a pricey line from the New York Times, “brought to you by Chef’d.” The competition is fierce and the prices wide-ranging, from less than $10 a meal for Blue Apron to more than $20 a person for the New York Times’ Chilean sea bass. And these entrepreneurs are knocking each other over trying to get your business.
As I became "curiouser and curiouser" I read comparisons of several such services online. Most of the meals are delivered in cardboard and plastic packaging, which is to be discarded after use. But a couple of them pack the foods in reusable plastic containers. The box they’re delivered in is picked up at your home and returned to the fulfillment center.
Never content to be left out of the latest trend, the Giant Eagle, specifically the Market District, has thrown its hat into the ring with a meal kit called “Fresh in 30” of which I’ve tried two. More on them later.
One afternoon, as I was thinking about Blue Apron, luck smiled upon me. A neighbor had forgotten to turn off the tap of Blue Apron orders, and oops! – her doorbell rang with two more meals in a box. Not able to keep up -- like Lucy on the assembly line -- she sent the extra ones to our house.
One was Crispy Catfish with Kale-Farro Salad & Warm Grape Relish. The second a Five-Spice Chicken with Vermicelli, Mushrooms, and Baby Fennel. I was surprised by the catfish because the other services I examined offered only salmon and tilapia, which are evidently the most popular, although tilapia is a fish we never buy. We we find it tasteless and uninteresting.
We enjoyed both meals and although I’m fairly experienced in the kitchen, there was one ingredient that I had never cooked, farro, a chewy wheat grain that is gaining in popularity, and two others, kale and collard greens that I would not have thought to use the way they were in these recipes.
I assume that the target market for meal kits is millennials, young people who are interested in fresh and, if possible, organic ingredients. They want to know that what they’re consuming doesn’t contain a long list of preservatives. For that reason alone, meal kits are a good thing.
But there’s a big difference between bringing home a frozen or refrigerated entrée from Trader Joe’s or your super market to pop into the oven or microwave, and launching into assembling the contents of a meal kit when you get off a crowded bus at 5:30 in the evening.
Compared to Heat 'n Eat, meal kits are work. They require a good bit of preparation before you start cooking. For the catfish recipe I did the following mid-afternoon, before my siesta:
- · Washed, spun and “scissored “the kale
- · Chopped three tablespoons of whole almonds
- · De-leaved three rosemary stalks
- · Washed and seeded four ounces of Thomcord grapes
- · Minced two cloves of garlic
- · Measured out 2 tablespoons of flour
...and put them all aside in little Rubbermaid containers. At cooking time those items along with a 2-tablespoon packet of butter, the catfish, and a small bag of farro were mise en place, lined up like tiny soldiers ready to be turned into dinner. I would not have been happy about doing all of that busy work starting 6 p.m.
I had already made salad, so the only other quandary was at what stage to serve it. I determined that I could go to a certain point with the dinner entrée, stop, serve salad, resume cooking.
I have to say, it was a delicious dinner and as we ate it I decided that it was worth the effort it took to put it together. My husband seemed to appreciate having something entirely different from anything I had cooked for him in thirty-three years. However, he wasn’t crazy about the second meal, the Five Spice Chicken, which was a little too exotic for his elderly, Western Pennsylvania palate.
He did remark, “You have a lot to clean up over there, don’t you?” And it was true. There were quite a few pots and utensils scattered around the counter area.
The advantage of meal kits is that they supply you with exactly what you need for a each recipe so you don’t have to buy entire bottles of flavorings you might never use again. There is very little waste and a wide range of choices that provide the opportunity to try foods and combinations that might never occur to you. Plus, my husband and I are both small eaters, and some of the meals would be enough for us for two nights.
There are critics who feel that meal kits are the "Paint by Numbers" of the culinary world. But how much more creative is it to purchase ingredients and follow a recipe? The meal kit simply cuts down on time spent tracking down ingredients and wasting unused spices and produce.
Blue Apron was begun by three Harvard business school grads who had a pile of venture capital but weren’t sure what to do with it after a less-than-successful try with a crowdfunding platform for research scientists called Petridish.
When one of them was attempting to buy the ingredients for Argentinean-style steaks he suddenly thought, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if someone delivered you the ingredients in the right amounts?” He soon learned about a highly successful meal kit company in Sweden called Linas Matkasse and the rest, as they say, is history.
Would I try Blue Apron again? Absolutely. It was fun, the recipes were unique, there was no waste – and my husband liked it. What more could I wish for?
NEXT: Fresh in 30