Over the past decade, meal kits (or what I call “meals in a box”) have become one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. food economy, with annual growth estimated at 25 to 30 percent.1 Using a subscription model, online companies offer a wide variety of home-delivered meal options. In addition, supermarkets are entering the fray, offering in-store meal kits, which accounted for ninety-three million dollars in sales in 2018.2
While not a new idea, the latest meal kit concept seeks to take convenience to a whole new level for the growing number of Americans who cannot or will not take the time to prepare food for themselves, or who want cooking tasks to be made as simple as possible. Offering “some variation of the following,” consumers pay between sixty and one hundred eighty dollars per week and “receive at their doorstep a deconstructed meal in a cardboard box—premeasured groceries, step-by-step recipe instructions, and the almost-realized fantasy of a home-cooked meal.”3
But how do these services stack up? Our household tested kits of various kinds from a half dozen companies, and I interviewed people who had used over a dozen more. While wading through the options, I found that there is a company for almost every conceivable diet—from vegan and vegetarian to ketogenic and paleo. Particular brands vary in terms of frequency of delivery and dietary accommodations, with some offering gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free or other options.
Meal kits fall into two broad categories. Some are almost (or even completely) ready to eat right out of the box after reheating or cooking. Others involve varying degrees of preparation by the purchaser—in some cases, quite a bit of preparation and more than we expected. Let’s dive into the details of these semi- to-fully prepared meals delivered right to your door.
PLASTIC AND PACKAGING
The first thing you will notice with most meal kit services is the tremendous amount of plastic and packaging used. All the items come encased in plastic, sometimes right down to rather small amounts of seasonings, marinades and sweeteners. Insulated boxes are also crucial for these services. It is startling to realize, but a few pounds of food may be accompanied by a few pounds of packaging.
Not all companies are equal with regard to packaging. Some use less—or use more sustainable, recyclable or lower-environmental-impact options. Generally, the more “ready to eat” the meal, the less total packaging is involved.
In many parts of the country, recycling isn’t available for most of the packaging materials (this is true for many store-bought food products as well). Some meal kit services market groovy-sounding packaging options such as recycled denim insulation, but these, too, often have limited recyclability. Recent investigations have also shown that in many areas, materials you turn in at recycling centers are not recycled anyway. All of this makes sustainability and recyclability claims rather dubious.
Some will point out that, depending on one’s shopping habits, the amount of packaging that comes with meal kits isn’t that much more than the packaging for typical grocery store-purchased products or meals. But especially for the condensed quantity of food, we found the amount of packaging to be quite high.
FIVE COOKS IN THE KITCHEN—AND NOT MUCH TIME SAVED
Pretty much everyone in our family took part in preparing food from the various meal services we reviewed. Between my wife, myself and our three oldest kids, we have five “cooks in the kitchen.” Our family also has a lot of cooking experience.
Despite our wealth of experience and the number of cooks, all the meals took closer to the maximum estimated time to prepare. My daughter, who prepared a number of them, said, “I would rather just cook from scratch with real food.” She quickly noted the packaging waste and observed that many of the meals took just as long to prepare as others she often makes, while yielding far less food for the same amount of work.
In terms of taste, quality of ingredients and other considerations, two of the paleo companies were hands-down the best. Were we ever to need some quick, easy alternatives (almost like take-out), these would be our choice. These options also offer a great way to get some fairly healthy “relief” meals to family and friends (if you can’t make them yourself), as a friend did for us many years ago when we had a new baby.
COSTS AND BENEFITS
How people perceive the cost of something is colored by what costs they are used to (and also, what quality!) and what they are comparing it to. We are a large family, and we are used to purchasing in bulk, especially directly from local farmers. This complicates cost comparisons because, while the quality of what we eat is quite high—grass-fed meats and cheeses and fresh, organic and whenever possible local fruits and vegetables—we don’t pay Whole Paycheck prices for this quality.
Many people equate the cost of meal-in-a-box services to the cost of eating out, which can be quite high—from fifteen to thirty dollars per person for moderate-quality food. For us, most of our day-to-day meals average around $2.50 to $4 per person, with the added bonus that our meal prep generally creates two to three meals’ worth of food. In contrast, most of the meal kits run about eight to ten dollars per person per meal. The paleo meals were the most expensive meals per person, partly because their contents were the closest to being fully ready-to-eat straight out of the box.
If you are a family of four wanting meal kits to cover three meals a week, you are looking at ninety-six to one hundred twenty dollars per week to cover less than 15 percent of your meals! This represents an annual cost of around five to six thousand dollars. By way of comparison, the average U.S. family of four spends approximately seven hundred to one thousand dollars per month—or eight to twelve thousand dollars per year—on their entire grocery budget. Thus meal kit services definitely target people and families on the higher side of the income spectrum.
One benefit of the meal services is that they arrive with premeasured portions; a number of people I interviewed mentioned this feature favorably. These individuals pointed out that it is not possible to eat more if there isn’t any more food, and in addition they appreciated the reduced food waste. However, even if this was one up side, the benefits did not seem to compensate for the meal kit services’ many drawbacks.
GREENWASHING AND CLAIMS
As is the case with the entire modern food economy, meal kit companies seek to entice consumers through claims that their meals are “natural,” “fresh,” “healthy” and “whole.” However, many meal kit companies’ actual procurement practices don’t come close to any of these claims. Again, this is true across the U.S. food system, where “greenwashing” is rampant. For example, companies that produce eggs from chickens housed in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) may festoon their egg cartons with pictures of outdoor hens. Or products containing genetically-modified or other suspect ingredients may state that they are “all-natural,” and no one will be the wiser.
It is probably prudent to be skeptical of meal kit companies’ ubiquitous claims that their meat and dairy are “hormone and antibiotic-free.” Few companies are using pasture-raised meats either, with the exception of some of the paleo companies. And while it is understandable that many people focus on the quality of meat, a shortcoming of equal or greater concern is the lack of proper preparation of grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, as well as the fact that many of these items are highly refined. Again, the paleo meal services generally appeared superior in this regard, as refined carbs were entirely “off the menu.”
Many meal kits include sauces and other menu items that provide no ingredient information at all! (A few even state that certain sauces and similar items are “a secret.”) When I emailed a few of the companies for clarification, I received evasive answers to specific questions about the use of vegetable oils, MSG and other additives and preservatives. For individuals trying to avoid a specific ingredient or who are trying to limit their intake of low-quality oils and other undesirable ingredients, this lack of transparency is problematic, to say the least.
AFFORDABLE AND EASY? NOT SO FAST
Meal kit services currently survive on large infusions of venture capital. The amount of money that is making this industry possible is staggering, with venture capitalists having invested more than one billion dollars in over one hundred competing startups over a six-year period.3 Almost none of the big players actually make money, with virtually all operating at small to significant losses—losses covered up by the constant influx of venture capital. This has translated into a roller coaster experience for some companies. The Silicon Valley company Blue Apron, for example, went from a valuation of three billion dollars to a current valuation of fifty-seven million—a 97 percent decline.4
Sadly, these hundreds of millions of dollars of easy money have an impact on buying clubs and other local food businesses that don’t have access to the same deep pockets. I know first-hand how damaging to the development of real, local food economies these meal services have been.
Meal kit companies also rely on customer forgetfulness to make their businesses go. Like rental services that hope you won’t return your movie before the deadline, many of these meal services make you sign up for a recurring delivery from the get-go. If you forget to turn it off, you are out of luck. You will get box after box after box—until you figure out how and where to cancel the account. At least a few people have found that—like trying to get out of the mob or out of farming—quitting a meal service may require nothing short of faking your own death! (In my case, I cut to the chase and directly asked customer service.)
Despite these logistical barriers, people are indeed canceling. Even as the total meal-in-a-box industry continues to grow, many of the major companies (such as Blue Apron) are hemorrhaging members.4 When you mainly get customers by offering temporary deals and deep discounts—and there is a fairly constant flow of other companies all doing the same—what incentive does anyone have to stay? The industry is understandably tight-lipped about admitting anything negative, yet article after article points to a business model where the vast majority of customers quit after just a few boxes.
For busy Americans and the ever-increasing number of young adults who have never learned basic kitchen and cooking skills, what options are available for less time-consuming but still nourishing food preparation that isn’t served out of a clown face? To Weston A. Price Foundation chapter leaders, I think the current “adulting” classes and similar trends point to an area where you can make a big difference. Start offering monthly basic or batch cooking classes!
Beyond that, if work or other factors limit your time in the kitchen, there are many other ways to pursue “convenience” without resorting to outfits propped up by gobs of fake money. One easy option is to get an Instant Pot and compile a list of quick and easy meals that you know how to make in it. Our Instant Pot has saved us on many a day that “has not gone according to plan,” turning a catastrophe into an easy, tasty meal. With some frozen organic vegetables, appropriate easy cuts of meat, some frozen stock, a few minutes of prep and an hour of cooking, you are good to go!
Second, find real-food friends interested in doing meal swaps. This gives you the option of having one night a week when you don’t need to cook. For example, you can make a meal for your friends on Mondays, and they will cover you on Thursdays.
Third, find a like-minded local family that could use some extra money and have them make meals for you. Over the years, I have seen many young families with small kids do this for others. Sometimes, those “hiring out” meals are single people who do not have time to cook because of work or school; other times, it might be families with children who don’t want to eat out because of quality issues, and order meals from another family.
Fourth, learn to batch cook. Many recipes are easy to double or triple with little to no additional work or cleanup. When we make Nourishing Traditions empanadas, we normally make a triple to quadruple batch of the filling. We freeze half of the extra filling, make a double recipe of the rest, and then freeze some finished empanadas for emergencies while having the frozen filling ready to go for a faster meal on another occasion. (Pyrex containers freeze amazingly well and allow you to store many meals plastic-free except for the lids—the lids generally last about three to seven years.)
As a final note, we found that many of the services offered “full meals” that really weren’t full meals. Also, many people we interviewed mentioned that they often substituted ingredients or had to supplement with additional dishes. If one weighs these and other limitations against our household’s rough cost of three dollars per person per meal—using a variety of tasty recipes with local and/or organic ingredients—our vote goes to the home-cooked meal every time.
SUMMARY OF MEAL KIT SERVICES
COST: Ranges from around eight to nine dollars per person per meal on the low end to as much as $12 to $14 on the high end. Generally, the more meals you get from a service, the lower the cost per meal.
CONVENIENCE: Meal preparation can take as little as a few minutes to over an hour. Typical for many services is an estimated prep time of twenty to forty-five minutes.
CHOICES: We found that only a few companies, mostly paleo, had high-quality ingredients. All of the meal services allow some degree of customization, but it varies greatly from company to company.
WHAT WE ATE
From Blue Apron, we had three meals to sample. The first one featured kale, mushrooms, pasta and prosciutto. The prosciutto was by far the best part of an otherwise forgettable meal. The second meal was chicken, rice, figs, peanuts and some veggies, with a yogurt sauce. The third meal was beef with carrots, peppers and noodles. The rice was white, pasta and noodles were both refined. All the meals came with sauces or seasoning blends that often did not divulge their full contents. None of them was particularly tastey, but we are used to really good-quality veggies. All of us thought the meals had some weird or off tastes, but we rarely eat prepackaged foods and are not used to preservatives and artificial flavors.
The paleo meals were better. We had a breakfast empanada, which was great, with a cassava flour crust, and a breakfast bowl (bacon, sweet potatoes, kale and a few other veggies). A meal of chicken pot pie was also good, but could have used some more veggies. From the other company, we had very simple meals that were basically meat and veggies—usually one good-quality meat such as chicken, beef or pork, and then a mix of two or three veggies, usually a green, a more aromatic veggie (onions, garlic, pepper, etc.) and then a starchy veggie (purple potatoes, plantain, sweet potato). All their flavors were good to very good. One paleo meal company sent us a side of Canadian-style bacon, which was excellent, and chicken stock, which was also quite good in quality. Meat dishes included stuffed pork loin (spinach, mushrooms, fresh herbs like garlic and oregano) with creamy Brussels sprouts. It was excellent. Another was beef short ribs (again, very good) with mushroom gravy and cauliflower. The paleo companies gave all ingredient information for each meal with no secrets or surprises. The paleo companies used a lot of crucifers and other greens. As for the fats used, the paleo kits provided fats of good quality, such as lard, tallow or olive oil. So, the paleo meals had the best taste and best ingredients, but the highest cost.
AUTUMN BEEF STEW
Our family beef stew recipe (adapted from the Nourishing Gourmet) is a good example of a meal that is easy to make at a fraction of the cost of the equivalent meal kit. It easily doubles or triples for freezing. Serves 8.
Total cost:$26; cost per person per serving: $3.25
Bacon grease, lard or coconut oil (2-4 tablespoons) (50¢)
2 pounds stew beef (cut into 1/2-inch pieces) ($14)
2 carrots and 2 stalks celery, diced ($1)
1 butternut squash ($2.50)
1 pound potatoes ($1.50)
1 pound sweet potatoes ($2)
1 onion (50¢)
1 cup frozen peas (50¢)
8 cups homemade stock from leftover bones stored in freezer ($3)
Salt, pepper, thyme (fresh or dried), 2 bay leaves, 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (50¢)
1. Pat beef dry and season with salt and pepper.
2. In a soup pot, heat fat (bacon grease, lard or coconut oil) over medium high heat. Brown the meat in batches (about one pound at a time). Add more fat as needed. Set aside.
3. In the remaining fat, sauté the celery and onion.
4. Return beef to pot, add 8 cups stock (or 6 cups plus 2 cups red wine), along with 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar.
5. Add a few sprigs of fresh thyme (or 2 teaspoons dried thyme), 2 bay leaves and 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar.
6. Put lid on pot, bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer for one hour.
7. While the meat is simmering, slice or cube the carrots, potatoes, butternut squash and sweet potatoes. (Mushrooms also make a great addition.)
8. After an hour of simmering, add the sliced or chopped vegetables and simmer for another hour.
9. Add 1 cup frozen peas. Simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes.
10. Add salt and pepper to taste and more balsamic vinegar if desired.
- Meyer Z. Growing home meal kit phenomenon is stirring up food industry, stressing out supermarkets. USA Today, July 3, 2017.
- Martino V. Meal kits move to grocery stores—and Walmart, Whole Foods and Kroger are taking the lead. U.S. Chamber of Commerce, April 30, 2019.
- Helm B. Startup: the inside story of how HelloFresh clawed its way to the top. Inc., July/August 2018.
- Roberts C. How Blue Apron became a massive $2 billion disaster. Observer, February 20, 2020.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2020