The FAQ Series: Box Meal Kits

Well, hello there! How is 2018 treating you thus far? We over here at FQF are currently swanning our way through France and Germany, and we’ll be sending you some delightful travel missives in the not-too-distant future. But until then, we’d like to talk about box meal kits, because they’ve been a popular topic of conversation lately on both our professional and personal circuits.

What are box meal kits, you might ask? They’re basically recipes and ingredients shipped to you on a regular or on-demand basis, from which you craft (hopefully) delicious, quick(ish) meals. You don’t need to shop or plan; all you need to do is decide which meals you want and how often you want them. And there are many, many companies from which to choose. HelloFresh is probably the most well-known, but there is also Blue Apron, Green Chef, Purple Carrot, Plated, Sun Basket and many others. Plus, Amazon recently bought Whole Foods, so they’re expected to enter the ring any day now, and Wal-Mart is jumping in, too.

Food Box 01 sml

Thanks to our good friends over at Epicurean Butter, we received two HelloFresh meals to test: Prosciutto-Wrapped Chicken with Mushroom Risotto and Kale Grilled Cheese Sandwiches with Tomato Soup. Although HelloFresh offers a number of different plans to choose from, these two meals were each designed to serve two people and they cost about $20 each, or $10 per serving.

Each meal arrives much as you see above: a shopping bag contains the ingredients, plus a photo recipe card and nutritional info; the shopping bags are then all tucked into an insulated box with packing material and ice packs. Typically, you receive three different meals in a box, but again, this varies according to your plan and the company. Cooking oils, salt and pepper are not included, but everything else you need should be.

Food Box 02 sml

Despite the fact that I find following recipes very similar to being put in a choke collar, I wanted to honor the spirit of this experiment and pretend that I was a standard HelloFresh customer, rather than a professional chef. So I laid out all of my ingredients, checked them carefully against the recipe card, and followed the directions to the letter. N even read out the instructions to me while I was at the stove; this resulted in much hilarity as my natural instinct was to do everything my way – he had to correct me frequently, and of course I argued. My goal, obviously, was to see how close I could get to the presentation in the photo as well as the preparation time indicated.

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I did pretty well copying the recipe card, right?

Our first meal, Prosciutto-Wrapped Chicken with Mushroom Risotto, was, quite frankly, delicious. I liked the techniques taught, such as wrapping the chicken in the prosciutto and making risotto from scratch, but at nearly an hour to prepare, this might be better suited for a weekend. The flavors were great, especially the garlicky finishing butter, and though we ate all of the chicken, there was plenty of risotto left over. While really tasty, the meal was much richer and heavier than what we usually eat. I added steamed broccoli, because there was nothing green on that plate except the chives, but at $10 a serving I couldn’t really complain.

Food Box 03 sml

Our second meal was Kale Grilled Cheese Sandwiches with Tomato Soup. Again, some nice flavor combinations and good techniques, like caramelizing onions. This one is pretty easy to prepare – who hasn’t made toasties and tomato soup at some point in their life? – but the slightly bitter kale offset the sweet onions beautifully, and added some nutrition. I was perplexed by the choice of fresh mozzarella for the cheese, however; while I adore fresh mozzarella, its flavor is straightforward and subtle, and it plays best when uncooked, such as with garden tomatoes in a summer caprese salad. A sharp cheddar or smoked Gouda would have been a bit more assertive here; plus, we only received two slices of bread each, which wasn’t enough for N. The soup was tasty, but it was just pureed tomato concentrate boosted with onion. $10 per serving for this meal didn’t offer us the same value as our chicken dish, and there were definitely no leftovers.

Food Box 05 sml

Okay, my sour cream drizzle is out of control, but otherwise it’s good, right?

The long and the short of it is that I think these box meal kits are a terrific way to get people started cooking at home. They offer a lot of different options and if people pay attention they’ll definitely learn a thing or two about solid kitchen techniques and how to put a meal together. I found that both meals needed quite a bit of extra seasoning, but palates vary and I have no objection to keeping things relatively mild and letting customers adjust as they see fit. I wish the recipe cards had talked more about seasoning in layers, such as deglazing the pan used to sear the chicken, but that’s a minor quibble.

That said, from our tiny experiment the offerings seem to be lacking in healthy vegetables and whole grains, and I’m definitely not going to label meals like the chicken and risotto as healthy. They’re also not cheap: $20 for dinner that you still have to make yourself is going to encourage people just to head over to their local Panera Bread for grilled cheese and tomato soup, with no dishes to wash.

Food Box 06 sml

I don’t even know where to begin…this is just from two dinners.

And then there’s this: the unbelievable amount of waste generated by just these two meals. It’s tough to tell from the photo above, but these two dinners produced a full grocery bag of trash (we produce less than a single grocery bag of trash every two months), and that’s not counting the shipping box or the ice packs that no one knows what to do with. Yes, the companies claim that a lot of the packaging is recyclable, but only if you live somewhere those recycling facilities exist. Individually wrapping each ingredient in a tiny bag or box obviously makes sense for the team assembling the meals for shipping, but it does nothing to make you an eco-conscious consumer.

And what is anyone supposed to do with a freezer full of ice packs? You’re told to cut open the pouch and dispose of the “non-toxic gel,” but that is not something I want in my public waterways. One of the so-called advantages of these box meal kits is reduced food waste, and while that may be true, it’s more than counteracted by the massive amount of packaging waste. I personally found the trash generated a much bigger issue than anything else with these box meal kits.

Overall, I’m a fan of anything that gets people to cook at home, but I hope that most households are using these as a gateway, then weaning themselves off. All of the big meal kit companies are growing by leaps and bounds but struggle with customer retention, which means that everyone is trying these, then either going back to their old take-out/drive-thru habits or buying their own ingredients to cook at home. I’m hoping it’s the latter.

Is your household currently using box meal kits? If so, we’d love to hear more about your experience, positive and negative. Please share your thoughts in the comments!

 

8 thoughts on “The FAQ Series: Box Meal Kits

  1. Way back when, I mean way back, we used Schwan’s home delivery for a short while. Working so many hours it was convenient. As with most prepared foods, it was too salty and expensive. Today, I would never consider box meals. I enjoy cooking too much, I know what’s in it, and it’s so rewarding.

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    • We used Schwan’s for a while, too! I only remember the chicken Cordon Bleu…I think it was mainly breadcrumbs and salt. I believe cooking your own food offers such a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

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  2. I have never used one of these services, mainly because I suspected most of what you have detailed here – expensive, high carbon footprint with the shipping and the packaging, stuck with the ingredients and quantities with no room for customization, and no leftovers. In addition, I pass 3 grocery stores on my commute, and have a computer in front of me for 8 hours per day, so I figure for a fraction of the cost and no less convenience, I can google a recipe and make a 10 min stop for the couple of ingredients that it requires. I’m also sort of fad and trend-phobic. When everyone else rushes to try a new fad, I tend to not want to do whatever that is even more – weird I know.

    Thanks for your interesting critique on this. I agree, if someone doesn’t cook, maybe this gets them excited or gets them going on it.

    Enjoy your trip!

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    • Thanks, Kelly! I, too, am unlikely to jump on bandwagons – I think I skip a lot of good books simply because Oprah recommends them. I really hope these meal kits give people enough confidence to start cooking on their own.

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  3. I wish I would have been a part of the recipe reading and corrective actions. That just further confirms your tendency is “Rebel” and mine is “Upholder.” I love the idea of fast, healthy meals but as soon as a neighbor showed me the packaging for the kit, I just could not bring myself to do it. Enjoyed reading your thoughts.

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  4. I used Blue Apron for about 6 months and ended the service about a year ago. I cooked a lot at home but was looking to expand my cooking knowledge and vegetable expertise, it did exactly that. The box meal kits taught me lot about cooking that I had no idea about. I did save the meal cards (instructions) for the meals I really liked and now make those with products from the grocery store. My family is really impressed with my cooking skills now (although they are pretty easy to please).
    One thing that blew my away was all the salt I had to add at different times. Then on the nutrition sheet I could see the sodium (as prepared) was still relatively low. So the amount of salt in fast food or a microwave meal has to be staggering.

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    • Hi Brandon, thanks for reading! So glad to hear that you’re cooking at home, and that your friends and family are impressed with the results! You’re absolutely right about the salt – the amount in processed food is staggering. And if you’re cooking mostly whole foods at home, you really don’t need to be worried about the salt you’re adding, because it’s (relatively) so little. Salt should always enhance food and make it taste more like itself; it shouldn’t ever taste ‘salty.’ Please, keep cooking!

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