Meal prep kits and what the future holds for how we cook and weat

Photo: All ingredients come freshly packaged and ready to cook

By Paula Johnshon

The rise of convenience food in the mid ‘50s gave us commercially prepared, highly processed, prepackaged food. Most of us grew up with ready-to-eat frozen foods such as TV dinners, shelf-stable foods, and prepared mixes such as Hamburger Helper, cake mix, and snack foods. Abysmally lacking in nutritional content and downright unhealthy, these foods contributed to a generation suffering from obesity and diabetes as a result of not cooking with fresh food. Convenience food 2017 style has taken on a whole new meaning—possibly with different implications for consumer’s health. Meal delivery kits are the new convenience food. Meal kits are a big business today, exploding into a $1.5 billion market over the past five years, and that number is projected to double in the next five. Some of the big names in the industry: Blue Apron, Pea Pod, Green Chef, Purple Carrot, Hello Fresh, and even Martha Stewart is starting her own line.

What are the options out there for the consumer who wants to try meal kit delivery? Plenty, as it turns out. I spoke to Janet Bawa, who explored meal delivery here in the Dayton area. Bawa, an RN, and her husband Rohit, an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist, have six children between them, but most are grown and no longer not living in the house. She’s been using Home Chef for about six weeks now, “With just the two of us it really made sense,” she said. She discovered the concept through a Facebook ad, and decided to investigate, researching six different companies. I had several questions about how it all works; starting with, is there a contract?

None of the companies Bawa looked at required a contract. “It’s really as simple as going online and setting up an account. You get your first meal within a week usually,” she said. “I choose my meals by Friday and I get delivery the following Wednesday. If I don’t choose, I get what the company sends.” How did she settle on that particular company? “My husband is somewhat of a picky eater and this one offered a lot of options I knew he would like,” she reported. Cost? They ranged from $8.99 to $11.99 per meal (Home Chef came in at $9.99).

The meals arrive boxed and insulated with recyclable ice packs, and it really is fresh food. I was there when she unpacked this week’s box containing three complete meals. Everything is portioned out, including herbs, spices, and meats. Vegetables arrive whole with cutting instructions, and you really cook it. The recipes are anywhere form easy to moderate in skill level. Right now, America cooks less than any most any other developed country, and as someone who has followed with dismay the dwindling number of minutes Americans actually spend on preparing food, my hope is that this trend might reverse that unfortunate one.

Is it really healthier and as cost effective as meal delivery services claim? Absolutely, according to Bawa. “First, it’s fresh, real food. And since it’s portion controlled, we don’t overeat. And I save money by not going to the grocery store, if only for the impulse buying I am not doing. I used to go to the store a couple of times a week, and that’s a 40-minute drive for me. Now it’s once every 10 days.”

What about grocery stores getting into the business, and what does their presence signify for Home Chef and the like? Cincinnati-based Kroger is attempting to enter the market, launching its initiative to compete with meal kit delivery services. Prep+Pared comes with the ingredients necessary to prepare a meal for two in about 20 minutes, starting at approximately $14.The kits are currently available in four Cincinnati stores (Hyde Park, Oakley, Harper’s Point, and Sharonville), with plans to expand to more locations in the area. Kroger hasn’t delved into delivery as yet, but customers can order online. However, in order to compete, it’s likely delivery will become part of Kroger’s strategy.

But the big news is Amazon, and its takeover of Whole Foods. A week after the startup Blue Apron held for its initial public offering, Amazon filed a trademark for the phrase: “We do the prep. You be the chef” related to “prepared food kits.” And when Amazon enters the game, it generally changes the way the game is played, if not the game itself. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, “Amazon is terrifying for its competitors in part because its low-margin business pulls each industry it dominates into a kind of deflationary whirlpool. If Whole Foods follows the Bezos playbook, shoppers can expect prices to fall, and investors will expect revenue to rise. Indeed, news of the partnership sent grocery competitors’ stocks plummeting.”

So it’s clear the convenience of meal prep delivery kits is here to stay. The question is, how many in existence today will still be standing by the close of the decade?

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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