Healthy Prepared Meals - An Overview

Why You May Want Prepared Meals

  1. Clear nutritional information - meal services are predicated on nutritional transparency, which is less common with hot food delivery from restaurants. The level of detail can vary, but vendors often cater to specific dietary restrictions and/or diets
  2. Meal preparation is very quick, in some cases as little as 3 minutes in a microwave
  3. Menus have more items than the closest comparison, which are meal kit companies
  4. Many prepared meal services offer incredibly healthy food, considered “clean” and free of many of the processed ingredients found elsewhere
  5. Fresh. Most commonly, meals are delivered fresh, not frozen, creating a more optimized mealtime experience
  6. Healthy prepared meal companies are increasingly catering to the many specialty diets that are prevalent in today’s health-conscious culture. In particular, low carb diets are commonly supported
  7. Many of the meal providers serve the local market. These providers are ever expanding, and seem to be showing up more frequently than they are disappearing; resulting in seemingly rapid growth of the specific part of the industry. That is a good sign for people that like to buy locally, as more choices are coming up and the infrastructure to support these businesses will continue to improve. We envision much more delivery availability due to demand for such, with better and better services coming in to fill that need.  In addition, buying locally allows one to “source locally” - with the potential for many ingredients to have been grown or raised nearby. This is good for the local economy and better for the environment than shipping ingredients across the country.
  8. Delivery and Shipping are available in multiple forms. This can occur by meals being delivered directly to homes either by local delivery using boxes or bags, delivery to a centralized location that has refrigeration (centralized business or gym), or nationally shipped cooler-boxes, which can be left outside a residential door.

Some of the things that we’ve heard include the notion that meals are a little expensive. Often that sentiment is conveyed in the context of either how much the ingredients should have cost, or compared to other prepared meals. There are a variety of price points as we would expect, which often correlate to the quality, quantity and type of ingredients. The key is finding what you like and what works for you - what you would consider a good value and fulfills a need in your life that more traditional means did not satisfy.

One of the other things we see is that many of these providers only offer subscriptions (or “plans” as they are often called). This makes sense for many customers who really want to use these services as a consistent and meaningful portion of their meals every week. For those that want to use these services sporadically, or are intrigued by the idea of having many different options to choose from, this scenario is not ideal.  Providers would like to see people on plans because it enables them to very effectively plan, they help maintain economies of scale, and generally appear to be good business practices. We believe that, as providers grow and the industry matures, more and more will be offering a choice between meal plans or a la carte ordering. The only catch with the latter will be that there will need to be order minimums, which are there to ensure that economies of scale can be maintained and costs and effort don’t spiral for the provider and ultimately passed to the consumer.

Types of Healthy Prepared Meals

We’re starting to see a lot of variety in the options in the healthy prepared meal space. Whereas there are starting to be prepared meals showing up as a component of an overall diet-planning business, fitness website, and in addition to supplements, smoothies, and shakes - we are focusing on the providers that are offering healthy prepared meals as their core business. In addition, we see several options offering a frozen (typically flash-frozen) option; however we are looking mainly at freshly prepared offerings.

To be clear, we are not talking about meal kits - where a consumer needs to cook the meal, often accompanied by a substantial amount of prep on the ingredients.  Meal kits are covered elsewhere in our discussion, and they certainly have their own benefits and drawbacks.

The meal size and number of servings is most often for one individual, although we see some offering larger portions (for two), and “bulk” components (often protein) that would have multiple servings included. Meals are more often equated to their calories than the aggregate volume of food, and as such, could leave those with a large appetite a little on the unsatisfied side. However, most meals are substantial and akin to a ‘bento box’ in appropriate sizing for one meal. Pricing varies quite a bit, and is dependent on several factors including ingredient type and quality, how much of ingredients are high-end items, and whether ingredients are organic. Often ingredients that are used have a long shelf life under refrigeration. This is so that meals can stay fresh for the better part of a week once delivered - allowing the customer to enjoy them at their leisure, and that the meal is tasty and satisfying at any point in that time period.  Other factors that affect pricing is whether the customer signs up for a plan or subscription. This entails some form of commitment, and is therefore typically recognized through a discount. Similarly, when a customer orders in bulk, there is sometimes a discount, or perhaps free shipping is offered over a certain order dollar amount. Something to look out for is an initial discount for first time users of a service. We’ve seen this first-time discount as high as 30%, and is a good value for those interested in a particular service, and might just be a deciding factor when choosing between multiple services.

Pricing and flexibility are apparently somewhat inversely proportional. Subscriptions are typically a good value, but you are somewhat committed by definition; and often need to stay on top of what is being sent and being able to eat all the meals. You also need to know when you need to pause the account in the event you are going away, or otherwise know you don’t want or need the meals in a given week - which is often the time period with prepared meals. There is a la carte pricing, which is often accompanied by an order minimum if you are getting the meals shipped. In addition to an order minimum, shipping often is an additional cost with a la carte - but some folks really appreciate the flexibility and variety this offers. Finally, it appears as though bulk pricing, especially for proteins, is starting to become available by some providers. For example, a staple for many might be grilled chicken - due to a number of ways in which that meat can be used. Packs of four grilled chicken breasts can be ordered, and used for multiple meals, or to feed several people in one sitting.

Today’s options are not only for meat-eaters. There are a lot of vegetarian and vegan options available, with some providers being exclusive providers of plant-based menus only. The variety of the meatless options is quite impressive, and we don’t see the momentum or demand for these slowing down anytime soon.

We are even starting to see French and Asian cuisines more frequently in menus across the country. This again bodes well for those that are tired of the same old thing, and want to branch out and try new foods and providers.

Diets Supported By Prepared Meals

The diets supported by the healthy prepared meal industry are numerous. We are seeing a lot of support of low-carbohydrate diets.  To name a few that we see regularly, the paleo, ketogenic (or “keto”) and the Whole30 diet plans specifically are ones that have a lot of coverage. In addition to low carb, we see organic, gluten free and GMO free products regularly featured by providers.  What we are also seeing are menus that support specialty diets for those requiring them for potentially more medical related reason...such as PIY and diabetic-friendly meals. Another is AIP (autoimmune protocol). This type of diet is intended to help people suffering from autoimmune conditions as well as inflammation. While not named specifically, other diets are supported due to the fact that many of the meals are clean and have either relatively low carbs or none at all. Atkins diets as well as South Beach appear to be compliant against many of the menus we see.  What’s also very useful, as mentioned before, is that ingredients and nutritional information are usually quite prominent in the meal details, allowing one to quickly reference whether something fits into one’s lifestyle and dietary requirements. Many providers try to keep things low sodium, low cholesterol and low fat - but it is always wise to check the nutritional information if those things are a concern.

Some providers are specifically designed for weight loss, but without naming names, you may enjoy a variety of providers’ foods more than a single plan.

A common theme we see with many of these vendors is the notion of clean eating. We discuss this concept in detail in another article, but what that generally means is food is free from artificial additives, preservatives and is generally not processed.

We see more and more vendors catering to fitness and bodybuilding, weight loss meal plans, and specialty “medical” diets. In some cases, vendors include a few specialty-diet options and cater to a broader audience with the remainder of their offerings.

There are also vendors that offer juice cleanses and other items that one might not consider a “meal” per se, but are gaining in popularity and usefulness in the eyes of many consumers.

Prepared Meals - Delivery or Pickup?

(how it “usually” works)

In order to help avoid confusion or frustration, it makes sense to explain how some of these services work from a timing perspective. For those meal providers that create a weekly menu, each week is a “reset” and follows a common pattern by day of week. Typically a menu comes out at the beginning of a week (early Monday).  The menu, barring some unforeseen circumstances around excessive demand or ingredient shortages, the menu is open for the remainder of the week, typically closing on Friday night. In the case of orders to be shipped nationally, those orders are then processed and packed, to be shipped out early the next week, and delivered mid to late in the week. For orders that are to be delivered locally, the cadence is similar, but some of the mechanisms are different, including what some of the orders may be delivered in, or even where they are delivered.  In some cases, providers deliver meals to a centralized location (often a gym or similar) that has a refrigerator where meals can be stored until they are picked up when convenient for the customer. The final option is picking up ones order. Pickup orders are not available in every case, and they still often need to follow this pattern due to the fact that meals are only prepared on certain days to maintain efficiency.

Overall, this cycle repeats in perpetuity.  The key, we believe, is to understand and embrace this pattern.

It is noteworthy to mention that for those services offering a la carte options, in order for them to ship to you, it often requires a minimum purchase - even if it does not end up qualifying the customer for free shipping. This is due to the notion that shipping requires a certain amount of resources to accomplish, and small orders are difficult to support for many of these operations.

By planning for and supplementing regular meals, the system ends the need to work around a subscription, but also offers a great deal of variety, flexibility and convenience to meal planning for today’s busy adults.

Meal Kits - Pros & Cons

Meal kits offer a healthy, convenient & tidy way to cook at home. However, they aren't super-easy to make and often take up to an hour to get onto a plate

Paleo, Keto, Whole30, Atkins and South Beach: Similarities and Differences

Low-carb diets can offer real advantages for health and fitness. A number of different diet plans are available that minimize carbs and promote a more natural approach to eating. We can help you determine the most practical choice for your diet plan and your overall weight loss regimen.