August 28, 2018
As part of our exploration of all things between grocery stores and hot food delivery, meal kits are a category of dinner time product that has been trailblazing for consumer choice, and in some ways, vastly improves their dining experience.
Meal kits are a category of service that typically involves a delivered kit that contains the components to cook a meal. The market is growing, and there are a rapidly increasing number of choices available to consumers.
Some grocery stores are getting in on the act, and beginning to provide meal kits themselves - that can be part of shopping, or a grocery store order. Talk about something like ‘Myxx Recipes’ here?
Meal kits range in price from just under $10 per meal to ~$14 per meal. Here is an article from CNBC:
In that same article, the comparable ingredients can range from about $4 to nearly $12 - so the relative value of each meal could vary quite a bit. Obviously, meal kit companies need to make money too, so aside from passing on some economies of scale, the ingredients are never going to be a 1:1 with what you can go get them for yourself. Shipping is also a consideration. Many meal kit providers bake shipping into a subscription plan - so that will also be reflected in the cost per meal. However, if you’d like to order meals a la carte, be prepared to have shipping be additional. If the meal kit provider doesn’t require a minimum, we’d still suggest ordering multiple meals to offset some of the shipping costs.
Subscriptions a/k/a “meal plans”
This is where this market runs into some friction. Because, by definition, the choices from any single provider are limited - consumers don’t love being “locked in” to any single plan or provider. Subscriptions are designed to create a “set it and forget it” system for consumers, but another real purpose is to increase the retention of customers to any given service. Additionally, this lack of flexibility creates a scenario where once a consumer leaves, they are less likely to sign back up for a subscription service. As such, many providers are creating more flexible subscriptions, and even a la carte menus so that customers feel more empowered with their choices, and are more likely to reuse the service if they have left for a period of time.
Time to prep
Although instructions for how to prepare the recipe are typically adequate, one might consider the fact that you still need to know how to cook. Meal kits do not magically bestow the ability to cook upon the recipient. They are better than going it alone, however. That said, some meal kits we tried took as much as an hour to fully prepare. Some providers have recognized that this may not be ideal for the majority of their customers, and are starting to work on options with lesser time requirements. One vendor (Gobble) touts the fact that the ingredients require minimal prep, the ability to use one pan, and that the meal is ready in about 15 minutes.
Freshness and Quality
Generally, from what we have gathered, this is overall pretty good. Aside from a few bad apples (literally), the food is of high quality and relatively fresh. Some of the food is packaged in a way that seems to enable slightly more longevity, such as being suspended in a little bit of solution like brine, to aid in this. The issues run into are generally that a piece of produce has started to rot, or that some packaging may have been compromised so that the contents were exposed, leaked or seemingly not properly refrigerated throughout. Another consideration is that because the actual source of the ingredients is opaque, it is difficult to determine where they may fall in the spectrum of “clean eating”. Organic ingredients do not seem particularly prevalent, and if present, are likely to cost a premium and may also be difficult to verify their authenticity.
Diet considerations and nutrition
These meals are pretty healthy and typically under 1,000 calories/meal (typically 600-800 calories). Across the entire spectrum of providers, most diets are considered. There are a plethora of vegetarian and vegan options. Also within vendor options are the ability to choose ones that offer specialty diets like high-protein, paleo, gluten-free and just about anything else that is gains sufficient popularity for providers to want to offer it. That said, if you subscribe to a service, you don’t always get to choose what you get, and if you do, obviously the choices are limited. It’s going to be a tradeoff when using a single meal kit provider.
Sustainability - packaging, energy, sourcing
Many people like meal kits because their recipes contain the correct ingredients and often just enough of each to prepare the particular meal in question.
Some of the ingredients utilize a smaller packaged ingredient, such as a condiment, which has drawn criticism due to the fact that there is waste associated with each little ingredient.
Of course, most of the packaging involved in all of this is recyclable, from the box it comes in, down to the smallest condiment jar. In addition, as we analyzed in our ‘food web’ article, the actual footprint of locally sourced meal kits not shipped long distances or purchased through a grocery store, are in fact materially less wasteful than any other method of acquiring food. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to energy. The reason being that the food itself goes through a process of transportation regardless. In addition, grocery stores use their own energy to store, refrigerate, heat (the store) etc. which adds to their footprint.
From a food sustainability perspective, it is difficult to determine if there are any holistic differences between meal kit providers and other sources. Our recommendation here would be to steer toward those that claim to use sustainably-sourced ingredients, and also use informed decision-making when purchasing meals containing certain ingredients. Here is a good example regarding seafood sustainability