Posted: Jul 24, 2017
MEAL KITS PROVIDE TASTY DINNERS, WITH A SIDE OF LANDFILL
MY WIFE ELISABETH wandered into the kitchen while I was testing a Blue Apron meal kit. She lifted one of the four-pound Nordic Ice bags that come in the box and gave the thawed, semi-glutinous thing a squeeze.
"You could make a breast larger with this stuff," she declared, before investigating the bubble-wrapped foam lining inside the cardboard wall of the box. "It's like a disposable cooler!"
Her reactions were more investigative fascination than judgment, but I couldn't help but wonder if this was part of the reason—along with Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods—for Blue Apron's disappointing recent IPO and subsequent stock market slide.
My initial goal was to review the efforts of several individual companies that provide ready-to-cook meal kits. But after testing multiple meals delivered from Blue Apron, Purple Carrot, Home Chef, and the new offering Amazon Fresh has begun to roll out, Amazon Meal Kits, I found that they were all similar enough that I wanted to take an updated look at the meal kit concept as a whole.
Perhaps the best-known among meal kit services, Blue Apron felt like the right place to start, and, I'd learn, followed a template similar to other meal kit companies.
I quickly found that, with the exception of Amazon's kits, which you can get if you subscribe to Amazon Fresh, you can't just buy one meal; You subscribe for a weekly drop-off of three meals for two or, as Purple Carrot puts it, "Serves 2 or 1 with leftovers." Each individual meal costs around $10, sometimes a couple bucks more, occasionally a shade less.
Almost all of the ingredients for all of the meals come in the kits, though they might rely on you to have items like salt or cooking oil on hand. Large recipe cards with helpful photos guide you through the recipes. All of the ingredients are pre-portioned so you end up using all the food in the box, cutting down on food waste and getting dinner on the table faster.
Right off the bat, I was stunned by the feeling of empowerment. Home cooks can all get stuck in our own ruts of stir fries, pastas, or taco night, but by providing everything you need for a recipe, these kits can get you to cook something you've never tried before or teach you a new technique in a way that leaves cookbooks or website recipes in the dust. I love curries yet never make them at home, but with a puck of red curry paste in the box with the rest of the ingredients, there I was, making one for dinner.
Within the first week with Blue Apron, I'd made that curry with pan-seared catfish, a pasta sauce made creamy by using spreadable goat cheese, and a "Persian-style" chicken and crispy rice, and all three were great breaks from my weeknight meal routine.
With the exception of one dud, every meal I tried in all of my testing was pretty darn tasty, with well-tested and flavorful recipes, that, give or take 10 minutes, could be cooked in the estimated time, usually 30 to 60 minutes. They also tended to up the ante on my weeknight cooking.
Ingredient quality for every meal I tried was staunchly middle-of-the road, like what you could buy at every Safeway in America in the winter, with the exotic addition of a lime leaf or tamari sauce. Tomatoes were supermarket tomatoes. Carrots were fine. Occasionally something would be on the usable side of wilting. Notable missteps were found with Blue Apron's goat cheese and yogurt, both of which were mealy and tasted like bland cream cheese. Blue Apron also provided a pre-chopped chicken breast in a vacuum-sealed package shaped like a whole chicken breast, which just felt wrong.
But that packaging—the gobs and gobs of packaging all four companies used—the four sprigs of parsley in a tiny coffin of plastic, the dime bags of rice flour, the little jars with a tablespoon of mayo, the everything but the sturdiest of ingredients in some sort of plastic something, all sitting on top of those pounds and pounds of ice packs, all encased in that "disposable cooler" made of some typically non-recyclable foamy substance, and encased in silver bubble wrap? All of it being created for me, and racking up extra shipping miles in the name of convenience?
I got really uncomfortable with that about halfway through my very first recipe.
I kept Blue Apron's whole 10x12x14-inch box right in my fridge as I made all the recipes, partly to keep a zucchini from being poached for some other meal, but also in part because I couldn't figure out to do with the packaging inside the box. There's that foam and bubble-wrap wall, and then there is the Nordic Ice. For the latter, I looked up how to recycle or dispose of it (you'll find yourself doing the "looking up" thing quite a bit), and found you could cut open the thawed bags and dump the liquid ... into the trash, which I did with one of the bags because the bags themselves are recyclable.
It made such a mess that I felt like I was gutting a fish.
"What's in that stuff?" I wondered aloud.
"Whatever it is, they don't want it going down the drain," said Elisabeth, as she heaved the remaining bags into the trash.
As she did this, I imagined all the other meal kit customers around the world doing the same thing, and thought that if she and I were playing some eco-warrior role-playing game, this would be the point our characters would have been slain by an orc.
I inspected a few of the meal kit companies' websites, and called some of them, and asked about stuff like that non-recyclable foam insulation or Nordic Ice. Sometimes they'd say something encouraging like they were swapping out Nordic Ice in favor of regular freezable water in bags or that they were always seeking better, more recyclable, packaging. One friend insisted that I try a service because they used a Nordic Ice-like pack that used only water and cotton. Still, all this stuff was being boxed up just for me to throw it away later.
It was getting really easy to hate on it all, but I learned that it gets complicated in a hurry.
To fight the environmental impact, some say that the real difference is not to waste food, something that meal kits tend to excel at.
"If you really want to do the right thing, it's not the food miles," says University of Oregon chemistry researcher David Tyler, referring to the distance food travels from producer to consumer. His thought is that better packaging keeps what he calls "higher-impact" foods like meat from being thrown out.
"Far more impact comes from raising the cow and growing the crop," than the impact of the packaging, he says. "For items like meat and bread, the more packaging the better."
Tyler then suggested that if I really wanted to feel guilty, that I should try the meatless meal kits, which was funny because I was waiting for my food box from the vegetarian service Purple Carrot to show up on my doorstep.
Purple Carrot is not only vegetarian, it's vegan, and even for a devout omnivore like me, it was pretty tasty food. I've never cooked tempeh and here I was, frying up a flavorful version marinated in maple syrup, balsamic vinegar, and tamari sauce. Sweet Corn Risotto with Broccolini was nice enough, but a spoonbread with a lovely black-eyed pea tomato gravy and Swiss chard was both a discovery and a favorite.
In contrast to those entirely plant-based offerings, the Home Chef meals I tested seemed to target the meat and potatoes crowd, serving meals like Chimichurri Steak with Roasted Potatoes. This also was also the one notable dud meal in all of my testing, with livery steaks and chimichurri made horrible with lots of dried oregano. That said, I also cooked Home Chef's bacon and goat cheese pizza and a casserole-esque shrimp with pasta, and both meals were devoured with gusto.
As I worked through all of these dinners, I learned of the existence of meal kits in bags which you can pick up at the grocery store. Grocery giants Kroger and Whole Foods have been testing the waters here, but offerings are so limited that I couldn't find any near my Seattle home to try them.
I also held out hope for Amazon Meal Kits, the new in-house offering from the retail giant which arrives via Amazon Fresh. Using the "attended delivery" option, you can schedule a drop-off on a day and time slot of your choosing. This seemed to allow Amazon to cut down slightly on the weight of ice packs and a bit of that cooler-esque insulating material—no foam, yes sliver bubble wrap—but it's more of a step in the right direction than a panacea. Open the box that each meal comes in and you'll find plenty of individual product packaging. It’s unclear if they will be tweaked or changed altogether following the Whole Foods purchase, and emails posed to Amazon Fresh PR about this went unanswered by press time.
What you think about meal kits and how you might use them is going to be a personal decision based on a number of factors. I simultaneously liked meal kits more than I thought I would and was more disappointed than I thought I'd be. They might make a lot of sense for a lot of people, but I'm not one of them. I live in a city, have easy grocery-store access, and am a competent cook. But, the deal breaker for me is all that packaging and ice pack nonsense. Even if it is recyclable (not all of it always is), it's a lot of stuff made just for me, shipped just to me for the sake of a bit of convenience. On top of that, for a roughly similar price you could pick up a takeout order from a restaurant which would likely have much less environmental impact. If there were less packaging and it could be either picked up in a store or shipped without the ice packs, I'd have fewer hangups and use it occasionally to try some new dishes. Until then, I'll stick to finding recipes, shopping, and cooking the old fashioned way. Or just grab takeout.
By Joe Ray
July 19, 2017
Food writer Joe Ray (@joe_diner) is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of The Year, a restaurant critic, and author of "Sea and Smoke" with chef Blaine Wetzel.
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