Prepackaged, home delivered meal kits roughly entered the U.S. market in 2012 and by 2016 our share of sales made up 40 percent of the $1 billion industry globally. That’s a lot of meal kits. But what’s not to love? You select a meal, then someone else shops for the ingredients, packages them in insulated boxes along with recipe cards that include detailed cooking and serving instructions, and ships them to your door. All you do is prep and cook the food, and voilà, you have a healthy, perfectly proportioned, home prepared meal. No muss no fuss, right? Let’s take a closer look at some of the pros and cons of meal kits – their convenience, their sustainability and how they might be improved to be more environmentally friendly.
Pro: Overall, meal kits cut back on food waste by providing carefully proportioned ingredients for meals that will have no leftovers. And, because meal kits provide only the ingredients required for that meal you aren’t stuck with extraneous ingredients cluttering up your cabinets or fridge.
Grocery stores waste 10.5 percent of food at the retail level, grocery store shoppers toss 24 percent of their food after buying it, while some meal kits consumers waste only about 7.6 percent of ingredients provided in the kit.
Con: Some meal kit supply chains require extensive transportation – from farms and manufacturing plants to distribution centers and ultimately to the consumer’s home. Plus, keeping the food at the right temperature while moving it from place to place is hugely energy intensive.
Pro: Meal kits offer a healthy alternative to typical packaged and frozen dinners. And, they are relatively inexpensive when you take into account the time you save. For a family of four, the price charged by one leading distributer is around $140 per week for four meals – or about $8.74 per meal per person. That’s roughly what you’d spend for a value meal at a fast food restaurant without the nutritional value.
Con: Meal-kits contain a lot of packaging. Each ingredient generally comes in a separate bag, plus the box, with its liners and plastic-wrapped ice packs. Some of the materials may be recyclable, and with some services, made of post-consumer waste, but just how much work do you want to do to recycle them.
Pro: The food kit industry offers an alternative market for independent farmers to sell their produce at prices higher than typical wholesaler rates. There’s a hefty incentive for farmers to partner with meal kit delivery services because of the sheer volume of produce required.
Meal Kit Perks – You don’t have to shop or plan, you don’t have to buy ingredients you’ll never use again, and everything is perfectly proportioned so there are no leftovers to put away.
Concerns: If you miss the connection you have with local farmers and producers you get when buying local, consider subscribing to a CSA (community supported agriculture) produce delivery service to support local farmers and cut down on packaging and price. Some CSA providers offer recipes as well. Find one at localharvest.org.
If planning menus and knowing what to buy is a big part of your mealtime battle, sign up for weekly recipes available at many cooking sites. Some services will send you a shopping list and menus for dinners for the week, including coupons for your local grocery store.
The fledgling meal kit industry probably will go through numerous growing pains and will likely experience significant evolution as it comes of age. As consumers, we can influence the future direction of the industry by speaking out about our concerns and holding service providers to account for reducing food and packing waste, maintaining quality ingredients from sustainable sources and improving efforts to reduce their carbon footprint with more efficient supply chains.