Ingredients for an Indian bean stew from Sun Basket
Meal Delivery Services are all the rage these days. The most familiar is probably Blue Apron, which advertises aggressively on social media and elsewhere. One of Steve’s daughters and her partner in Brooklyn use it, and although both are good cooks, they say it’s upped their culinary game. The experience inspired Julia to make General Tsao’s Chicken for us over Christmas, which definitely was complicated and did not take a few ingredients and 30 minutes to prepare. Having everything prepped for you definitely makes cooking a gourmet-ish meal faster.
I’ve been a skeptic, not of the experience but of the benefits claimed by these companies. The ad for Blue Apron that plays on my Facebook feed continuously definitely suggests their service is benefiting small, organic farmers and provides a farm-to-table experience. What I’ve read in Modern Farmer suggests farmers are being pressured to grow a single vegetable crop at lower-than-market prices for the service, which of course also only buys perfect-looking produce.
And then there are questions about treatment of workers as the services scale up. Blue Apron has had trouble with its warehouse workers. Here’s a recent article, and the original Buzzfeed report. In keeping the meals affordable, the people who grow the food and package the meals means labor costs are high. And yet, these businesses have grown so quickly– and multiplied– that they are the current darling of investors. I suspect there is a lot of overvaluing now that is pouring in seed money that will be used up quickly and, as prices rise, the model will collapse.
A third criticism is of the packaging. Although the companies seem to do their best to make things recyclable, it’s a lot of packaging for a small amount of food. For one thing, the food has to be kept cold until the recipient can unpack it. The Sun Basket delivery was entirely recyclable and told you how to recycle each piece (but we didn’t drain and recycle the ice bags).
My friend Doug in Southern California is a subscriber to Sun Basket, a certified organic service that provides regular meals and vegetarian, gluten-free, and paleo options. I was there one Wednesday when the box was delivered mid-day to get the sole and ground turkey into the fridge. I have to admit, it was fun to receive a package of meals in the mail! It was chock full of goodies, brown bags that included, for instance, a couple peeled cloves of garlic or a nub of ginger. A little baggie of dried fruits and nuts for a warm salad, and a whole cauliflower. Doug gets a mix of gluten-free and paleo meals. He gets 3 meals/week, 2 servings each. This means food for him (when I’m not there) for 6 meals. He usually takes the leftovers for lunch. The cost is $80/week, about $12.50/meal. If you actually ate these meals for 6 dinners and only bought food for breakfast and simple lunches, grocery bills could be kept to $100/week, which is about what I spend for two at our house.
Also, if you ate these portions, which were really satisfying and delicious, you could lose weight. You get exactly enough ingredients to make the meal for that night. No desserts. No leftovers. Which, hey, I LOVE leftovers, but we also eat larger portions and more starches and sides because we’re cooking for ourselves from scratch for reals.
Doug had been in Spain for three weeks, so he had almost no food in the house when I arrived. It was interesting and good to just buy what I thought I’d use and eat simply. I did eat out a bit, definitely more than I do here, but Doug and I only ate out once. The concept of six delicious dinners at home and one meal out is super appealing.
There was nothing in these packages that Doug couldn’t make with a recipe card. However, I don’t think he’d make any of this without the prepared ingredients. He says he’s lazy, but it really is about quantities and a variety of delicious meals. For a single person, buying the right combination of ingredients in the right quantities– at a Whole Foods, I’m thinking– would be tricky. And it’s daunting to come home with a head of cauliflower and acorn squash and ground turkey and lemongrass and go about it.
Sun Basket, unlike Blue Apron, provides pre-made sauces. The lemongrass paste for the turkey meatballs and scallions in a lemongrass broth was included. The recipe card told you how to make it from scratch, but why would you?
The meals definitely took only 20-30 minutes to make, even the Indian bean stew. The cauliflower rice was already riced. Pastes and sauces made. And the recipe cards took you through making the warm salad and sole filet in parchment so that everything was ready at exactly the same time.
It is extremely satisfying cooking, and you don’t have to think at all. In this way, it’s the perfect product for our time. You get the illusion of supporting small farmers. You definitely get healthy food in delicious combinations. And you get to assemble it yourself. There is no comparison between these meals and frozen dinners, even the high end ones.
One thing I liked about Sun Basket is that the meals came to Doug from San Jose, California, down to Los Angeles (although they deliver from there to eight western states). That seemed a reasonable travel distance. Because, of course, petroleum costs to ship all these packaged meals is a fourth criticism.
In the 1950s, a company that wanted to sell cake mixes did a survey of housewives. They asked them to rate the character of two shoppers on the basis of the contents of their shopping carts. The carts had the exact same ingredients with one exception: one woman had a boxed cake mix. This woman was judged by her peers to be a floozy who didn’t care about her family. REAL women make cakes from scratch!
The company worked on the model and found that women approved if the housewife had to add an egg and oil. That was enough to qualify the mix as a shortcut and not a cheat.
These meal kits are shortcuts like cake mixes. But they are not cooking from scratch– to me that involves planning and buying the ingredients and doing the decision-making to prepare a meal. That is probably unfair of me. I work part-time. I’m happy to spend time and energy on my garden and cooking.
Also, unlike most people, I have the luxury of changing my lifestyle to consume primarily locally produced, in-season food. Adjusting to eating seasonally and growing and preparing the bulk of my food was not easy. We eat no “convenience” foods at all. I never ate a lot of them, but now I barely dip into the center aisles at the grocery store.
Tonight I’ll be making pasta and a chicken breast in a sauce of canned garden cherry tomatoes and local mushrooms, onions and (not at all local) olives. As I said in my last blog, winter is when I indulge in non-seasonal and non-local ingredients. It will be much simpler than any of the Sun Basket meals. It will be tasty. And there will be leftovers.