Meal kits make mealtimes easy

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Busy families struggle with the age-old question of how to get a healthy meal on the table when work, life or school schedules make cooking time hard to come by.

There’s a booming business responding to this consumer desire, and it’s a natural morphing of the conveniences of online shopping and want for affordable, fresh, healthy fare for the family table. According to the NDP Group market research firm, the meal kit delivery service category is the fastest growing segment of the food retail business – a category estimated to grow between $3 to $5 billion in the next 10 years.

Consumers find meal-kit delivery services via Facebook, Instagram and social media referrals.You have likely noticed Canadian companies such as Chef’s Plate, Hello Fresh and even Oat Box, national players promoting a half-off or first-plate-free type introduction to their services. Essentially, all meal kit delivery services work in similar fashion: customers choose which meals they’d like for that week’s delivery: gourmet-style options of chicken, beef, pork, fish and vegetarian (cheese, bean-based) entrees, usually with a side potato, rice or pasta and vegetables. The services provide a complete meal to feed two or four people (whichever option you choose) and with two or three complete meals per box (again, depending on your choice).

As subscription services, insulated boxes containing everything you need to make those  family-sized or two-person meals will keep coming once a week. They usually come via courier, usually free delivery is part of the service. Customers need only go online each week to choose or edit the desired entrees; or do nothing and chosen meals will be delivered, ready to cut and cook. The kits come with full colour recipe cards and step-by-step instructions to create 30-minute meals, plus ready-to-cut or already-cut onions, garlic, veggies, fresh herbs, cheeses, etc. in just the right amounts.

“It might be a novelty for some.  It’s appealing to get a market-fresh box of exactly what you need for one meal – the lemon, the vinegars, the lean meats. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t love a bag of already cut onions, ready for the frying pan,” says Ceri Marsh, author of The School Year Survival Cookbook.

Making a chef of the newbie cook

But Jaimie Shea, co-founder of Chef’s Plate, says there’s much more to the service. “Customers tell us they want fresh foods from local suppliers, so it’s what we aim for; as is reducing food waste. People appreciate getting exactly the amount they need to cook a meal,” he says. “It also makes cooking supper fun; something parents can do with kids, or just the older kids on their own. And we offer delicious options, with no commitment – choice, flexibility of ordering and customer service is key.”

Chef’s Plate is a national meal kit delivery service, serving St. Albert midweek, and it’s easy to see the appeal. A welcome box of fresh ingredients (meats are kept chilled or frozen via ice packs) offers peace-of-mind in knowing ‘what’s for supper?’, not to mention the savings of avoiding the car, gas, and time spent in grocery store lineups to get the ingredients home. With meal kits, there’s no spoilage or leftovers (though leftovers aren’t necessarily a negative). And, as with other companies, customers can cancel with no penalty, pause the service or opt out of deliveries as often as wanted.

A recent week’s offerings of two-cheese beef lasagna pasta, salmon salsa verde and grilled tandoori chicken skewers epitomized what Shea describes about the service – unique meals that offer variety and the fun-factor for hectic weekday suppers or when families can spend time cooking together. Meals take only 30 minutes to prepare. Younger kids will find a single zucchini or red pepper more approachable for cutting, while teens can gain confidence in their cooking abilities when they single-handedly manage a tarragon chicken dish.

“That’s the beauty of the program,” Shea says. “Those who have never cooked before can feel good about creating a healthy, gourmet-tasting meal. The recipe cards will turn anyone into a cook, and everyone in the family can appreciate the shared jobs in the kitchen.”

Pre-cut onions – no tears!

Hello Fresh has a similar premise with its pronto (feeds two) or family-sized meal kits. Like the other companies, Hello Fresh meals average about $10-$12 per serving, slightly less when higher volumes are ordered.  And these offerings are just as varied, multi-sized and appetizing as the others: jerk pork medallions, Mexican beef tacos and cheesy chicken enchiladas aim to satisfy.

“Our customers are busy professionals, busy families and people looking to build a better mealtime routine, i.e. gym-goers and new home cooks,” says Brittany Tilstra of Hello Fresh. “The value of our plan lies in time saved. We plan the meals, do all the shopping and even some of the prep – pre-cut onions (no crying).”

New local player brings a dietitian’s expertise to the meal-planning game

As online meal delivery kits gain in popularity – word-of-mouth, referral perks for customers, convenient apps for on-the-go meal selection – more players are jumping on board. Based in Edmonton, Cook.Eat.Repeat brings a registered dietitian’s know-how to creating single-serve option recipes and locally-sourced ingredients to customers in the capital region.

 “There’s no subscriptions and no fixed meal plans – lots of meal choices each week, including many vegetarian options and popular family favourites,” says Cook.Eat.Repeat director and registered dietitian Maria Kupreeva, who started the company a few months ago. “We also use animal products sourced from butchers/farms that are concerned about animal welfare.”

How does cheesy orecchiette with Italian sausage and broccoli sound? Or blackened tilapia with fluffy bulgur, and kale, fennel and cabbage slaw?  The recipe cards come with directions plus calorie, fat, carb and protein counts too. Cook.Eat.Repeat uses a healthy helping of plant-based recipes (oven-baked falafel with couscous and Greek yogurt sauce, for example), As with other services, customers can earn meal credit (eat coins) and free delivery when ordering multiple meals. bringing costs below the average $10 per meal price. First-time clients can use a code for forty percent off to try the service.

“We have repeat customers—busy professionals, young families—and popular menu choices that we rotate on the menu with new items,” she says. Cook.Eat.Repeat has a flexible delivery schedule, with morning or afternoon drop-offs available to homes in St. Albert. 

Start the day right

With an estimated one of two Canadians starting their day without breakfast, you know there’s going to be a food delivery service to address the issue. Montreal-based Oat Box is making a splash out west, delivering breakfast bars and custom-blended granolas each month – the first time with a mason jar that is ideal to use  for the included suggestions for overnight oats (granolas, oats, yogurt).  Also touting no subscription minimum or commitment, a subscriber can customize what they want in the $20 box, from gluten free and nut free granola mixes, classic oatmeals, breakfast bars and chef-created granola mixes, such as peach and pumpkin seed or kiwi and coconut. Don’t forget the included recipe suggestions, such as granola rice crispies and coconut and granola waffles. 

If you want to feel good about eating breakfast and helping others, Oatbox supports the Breakfast Clubs of Canada, donating breakfast to a child in need with every subscription purchased.

DIY assembly

While online ordering from the grocery store (Save-On Foods online shopping and delivery service, or Superstore’s Click and Collect) is a growing business, there’s yet another option. St. Albert’s The Dinner Factory (and a few other meal assembly spots in the capital region) offer a DIY assembly of recipes and ingredients to create convenient freezer meals for families large or small.

While this version of creating ready-to-go, convenient yet healthy meals takes more time and effort than an online click, customers can still enjoy prep time with family or friends. The variety of gourmet-style and family-friendly popular pleasers is high, with locally sourced produce and meats to insure freshness and quality.

Especially busy when fall schedules demand the ready-to-go, from the freezer meal (advance prep already done!) The Dinner Factory offers everything from burgers and buns to cheesy pasta meals to chicken, pork and beef favorites. A family-sized meal here comes in at about $35 to $40 for a large tray; under $10 a portion for a hearty meal. Portions and container sizes can be downsized for smaller families, seniors or singles. Book a daytime or evening one or two hour session, fill your freezer and you’re ahead of the game.

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About Author

Lucy Haines

Lucy Haines has been a freelancer writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2012. She writes features on travel, food, seniors, homes and gardens.