Cooking dinner, especially as portrayed in their ads, is supposed to be a fun and creative experiment where those involved add their ten cents of ingredients over a glass of wine. Cooking by numbers seems to dehumanize this process. Just sayin.’
By Madeleine Hollis
In the last few decades, and especially in the last year, Americans have seen a rapid transformation in the way that we handle and consume food. The most transparent example of this would be the rise of fast food conglomerates, and the nearly immediate way in which the creation of restaurants like McDonald’s and Burger King affected both our health and general lifestyles. The consequences of fast food have been studied time and time again, with very few positive conclusions. The consistent consumption of processed foods has been shown to increase the likelihood of all kinds of noncommunicable diseases, ranging from cardiovascular disease to cancer. These things are widely recognized. But what research has been done on the similarly quick—yet less processed—trend of prepackaged meal kits?
The concept of the meal kit has been around for over a decade now, beginning in 2007 with the Swedish company Middagsfrid, which has since become a multibillion dollar enterprise. The company was originally created to operate in a way that would focus on nutritional value with the added ease of delivery. In fact, the menus are created weekly under the guidance of a licensed nutritionist. The business also works with local entrepreneurs to source a majority of the food being sent out.
The idea didn’t spread fully to the U.S. until around 2012, with the founding of companies like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron. These subscription-based delivery services include fresh ingredients that are portioned based on customer choice, coming in serving sizes of either 2 or 4. Some menu items come with pre-chopped herbs or already made sauces, but for the most part this is a do-it-yourself cooking experience. All in all, this is a service that is held up by the offer of convenience to a busy society.
Meal kits picked up when Covid hit, as restaurants became nearly obsolete and grocery stores became a nightmarish horror story setting. With people unable or unwilling to leave the house, all delivery services seemed to boom nearly overnight. It was the perfect answer to a difficult situation. What began as a somewhat niche app used only by those who had extra cash to spend on a somewhat luxurious service, quickly evolved into a truly useful and necessary part of life. The question then is whether or not this will continue long after the effects of the pandemic have washed away.
It’s not exactly news that Americans appreciate convenience. When listening to what other countries think of us, it’s clear that we’re known for a dependence on excess and immediate satisfaction. This isn’t a personal fault, but that of the society we’ve grown up in. “Time is money” has basically become the national slogan. This has definitely impacted the choices that people make for their health, and against it, with many opting to quickly swerve into the drive thru instead of taking the time to cook a family meal. It’s not that it’s unreasonable—after working eight hours a day, it’s understandable that some don’t want to trade one chore for another. But how does this “time is money” lifestyle affect us personally and as a society?
Mental health is one of the most important repercussions of living a life where we trade money for comfort, especially in regards to our dietary choices. Studies have shown that a poor diet is not just met with physical consequences, but with a severe risk of mental distress, going so far sometimes as to cause lasting psychiatric issues. Research published in the Nutritional Neuroscience journal showed that increasing intake of fruits and decreasing intake of carbohydrates reduced signs of anxiety and depression in young adults. A lack of important nutrients can also lead to dementia and stroke, if the unhealthy diet continues for too long.
For meal kits, this is actually pretty good news. Each service offers a choice of what the customer is looking to gain from their experience on the app: are you looking to lose weight? Make generally healthier choices? Make time-saving meals for big families? All options are there for the picking. There are even entire menus dedicated to specific dietary restrictions, such as a keto and vegan section. In this way, meal preparation kits cannot be compared to the fast food of the past. One of the main focuses of the industry is to help Americans eat cleaner, without the hassle and stress of trying to figure out how to do it on their own.
Lack of activity is another leading cause of otherwise avoidable mental illness. A study done by the British Nutrition Foundation shows that lack of physical exertion may lead to depression, dementia, general anxiety. This is one thing that the meal kit does not have going for it. By devaluing the existence of grocery stores and individual shopping, we are choosing a world in which we no longer have to put effort into our daily activity. Business owners know that there is a large portion of the community that will pay any fee for the opportunity to stay home.
Another reason for the recent appreciation of delivered lunchboxes is likely the fact that a large part of the younger population never quite learned to cook themselves. Growing up in a world of instant ramen and Hot pockets has weakened the culinary skills of multiple generations. With apps like Blue Plate, there is no prior knowledge needed to create a home cooked meal. A recipe comes inside each package, along with a step-by-step guide on how to prepare and cook your meal. The apps are a useful teaching tool, especially for those with specific needs who are not quite sure which ingredients to use or how to correctly utilize them.
There are many factors to consider when deciding how to prepare your next home meal. Meal kits are certainly not without their pros, such as reducing waste, encouraging the use of fresh ingredients, and being an inexpensive way to save time while still learning a skill. But the long lasting consequences of forming a society that is even more dependent than before on simplicity may go on to negatively affect future generations. The importance lies in the way that we use the meal kits, whether they are being pandered to our supposed idleness or not. If we are able to use the apps as tools for learning, instead of tools to lean against, they may just end up being a pretty useful source.