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  • Writer's pictureFibonacciMD

Meal Kits: What Do They Really Deliver?

Two nutrition specialists take a look at meal kits.

What are meal kits? Do they save time? And are they healthy?

InBrief


making home cooked meal kits

Looking forward to a home cooked meal but don’t have the time, energy, or culinary skills to pull it off? Enter meal kits. Home Fresh, Dinnerly, Purple Carrot, Blue Apron, and Green Chef are just a few of the over 150 meal kit subscription services that will deliver everything you need to prepare a home-cooked meal directly to your door.[1] Over the past decade, meal kits have become a multi-billion-dollar industry, with Covid lockdowns contributing to their growth. One survey reported that 17% of Americans had subscribed to a meal kit service, with a higher percentage of participation among millennials and gen-xers.[2] Consumers buy them to save time, add variety to their diet by trying new recipes, and eat healthier.[1] Do they deliver on all these fronts and how do they stack up in terms of their environmental impact and your food budget?


Do meal kits save time?

Meal kits make planning and preparing meals faster and more convenient. You can map out a week of meals by choosing from an extensive online menu. This eliminates the need to research new recipes and to go to the grocery store for ingredients. Meal kits shorten meal prep time by providing pre-portioned, precut, and sometimes partially prepared ingredients.[3] A study that reviewed one meal delivery service found that a typical recipe took 35 minutes to prepare.[4] So although these kits do not eliminate all food prep work and you still need to clean up, they take less time than traditional methods of home cooking.


Do they increase variety?

Variety is one of the hallmarks of a healthy diet. Meal kits provide a wide selection of meal choices. You can find everything from meat and potatoes to plant-based and ethnic dishes as well as meals that meet preferences for organic, vegan, vegetarian, low-calorie, paleo, keto, and other diet options.[1,5] Some services even provide meals modified to meet the dietary prescriptions of those with diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and other chronic conditions. In addition to offering a variety of meal choices, meal kits make it easy to try new and unfamiliar foods by simplifying meal selection and preparation and teaching cooking skills.[5] Customers report the opportunity to try new recipes as a benefit of subscribing to a meal kit service.[3]


Are they healthy?

A healthy diet is a varied diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fiber and low in salt, added sugar, and saturated fat. This dietary pattern limits highly processed foods and helps maintain a healthy weight. It is well documented that cooking and eating meals at home is associated with a healthier diet, better health and well-being, and improved overall quality of life.[4,6] Because meal kits promote home cooking, they contribute to healthier eating.[3] By making cooking more enjoyable and encouraging the participation of family and friends, meal kit use has been shown to have mental and social benefits.[3,5]


are meal kits healthy


Recipes are generally high in vegetables; one study found a typical recipe included 3 different vegetables. [1,4] Meal kits promote the use of minimally processed foods by providing fresh ingredients. In addition, the controlled portions help consumers manage their weight ; a typical meal provides about 678 Calories— about a third of the calories in a 2000-Calorie diet.[4]


There is, however, room for improvement. Surveys have found that meal kit meals are relatively high in fat and often exceed recommended amounts of sodium. Recommendations for a healthy diet suggest limiting total fat to 35% of calories and saturated fat to less than 10% of calories. An analysis of meal kits found a median of 38% of calories from fat with 11% from saturated fat. Sodium content ranged from 67 to almost 4000 mg/meal; the goal is 1500 to 2000 mg of sodium for an entire day. [5]


What is their environmental impact?

Food packaging makes up about two thirds of packaging waste in the US so one might expect that the environmental impact of meal kit delivery services to individual homes would be large. However, a study found the carbon footprint of meals cooked from regular store-bought groceries was 33% higher than for meal kit meals.[7] The primary reason for this environmental advantage is a reduction in food waste. Ingredients provided in meal kits are purchased in bulk and then pre-portioned resulting in minimal food waste in packaging plants as well as in consumers’ kitchens. Meal kits also streamline the traditional manufacture/retail supply chain, so food skips retailing in stores. This reduces food waste in the grocery store and that wasted when consumers’ purchase more than they need; it also lessens the environmental costs of driving to and from grocery stores. In addition, meal kit cold packs have lower emissions than grocery store refrigeration.


Are they affordable?

Cost is an important consideration when shopping for food, and meal kits are no exception. Although cheaper than eating out, meal kits may cost as much as 3 times more than shopping at the store and preparing meals at home.[8] They generally require you to sign up for regular deliveries, usually every week. Many are purchased on a monthly subscription averaging between $5 and $10/meal, depending on discounts and how many meals are ordered. While this may sound expensive, if having a meal kit subscription reduces the number of times you eat at a restaurant or have food delivered, you may actually be saving money.


The bottom line: Meal kits are a convenient way to have a home cooked meal when you are short on time and/or cooking skills. They generally meet more of the recommendations for a healthy diet than restaurant meals, take out, or delivery options, and thus have the potential to improve diet quality, and ultimately benefit personal and public health.[7] Despite the fact that meal kits arrive with a lot of packaging, overall, they have a smaller carbon footprint than buying food from the grocery store and cooking it at home. They are more expensive than home cooked meals, but they are less expensive than restaurant or takeout meals. While not everyone can afford the extra up-front cost of these meals, for those who can they offer the possibility of consuming healthy meals with less time and effort.

 

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References


[1] Cho M, Bonn MA, Moon S, Chang H. Home chef meal kits: Product attributes, perceived value, and repurchasing intentions the moderating effects of household configuration. J Hosp Tour Manag. 2020; 45:192-202. doi:10.1016/j.jhtm.2020.08.011


[2] Patel, R. The top 10 meal kit delivery business Statistics & trends 2023.

https://www.upperinc.com/blog/meal-kit-delivery-business-statistics-trends/Accessed August 3, 2023


[3] Fraser K, Love P, Campbell KJ, Ball K, Opie RS. Meal kits in the family setting: Impacts on family dynamics, nutrition, social and mental health. Appetite. 2022;169:105816. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2021.105816


[4] Moores CJ, Bell LK, Buckingham MJ, Dickinson KM. Are meal kits health promoting? Nutritional analysis of meals from an Australian meal kit service. Health Promot Int. 2021;36(3):660-668. doi:10.1093/heapro/daaa095


[5] Clamp J. NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health. Meal kits: Can they deliver? June 2022. https://nutrition2me.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/NNEdPro.pdf.

Accessed July 30, 2023.


[6] McKay FH. What’s in a commercial meal kit? Structured review of Australian meal kits. Public Health Nutr. 2023;26(6):1284-1292. doi:10.1017/S1368980023000265


[7] Heard BR, Bandekar M, Vassar B, Miller SA. Comparison of life cycle environmental impacts from meal kits and grocery store meals. Resour Conserv Recycl. 2019;147:189-200. doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2019.04.008.


[8] Forbes, Here’s how much money you save by cooking at home. https://www.forbes.com/sites/priceonomics/2018/07/10/heres-how-much-money-do-you-save-by-cooking-at-home/?sh=65e8719e35e5. Accessed July 25, 2023.


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