Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Final thoughts on the meal kit experiment

I’d always wondered about meal kit delivery programmes, and whether they were a good idea or not. This month, I finally had the chance to find out.

The experience was “interesting”, in both the sense of “not at all interesting” and in the sense of actually interesting. I was interested, for example, to find out if the recipes were really as fiddly as others told me they were, but also not actually interested in some of the recipes. I think I expected both.

Many of the recipes were far too fiddly and time-consuming for one person living alone. However, I think they might’ve been fine for a family of three (the kits were supposedly for four people, but unless two of the people were very young children, I don’t think most of them would have fed four—certainly not four adults). For one or even two people, though, such kits would be way too much hassle (except maybe once or twice a week, something I don’t think any of the meal kit programmes in New Zealand offer).

The quality of the ingredients was in most cases equal or superior to what I would’ve chosen, though there were some notable exceptions (the mesclun was already wilting when it got to me, and by the time I got to that meal, three days after the box was delivered, the contents of the bag were largely past it. Only a couple days after that, it got to the “green slimy goo” stage.

I learned that using these meal kits requires being prepared to change things up based on personal likes/dislikes or personal cooking experience. Several recipes had extra steps that could’ve been eliminated or made easier, and some ingredients could’ve been changed (such as, using fresh basil instead of mint in the gnocchi recipe). I didn’t realise that until well into the experiment. If I was to make the same meals again, I’d make changes to all of them (I should add that the reason I didn’t change anything is that I always first prepare a meal as spelled out in a recipe, then alter it when/if I make it again; I didn’t stop to think that I might not ever make them again; I should’ve followed my instincts).

For most people, the meal kits are probably not good value for money, depending entirely on how much one normally spends each week on food. All up, I got nine meals out of the experiment (four dinners and five lunches). That works out to an average of $11 per meal, but most of the usual meals I make, even relatively involved or fancy ones, cost me much less than that—often dramatically less. Also, in addition to that $11 per meal, I had to provide my own breakfasts, and that cost was additional. A family, especially one on a tight budget, would be unlikely to find it to be good value.

New Zealand discount grocer PAK'nSAVE provides information and guidelines to help with food budgeting. They suggest that a family of four spend a minimum of $216 per week for all meals, up to about $330 per week. Assuming three meals for four people over seven days (84 meals total), that would mean an average cost of around $2.60 per meal per person up to around $3.90 per meal (breakfasts included).

For a one man (it’s different for women, apparently), those figures for a weekly spend are $69.25 to $108. Assuming three meals a day for seven days, that would be 21 meals, and that works out to $3.29 per meal up to $5.14 per meal.

In all those averages, the relatively cheap cost of breakfast and lunch probably brings the average price per dinner down, so the average spend per dinner serving would be higher, however, even taking that into account, following the budgeting advice would mean it’d be very unlikely to hit $11 per person for dinner.

Whether the suggested budgets are reasonable or not will depend entirely on individuals and their situations, just as whether the meal kits are a good value or not does. It makes me incredibly sad, though, to see that PAK'nSAVE offers a shopping list for people who have only $20 to spend on food for a week. We shouldn’t be living in a world where that’s the case.

Based on all that, I can say that in terms of food cost alone, no, meal kit programmes are not good value for money. What they actually save is time and (some) hassle: No deciding what to have for dinners in a week, no effort and time shopping for the ingredients—it’s all decided and delivered. For some people, it’ll absolutely be worth if (even with too-fiddly recipes) just to order to save time. That may allow more time to be with friends or family, and could even present an opportunity to involve one’s children in food prep, both to teach them skills and to spend time together. If I was in that situation, I don’t think I would’ve minded the fiddly recipes anywhere near as much.

Bottom line, then: I don’t think meal kit programmes are worth it. Part of that is because I’m living alone and it’s a lot of work for not a lot of benefit. While I enjoy trying new recipes, even fiddly ones, I don’t want to do that every night—and pay a premium to do it. I wouldn’t order a meal kit programme again.

Two final thoughts. First, there was absolutely nothing “wrong” with the box I got (quibbles of meal prep notwithstanding). It was fine and, as I said, included stuff that was as good or better than what I’d normally buy. For me, it’s not about this meal kit, nor any of the meal kit programmes, it’s just that it’s not a good fit for ME. That’s absolutely all there is to it. Other people may think they’re the best thing ever, and, if so, I’m sincerely happy for them.

However, there was one other thought I couldn’t shake during that week, one that’s taken me several days to get to be able to explain: This experiment was arguably the most privileged middle class thing I’ve done in a very long time, maybe even ever.

A struggling family wouldn’t give a shit that I don’t like mint in savoury dishes or mesclun at all, they wouldn’t care that I didn’t like potatoes served with the chicken parma, and they might roll their eyes hearing that I’d have used a different method for cooking the free range chicken thighs (teppanyaki rather than yakitori—and they might roll their eyes into the backs of their heads at the thought that the difference even matters to someone). They might think I was spoiled for complaining about the details of the meal kit when for some struggling families $99 could be more than their entire weekly food budget for their family. If they thought any of those things, they’d be justified because they’d be right.

I’m not trying to suggest that I shouldn’t have done this experiment because some people can’t afford to do it, nor do I feel remotely guilty that I did it. I know that in the future I’ll still spend more on food than some people do—and less than some, as well. What this has shown me, once again, is to be aware of and thankful for what I have and what I’m able to do, regardless of whether it’s more or less than anyone else. I feel it’s my responsibility to help address inequality where I can—and I do. However, like everyone else I’m just trying to get through my (roughly) 30,000 days on this planet as best I can. Sometimes my path will be much easier than others, and sometimes it’ll be much more difficult. I think that’s part of being human.

Meal kit programmes are a matter of purely personal choice. I was able to choose to try one, and I’m glad I did. I just won’t do it again, also for purely personal reasons.

Previously in this series:

”Trying a meal kit delivery” – First in the series, and it talks about Meals 1 and 2.
”Meal Three was a success”
”The final experimental meal”


Roger Owen Green said...

This is a tough AAA question, because you may not even know. But what are some of the words you've incorporated into your language since you've come to New Zealand? I imagine one is fiddly. I've never used it but I knew the definition immediately. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fiddly

Arthur Schenck said...

That question is choice!