Thursday, December 02, 2021

Trying a meal kit delivery

There are times in which curiosity must be dealt to, either satisfied or crushed, so that it will no longer torment us. This week I started to deal with a long-standing curiosity, but will it be crushed? Yes, and also washed, cut, fried, boiled, and baked. In the end, my curiosity will be satisfied.

Sometime in Nigel’s last year or so, I became interested in those meal kit programmes, the schemes in which a company sends a box of meal ingredients and recipes every week and the recipient simply follows the instructions. It caught my attention mainly because I cooked the nightly dinners, and, while I didn’t mind doing that, I hated meal planning. I thought those plans might help take that burden away. Nigel thought it sounded like a good idea, but a little while later suggested I look into meal planning apps instead. I started to, but—then “things happened”, and that was that.

During Lockdown last year, I became interested again because I couldn’t get anything delivered from supermarkets, and I didn’t want to go in person because I was considered at reasonably high risk of having a bad time if I caught Covid—this was back in those pre-vaccine days, of course. I had a lot of stuff on hand when Lockdown began, and I also found workarounds (including help from family), as I wrote about at the time, so I was able to ride it out.

Recently, I came across apparently little-known meal kits that were sold one week at a time, without subscription, and I decided to try one. They said the kits were for four dinners for four people and cost $99. I suspected that “four people” was probably exaggerating a bit, but I was also pretty sure that for me it would mean four dinners and also lunch the next day. It sounded like a good deal to me—all the stuff to make the meals (apart from “pantry basics” like oil, butter, salt, that sort of thing) delivered right to my door, and all I had to do was prepare and cook it according to the instructions.

At this point, it’s worth noting why thought that would be a good deal. There are several meal kit companies operating in New Zealand, including three I’d considered in the past: New Zealand-owned “My Food Bag”, the first to enter the NZ market, and its budget-friendly (cheaper) version, “Bargain Box”. German-owned “Hello Fresh” (NZ) is another I considered, and while I looked at some smaller, more local options, I never went past merely looking (by then I was going off the idea at all).

All the brands have special deals, especially for new customers, but for clarity and simplicity I’ll compare their listed, non-discounted prices. So, here are their prices listed today for four meals for four people: My Food Bag – $189.99; Bargain Box – $134.99; Hello Fresh – $153.03 (including delivery, which is listed as $9.99 by itself; the others don’t list separate delivery prices). All the plans start at meals for two people, which might have been okay for me.

I’d heard that the meals in those kits were extremely fiddly, even overly complicated, and I don’t think that anyone I know who started it continued for very long. I now understand why.

The box I ordered was from Food in a Minute, a website best known to Kiwis for mainly for a series of one-minute recipe advertorials they did at 5:59pm each night, right before the news. The programmes always featured ingredients from Heinz Wattie’s, the New Zealand subsidiary of US conglomerate, Kraft Heinz (which purchased the company in 1982; it was founded in New Zealand in 1934). The Food in a Minute website is part of Wattie’s.

The meal kits are called “Easy as eats by Food in a Minute”, and I haven’t seen them promoted anywhere except through their email newsletters (it’s of course possible I just missed some other promotion). I signed up for the newsletter many, many years ago—maybe 20 years?—because some of the featured recipes sounded good and fairly easy to do. Ah, the emails: I started getting them again back in September when I restored the email addresses Nigel set up for us. Until then, I hadn’t noticed I wasn’t getting them anymore.

I ordered what turned out to be their final meal kit box for the year, and it arrived Monday (photo up top, with an upside down sticker on the side).

The box was reasonably well-packed, though the frozen peas were mostly thawed (no biggie). All the meats were chilled and the vegetables were intact, apart from a fresh tomato what was slightly crushed. All the ingredients were as good or better than what I’d buy at the supermarket: I often bought some of the Wattie’s products, for example, but I don’t buy free range boneless/skinless chicken breasts or thighs because they’re a much more expensive version of what’s already a more expensive version of the chicken. Some of the ingredients were branded “My Food Bag”, which I thought was interesting: I have no idea what specific connection is, such as, it’s merely My Food Bag putting the kits together for Wattie’s. At any rate, I was happy with the contents of the box.

I’ve now made two of the meals, and I can tell those two experiences are typical. Here those two are, one at a time:

Meal One: “Knockout Gnocchi”

It had a “tomato, pea, and mint sauce”, and I thought it was… interesting. Here’s the thing: I don’t like mint in savoury foods—only in sweet things like cake frosting, for example, and only sometimes. I had to chop the provided fresh mint along with some fresh basil, but if I was to make it again, I’d used only basil, which would’ve been much better, in my opinion. The peas I could take or leave, but since I don’t like minted peas (unlike most Kiwis I know), it was always going to be a challenge for me (I think I would’ve been fine with the peas if it was without the mint).

The bigger thing for me was how fiddly and complicated it was (the folks I knew who’d said that about meal kits were right). For example, Nigel showed me how to cook gnocchi, but the recipe added a further step: Frying it, and I don’t think it added anything except an extra step—and an extra pan. The recipe suggested adding a bit of salt and balsamic vinegar “if wished”, and I added the vinegar because, I hoped, it would cut the strength of the mint flavour a bit, and it did. The recipe would supposedly be ready in 15 minutes, but it took me the better part of an hour and a half to do, and it took two pots and a fry pan, along with various knives and spoons. I’ve never had so much washing up to do after one meal except when I’ve cooked for the entire family—never when it’s been just for myself.

Overall, I give it 2 out of 5 stars (it could’ve been 3 without the mint, and maybe higher if I simplified the cooking. I’m unlikely to try making it again.

Meal Two: “Teriyaki Yakitori”

I thought this meal was (theoretically…) nice, however, I would’ve preferred different methods.

Yakitori is skewered chicken, and the recipe called for cutting the free-range chicken thighs into 2cm pieces, then dipping them in “Sesame or other oil” (I used a bit of sesame oil for flavour, but mainly canola oil because its healthier). Thing is, the chicken was incredibly slippery when it was oiled, and they slipping back into the bowl of oil. Mostly, I was afraid I might slip and push the bamboo skewers they provided through my hand (I went very slowly to avoid that).

Next, they were supposed to be grilled on a BBQ or in the oven (Americans usually call that “broiling”), however, my BBQ hasn’t been used since before Nigel died, and it needs to be cleaned. Also, the chicken was supposed to be basted with some Wattie’s teriyaki stir fry sauce that was provided (I didn’t read the label to find out how much salt and sugar was in it—didn’t want to know!—but it was really nice, especially combined with the hint of sesame oil). I ended up cooking the chicken in my grill fry pan (a frying pan with raised ridges, something I use mostly for steak and hamburgers). When they were cooked, I let them rest in the pan while I stirfried the bok choy with some finely chopped garlic and fresh ginger. This was the first time I’ve ever worked with fresh ginger.

The big mistake I made was following their instructions for cooking the rice in a pot. When I read the instructions, I thought to myself, “that’s now how I’d do that…” and I should’ve followed my instincts and done it my way or used the rice cooker because I got the worst result I’ve ever had in my whole cooking life: A gloopy, glumpy, rice goo.

The photo on the recipe card showed it with rice on the bottom, bok choy on that, and the yakitori on top of that, so that’s how I presented it, as in the photo. Because I didn’t like the rice, I ate the bok choy and the chicken (and fried the rice gloop for lunch yesterday, with a couple eggs, some frozen veggies (mostly pre-cooked in the microwave), and then with the leftover teriyaki sauce stirred through. It was okay.

I would’ve preferred the chicken Teppanyaki style (fried on a griddle) because it’d be less fiddly and easier to make sure the chicken was cooked through. I may try this recipe again, but teppanyaki— skipping the damn skewers.

This recipe was supposed to take 22 minutes, but it actually took me about an hour, which is actually an improvement. I used a pot, the grill pan, and a wok-like fry pan, plus bowls and plates used in prep. Overall, I give it 3 out of 5 stars (it would’ve been 4 if it had been teppanyaki style).

And that’s the story so far. After spending at least an hour cooking on each of the first two nights, plus doing so much of dishwashing, I took last night off. Instead, I made something that became one of specialities when I was a kid, peanut butter on toast. It was divine, and only took me a few minutes. 5 out of 5.

Seriously, though, tonight I’ll make another kit, take Friday off and have takeaways, before making the last meal on Saturday or Sunday. I can’t imagine the last two meals will be any easier to do, but maybe it’ll turn out that the first two were difficult just because I wasn’t used to the way such things work. I’ll know for sure soon enough.

Important Note: The names of brands/products/companies listed in this post are all registered trademarks, and are used here for purposes of description and clarity. No company or entity provided any support or payment for this blog post, and all products were purchased by me at normal consumer prices. So, the opinions I expressed are my own genuinely held opinions, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the manufacturers, any retailer, or any known human being, alive or dead, real or corporate. Just so we’re clear.

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