There is no sincerer love than the love of food - George Bernard Shaw
image by: duplass
The most unsexy, onerous, absurdly challenging task I face on a daily basis is figuring out how to put food in my body. This isn’t college — grilled cheese every night isn’t fine. This isn’t elementary school — the government doesn’t make sure my lunch hits all the big food groups. It’s ridiculous how much time and effort and planning goes into the one chore I really can’t skip.
My palate is what I’ll call "suburban Methodist fundraising dinner" — the recipes I know by heart are casseroles; the greenery I’m familiar with is iceberg lettuce. And because my economic sense was honed in a household with four constantly ravenous athletes, my usual strategy for keeping myself alive for another week relies on the simple math of one $2 box of ziti plus one $2 jar of spaghetti sauce equals eight meals. I recently poured spoiled milk onto a pot full of macaroni, and instead of tossing the whole thing, I spent 10 minutes rinsing the noodles off with my bare hands. Waste not, want not, and only buy the cheap stuff.
I’m eating, but I’m not deluded enough to think I’m eating well. It’s a problem most working people I know struggle with. How do you possibly come up with the many hours per week it takes to plan, shop for, and execute meals that are actually good for you? In recent years, meal-subscription services have been offered up as a new solution for this outwardly unimpressive problem. So I decided to embark on a six-week mission to find the one service that rules them all.
All of these services share common features: they send you every single ingredient (down to pinches of chili flakes and one-ounce bottles of wine) that you need to make a week’s worth of delicious (!), home-cooked (!), interesting (!?) meals. Most of them pride themselves on selecting produce that’s some combination of ethically sourced, organic, GMO-free, and seasonal. And all these services are quite blatantly marketed toward the young professional — people with enough money to eat right (the cheapest service I tried was $9.99 per serving) but not enough free time to plan their own meals (you may need 40 minutes to cook some of these recipes, but zero minutes to plan or shop).
Even before I got my first meal, I already had a few semi-serious moral quibbles with these services. They ranged from a silly disdain for the phrase "mise en place," to a more political discomfort with excessive waste, conspicuous convenience (a term I just made up), and false accessibility (these are luxury products after all, disguised as practical solutions). What services like these conveyed to me was that the future is for people who simultaneously have their shit together, have expendable incomes, and yet don’t want to do anything for themselves.
On a purely personal level, I thought that I would resent the schedule these services demanded. I thought I would find the stricture of making three decent meals per week for myself a horrendous burden. Honestly, it was. Nevertheless, I wanted to give the idea a chance — maybe the cost would justify itself somehow, with an intangible sense of accomplishment or with a steep decrease in the regularity with which I throw out entire boxes of rotten, untouched spinach from my fridge.
I chose five services in all: first, the big three — Blue Apron, Plated, and Hello Fresh — all of which serve a pretty standard mix of classic American, Americanized Asian, Americanized Mexican, and Americanized Italian food, and have valuations in excess of $500 million. For variety, I also signed up for PeachDish, a small, Southern food-specific service, and Purple Carrot, a fairly new vegan service. All five are available pretty close to anywhere in the United States.
These five are really just a small sampling of the wealth of options out there — you can order boxes tailored to your personal nutritional deficits, boxes specifically for new moms, boxes that comply with a paleo diet, and newly, boxes of food based around recipes from The New York Times Cooking website. (Congrats on the creative revenue plan, NYT!)
Over the course of six weeks I evaluated these services on quality, presentation, clarity of instructions, skills I learned, loveliness of packaging, and absurdity of price. In the final category they were mostly tied. At the end of the six weeks I couldn’t believe I had to go back to the shabby life I had been living before...
If I were going to convert to a meal-subscription lifestyle, the best option would probably be Hello Fresh. It struck the best balance between teaching me new skills and not taking up my entire night; the food was reliably edible, and I appreciate gimmickless chicken. I’m not going to come down too firmly on that, because it’s purely hypothetical. I’m not going to convert to a meal-subscription lifestyle. Life is expensive, and we have to pick our luxuries.
I love grocery shopping, and missed it a lot over the six weeks I didn’t have to do it. Counterintuitively, I do not find it challenging to find time to go to the store. I hate cooking, but I love shopping. Strolling up and down the aisles of an enormous, pristine grocery store triggers my suburbia sense, and makes me believe very briefly that I am not living in a gross city that wants to spit me out.
I can see why people use these services — the excessive packaging waste is certainly counteracted a bit by the fact that there is no produce waste to speak of. I’m not going to buy and genuinely use a whole bunch of thyme or even an entire tomato, unless someone tells me when and how. I’m not put-together enough to keep my cooking wine separate from my this-Tuesday-sucked wine. If you feel like you’ll never know exactly how much chard to buy if you want it to equal three cups when chopped, a meal service could be incredibly useful to you.
And of course, I would never devalue the endorphins that come with logging small accomplishments. Even though I was painting by numbers, the cooking I did during this experiment gave me an enormous sense of pride. It felt like doing the "right" thing — cooking real dinners, with nutritional value and greens and a protein and complex spice medleys. Doing something with your hands other than slapping a keyboard all day long has got to be the key to happiness. That one factor nearly convinced me that the cost and silliness of subscription services is worth it.
Source: Kaitlyn Tiffany, Excerpt from Dinner is Shipped, The Verge, May 25, 2016.