Semi-Homemade meets DIY meals in minutes

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It’s a problem felt worldwide: the end of the workday time crunch, a looming second shift of daring long lines at the grocery store, donning your chef hat, and whipping up some kind of dinner, only to be met with the reward of a sinkful of dishes. Needless to say, many run straight to takeout on nights when another “to do” is just too much to do.

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As a nation we are more food focused than ever, and yet have the least amount of time to devote to cooking. The food landscape has changed dramatically over the decades, the popularity of frozen dinners and convenience foods have been replaced with a trend towards more locally sourced, whole food driven entrees with gourmet appeal.

Enter the dinner kit.

The idea, which originated in Sweden, aims to satisfy that sweet spot between convenience and the cachet of a home cooked meal. The trend, already hugely popular throughout Europe, is now a powerful force in the US.

Dinner kits all operate on the same essential model. Customers choose from a variety of menu options, the frequency with which they would like to receive meals, the amount of people eating, and the days of the week they would like to receive them (most require a minimum subscription). The company then delivers boxes of pre-portioned ingredients with detailed recipe cards on the chosen days.

Middagsfrid, the original meal delivery from Sweden.
Middagsfrid, the original meal delivery from Sweden.

“Food is one of the last pieces of daily life that is still analog,” states Josh Hix cofounder of Plated, a major New York based dinner kit delivery service. “We want to bring it into the digital space.”

Plated and Blue Apron, another New York based food delivery giant, along with HelloFresh, owned by the huge German e-commerce company Rocket Internet, became key players addressing the paradox of a nation time starved and hungry for convenience yet Food Network crazed and desirous of instagram worthy meals with Top Chef creds.

“There’s not enough time in modern lives to recipe select or grocery shop,” notes Matt Salzberg, CEO and founder of Blue Apron.

The West Coast is picking up on the trend as well; particularly in the tech hip and foodie saturated Bay Area.

Blue Apron recently hired four hundred new employees to populate its latest distribution center servicing the Bay Area and others are joining in to fulfill this budding market.

A typical dinner from Blue Apron
A typical dinner from Blue Apron

Gobble is a Peninsula based, Y-Combinator start up that recently relaunched itself refining its focus and solely offering meals that can be made in one pan in 10 minutes.

Founder and CEO Ooshma Garg explains that she wanted to target families in the Silicon Valley giving her customers more choices, faster results, and less dishes.

“We are applying the ‘Ikea’ effect to the meal delivery business.” Ooshma explains describing the phenomenon that people like a product more if they have a part in its creation.

The Los Angeles based company Chef’D, is the most flexible of the meal kit delivery services since they don’t require the subscription so many of their competitors require. Celebrity chef recipes are selected online, the ingredients are sent to your door with instructions, and dinner is served.

Kyle Ransford, CEO and Founder of Chef’d, partners with chefs to provide the huge repertoire of recipes his clients can choose from, and says Crowdfunding has been the key to allowing him the flexibility to offer his services without subscriptions.

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That flexibility is important as some home cooks want the added help sometimes, but maybe not all the time.

Marin based Dinner in a Bag company Pernilla’s Pantry is undergoing a revamp to meet that very need.

“I have found that some of our customers want more flexibility when it comes to frequency,” founder and owner Pernilla explains.

A former member of the corporate world and busy mother of two, Pernilla started the Marin based business in 2012 and has been met with much success. She was inspired to create the business because she herself felt the need, and knew her from native Sweden, the country first to offer the dinner kit in 2007, called Middagsfrid, that the business model was successful. Pernilla used that success as a guide for her own. Her key has been to keep it local: she only delivers in Marin County, and to give back as much as she can to her community and to its schools.

Pernilla standing at kitchen counter preparing food.
Pernilla prepares meals for same-day delivery in the Marin area.

All the major dinner kit services offer locally sourced ingredients as well as nutritional data for every recipe. The convenience of proportioned ingredients and meals makes these kits very attractive to watching their waistlines and dietary needs.

One issue that has come up as a negative towards the dinner kit is that of waste. Jamie O’Keefe, a San Francisco professional who subscribes to Blue Apron, says, “I love the service so much but the packaging really bothers me. It just seems like so much and none of it seems to be recyclable or compostable.”

Pernilla Pantry solved the issue by making same day deliveries. Ingredients are dropped off at customer’s doors and, if they are not home, she asks they leave a cooler out.

On the other hand, Jamie says the service has really helped her reduce waste in her refrigerator.

“My refrigerator is so clean! I don’t have to worry about not using all of any ingredient; they are all perfectly portioned. I eat the leftovers for lunch and the food is so good, I look forward to the leftovers.” Even her notoriously picky husband is interested in trying her creations.

“It’s more expensive,” Jamie states, “but it makes sense for us because we don’t waste food like we used to, and we get to try new things we would not otherwise make.”

And that is often the boost busy home cooks need. While cheaper than takeout, dinner kits are still more expensive than traditional grocery shopping and cooking. When you add in the time it takes to grocery shop and meal plan and chop and prepare, however, the savings quickly add up. Also worth serious dividends is being able to try new dishes without investing in exotic ingredients that you may never use but will languish in your refrigerator’s nether regions.

Perhaps the best thing about the dinner kit is that it is encouraging people to cook more at home, come together at the table, and try new things they otherwise wouldn’t even attempt.

Now if we could just get them to do the dishes.

I am a passionate home cook, organic gardener, and mother of three always on the lookout for culinary inspiration. My background in food and wine has been shaped by my experiences working in restaurants, wine publishing, and hosting events.

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