My Goal: Fix Dinner
The promise of Home Chef (and other similar meal kit delivery services) is appealing – everything you need to make a home-cooked meal, from scratch, in 30 minutes, delivered right to your door without a visit to the grocery store. As I reflect on the choices that led to the decision to try Home Chef, the phrase “we can do better than this” comes to mind.
My husband and I both work and both like to cook, but find cooking after work for young, picky eaters exhausting and frustrating. We have several failed attempts at weekly meal planning under our belts, harpooned by: not sticking to the planned meal (him); forgetting to buy ingredients needed for the meals (me); and failure to execute on the plan because of the paralyzing weariness of raising little boys (both.)
We throw together meals at the last minute, or end up eating leftovers or takeout. We also waste an incredible amount of food that we buy with good intent and then let expire. We are dependent on frozen and pantry items (think frozen vegetables, canned sauces, prepared fruit cups.) Our menus have become narrow and not as healthy as this dietitian mom wants.
Home Chef seemed like a good solution. The recipes were simple, I felt confident cooking them and the food was tasty. For two weeks, I was I able to cook three meals a week after I was done with work. My husband seemed very happy. It made me feel really good to cook dinner.
There was just one problem: the packaging of “everyday” and shelf-stable ingredients. As a family of four, they would send two meal kits and I had to double the recipe. It was double the packaging – double everything. They sent EVERY ingredient in exact portions. I would receive two tiny plastic bottles of Sherry Cooking Wine, 8 cloves of garlic and 12 single pats of butter. All the packaging was recyclable, but it was SO much waste.
Each meal costs around $9.00, so I found myself calculating how much I just spent on garlic, sherry cooking wine and butter, already found in my pantry and refrigerator. After two weeks, I discerned that the good feelings created by the cooking were not from the service itself, but from the well-orchestrated preparation. I suspended the service – giving them my feedback – and decided that we would follow the principles of the Home Chef service (good recipes and ingredient prep) and try another attempt at meal planning.
That attempt was short-lived and admittedly we are back at square one. While I regret cancelling the Home Chef service, I also have not clicked the “reorder” button, so the choice was probably optimal.
The Goals of Others: Satisfy the Target Consumer
My husband gets home from work before me and he is a great cook. I’ve gotten into the habit of just letting him cook dinner nearly every day of the week, though it makes me feel guilty. He, obviously, would like to NOT have to cook every night. But, he dutifully comes home and whips up a dinner that is mostly kid-pleasing starch with frozen veggies and a frozen protein. I do the dishes and we call it a day. He seemed happy with the Home Chef recipes and he was supportive of the whole process. He also supported the decision to stop, because he agreed the packaging was over the top and we could mimic the principles if we tried harder.
For the team at Home Chef making decisions on how to produce and package meal kits, we think that to simplify their production they must be producing recipes and kits for a model customer. The archetype they have in mind is a couple with no kids, in a small urban space, who keep very little stock on hand. They don’t cook, or are just learning to cook, and they haven’t built up the pantry that more seasoned cooks might have. Instead of adapting their model to different types of households, they simply use the same meal kits and multiply it times X to accommodate different household sizes.
In my work and when I food shop, I also see more and more that food manufacturer and retailers are building up their offerings in the “almost home cooking” space. Pre-cut ingredients. Prepared spice blends. Meal and salad kits with a recipe. These offerings come at a premium price – just as Home Chef is a premium service. It’s an attractive market because the target consumer is working professionals with disposable income, but not disposable time.
Societal Influences: Conflicting Agendas
There are societal norms at play about the role of working supermoms cooking for their families – I certainly feel that pressure. It’s embarrassing that I’m a mom who can’t get it together to cook dinner…made more embarrassing because I’m a dietitian and actually have studied (and taught!) meal preparation and planning. Nonetheless, this RD mom is waving the flag to say it is REALLY hard to have a dual-career family and make dinner work.
There are also societal norms around working hours in the U.S., which generally fall in the range of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a 40+-hour work week. Somewhere in there we also ask ourselves to exercise, spend quality time with our spouse and kids, volunteer, and practice some basic physical and mental hygiene. If you layer on school activities, childcare scheduling plus evening activities, it’s easy to understand why cooking dinner becomes so hard. When are you supposed to do it? (DISCLOSURE: I’m listening to “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think” on Audible, so I might sing a different tune when I’m done!)
I think there is a model – maybe it’s out there already and I don’t know about it – where a household could use this style of delivery service and commit to a meal plan where they self-purchase a specific basket of staple items that they will reuse in the plan. Then the delivery service would only send the fresh produce, proteins, and unusual items that can confound meal planning. In any case, there is certainly a market for innovation to make all of this easier, and Home Chef and its competitors are just at the beginning of something really transformational.
Maybe this is something I could work on…if I only had the time!
- Boston Network for Intl. Dev.
- Solutions Journalism – stories of success
- Politico – US food & ag policy
- Ag2nut – international nutrition
- Chicago Council – global food & ag
- Farm Policy News – from Univ. of Illinois
- The Counter – ‘Fact and friction in American food’
- Food dive – specialist journalism about the food industry
- Food Safety News – nasty stuff to avoid
- Dani Nierenberg’s Food Tank
- Jeremy Cherfas – food culture
- Gro Intel – deep dives into data
- FERN’s ag insider news
- Econofact – US economic policy
- Rudd Center – obesity policy
- David Allison – obesity research
- ANH Academy – mostly Africa & Asia
Data & resources
- My list of resources (experimental)
- WB DIME data analysis handbook
- JPAL how-to research resources
- USDA Econ. Res. Service (ERS) data
- USDA Food & Nutr. program data
- NCCOR – all US food-health data
- World Bank data
- FAO Statistics (FAOSTAT)
- UNICEF statistics
- WHO – child heights and weights
- WHO – global obesity and BMI
- UN system data
- HDX – humanitarian crises
- The dataverse
- IHSN – household surveys
- IPUMS – accessible data (incl. IDHS)
- Euromonitor – branded foods (library subscription)
- Gro Intelligence data
- Parke Wilde – food policy
- Jess Fanzo – food systems
- Marc Bellemare – ag & food econ
- Chris Blattman – dev econ
- Jayson Lusk – ag & food econ
- Diane Coyle – economics books
- Marion Nestle – food politics
- Tamar Haspel – food & ag
- World Bank – impact evaluation
- BITSS – research methods
- Econofact – US econ policy
- Susan Dynarski – education policy
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