How meal subscription boxes shifted dinner culture

An open-carton meal subscription box with veggies in it
Sean Locke / Stocksy

We are living in the golden age of food subscription boxes. Blue Apron, Plated, Green Chef — there seems to be something for everyone. Amongst the myriad boxes showing up on doorsteps across the country, meal prep kits in particular seem to be redefining how many of us spend our time in the kitchen. It’s no surprise that this surge of subscription dinners are being met with open arms; a recent story in the Washington Post reported that only 40% of millennials how to carve a turkey as compared to 70% of baby boomers who’ve mastered the art.

These boxes are essentially a container of strategically-curated ingredients (raw vegetables, meat, and seasonings) designed for you to create a meal that fits your dietary preferences, in 20 to 30 minutes. An economically prudent option for many, the kits generally run from around $8 to $20 and you can choose how often to receive them. With revenue from meal delivery services expected to reach 10 billion dollars in 2020, it appears this trend is more than a trend — it could be a new way of life.

The allure of easily escaping mundane meal repertoires has contributed to massive success of meal delivery services. But as popularity grows, questions inevitably rise alongside it: Where does the food we receive come from? Who’s making these meals? And perhaps most importantly: Are the ingredients healthy and sustainably sourced?

To get to the bottom of these queries, we spoke to the people behind a couple of these meal prep subscription brands — Freshly and HelloFresh — to shed some light on what goes inside these boxes — and why they’re capturing the masses.

Sean Locke / Stocksy

“Freshly was created because our founders experienced, first hand, how hard it is to eat healthy and how much of a hassle cooking can be when you’re strapped for time,” says Emily Buckley, senior director of meals portfolio at Freshly. Buckley is responsible for the development of Freshly's menu, overseeing the culinary and research teams. The brand sells chef-prepped meals like grilled chimichurri chicken, teriyaki salmon cakes, and chicken tikka masala. “With restaurant delivery, you get the ease of not having to cook and having it delivered to you… but most of the time it’s not healthy.” Buckley says that Freshly satisfies key consumer desires by providing healthy food that’s delivered promptly and ready-to-eat in a few minutes.

Taking a page from modern-day marketing firms and e-commerce sites, Freshly uses data to look at consumer behavior based on prior meal performances, which helps the team decide what to add to their menu next. “We have a full team that focuses solely on consumer insights that inform food innovation and trends,” says Buckley. Some of Freshly’s staff chefs include a culinary scientist, Sam Lapone, who uses biochemistry, organic chemistry, and microbiology to help develop delicious food; Le Cordon Bleu alum and former member of Wendy’s culinary innovation team, Chris Scott; and culinary development chef Craig Emmons, who started cooking at age three. Her team tunes in to the needs of the industry by attending food-tech conferences and speaking directly with restaurant chefs to get a sense of emerging food trends while getting an insider’s guide to popular ingredients, dishes, and cooking methodology to translate into a meal kit.

So what’s all the effort for? Companies seem to be tapping into a shift in quick dinner culture. When compared to the convenience meals of yesteryear — i.e. TV dinners — HelloFresh and Freshly are an indication of how our priorities have changed. We’re no longer digging into a tray of flash-frozen mystery meat surrounded by an interminable number of nuclear-green peas. Instead, we’re seeking ethically-sourced, expertly-crafted, ‘Gram-worthy meals.

HelloFresh is another meal brand that aims to provide meal options that are high quality, seasonal, and farm-sourced. “We work with trusted, experienced, and sustainable partners to ensure high quality, seasonal, and farm-sourced produce is delivered to our customers at peak freshness,” says vice president of the company’s procurement, Marcel Comtois. Comtois and the team work with growers to get fresh fruits and vegetables from field to customer immediately after harvest, which addresses sustainability concerns by reducing wasteful steps that exist in the traditional food supply chain. Recent research shows that young consumers are heavily influenced by which products claim to be eco-conscious, which could be a part of why meal kit sales are surging.

When compared to the convenience meals of yesteryear — i.e. TV dinners — HelloFresh and Freshly are an indication of how our priorities have changed.

For those who count themselves as boxed-meal-preppers, one element still remains unclear: How does the food still look fresh when it arrives? Some foods are inevitably harder to ship than others. “A great example of this is our new wild-caught Mahi Mahi with cilantro lime rice and romesco,” Buckley says. “The challenge with creating a fish dish at Freshly is how to maintain texture and aroma when the meal needs to be reheated and still taste amazing some days later.”

Seafood is one of the hardest meats to work with, so it takes an elevated level of care when it comes to buying and shipping. “We buy both wild-caught and farm-raised fish,” says Comtois, “We require all seafood to be traceable — including country of origin, catching area, fishery, catch season, and catching method. We evolve our menu depending on the type of fish, time of year, and health of the fish population.” HelloFresh works with the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch program to ensure their seafood is rated either "Green/Best Choice" or "Yellow/Good Alternative.”

Once everything else is covered, it all comes down to delivery — shipping food quickly and in packaging that won’t destroy the taste, texture, or the consumers’ stomach. In 2018, HelloFresh partnered with TemperPack to roll out a curbside recyclable insulation called “ClimaCell.” In addition, they utilized seven different insulation types match with five different coolant volumes based on the destination of the kit, allowing them to adjust their packaging strategy based on local temperatures the boxes will be exposed to. This minimizes the amount of material used while still prioritizing food safety in shipping.

Driven by consumer trends and food-tech data, meal kit brands have figured out how to create and execute what their target audience is craving, which seems to be the illusion of domesticity tucked into a neat and pain-free package. Does that mean this generation will rise to the ranks of their turkey-carving elders or exists happily somewhere on the fringe? Time will tell.