Amy B. Trubek, University of Vermont
Americans spend more and more money on food prepared outside the home, and every day cooking becomes more episodic and less linked to gender and domestic obligations. Your grandmother would be surprised by your dinner preparations whether she was born in 1900, 1920, 1940 or 1960, whether she was or is a good cook, a terrible cook, a happy cook, a hostile cook. At the same time, she would also find much that is familiar, especially the cycle of organizing, shopping, cooking and cleaning up. The past 50 years have borne witness to major social, economic and technological transformations to an obligatory chore. Highlighting the broad transformations and the immediate realities of making a meal is a new intervention in addressing the demands of everyday cooking – meal kits – that would intrigue anyone’s grandmother. You can now purchase all the components of a designed meal – the recipe along with the portioned ingredients – and have them delivered to your house. Although in the United States each meal kit service promises uniqueness – we’re vegan! Our packaging is compostable! We source locally! – there is a similar structure to all of them (for example, Blue Apron, Purple Carrot, Hello Fresh, Chefd ). The customer either subscribes to the service or orders individual meals from an online platform that provides a diverse array of meals to choose from. The ingredients and recipes are delivered to your home. But then you transform it from the raw to the cooked.
Are meal kits our future? My own research is preliminary but intriguing. In 2016, in the midst of finishing my book Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today, a University of Vermont undergraduate, Adelaide Cummings, approached me after a lecture on the topic about her interest in doing an honor’s thesis exploring these. I had been following the launch of Blue Apron and Purple Carrot with great interest. Why not? We worked together to create a feasible pilot project, combining a qualitative experiment with non-users of meal kits (providing a week of meals and doing follow up interviews) with a quantitative survey of consistent users of them (providing a combination of open ended and multiple-choice questions). By the end of this small research project, we were cautiously confident that meal kits are here to stay.
We who do research on food and nutrition should investigate meal kits – their very existence reveals our cultural preoccupations and our culinary navigations. But they might also have predictive power, providing a window into the cooks and eaters we may become, serving as a talisman in a story of transformation to our everyday lives. Meal kits signal our on-going liberation from a long-standing reality: that in order to feed and nourish, first someone must prepare the meal. In 1960, Americans, on average, spent 80% of their food dollars on foods to be prepared inside the home. By 2015, that expenditure was down to 50%. What will we be doing in 2060? If meal kits allow us to create the cultural object we desire – a meal that nourishes and nurtures and comes from somewhere known, an endeavor that involves some effort but not much planning, a result that tastes good and not boring, repetitive or bland – then by 2060 they just might be the new normal.
The idea and the entrepreneurial activity to realize this idea are distinctly 21st century. The idea, interestingly, originated in Sweden, a nation and culture held up in the United States as a model of work/life balance, but where even so, making dinner every night can be a chore. The ‘invention’ is credited to Kristina Theander, a Swedish project manager interested in helping families figure out the ‘life puzzle’ of every day family activities. She launched Middagsfrid, which delivered bags of groceries with recipes to people’s doors in Stockholm; the business has expanded to deliver throughout multiple countries in Europe (Case Study) The first business in the United States based on delivering the components of a meal to be prepared at home was Blue Apron, founded in 2012 by three tech entrepreneurs. Other entrepreneurs (and now major companies such as Amazon) jumped into the game and now American companies generate over 1.5 billion dollars a year in sales of meal kits (See articles in the NY Times and Business Insider) .
Meal kits can be construed as a convenience product, but do they fall into the same category as frozen dinners and take away rotisserie chicken? The ingredients are compiled together in a warehouse and distribution center and then shipped in a cardboard box, ultimately delivered to the customer’s home. Each box contains ingredients that have been pre-measured and sometimes prepped for that specific recipe, as well as a recipe card with pictures to walk customers through the cooking process. Many companies, including Blue Apron, offer instructional videos for subscribers to learn different cooking skills that may appear in the recipes they receive.
Why do we imagine a possible future for meal kits, when they don’t fully remove all the daily strains of sourcing, cooking, and then cleaning up? Why aren’t they just more of the same – attempts by the food industry to take over more and more of our everyday cooking practices and make us into passive consumers? To Cummings and myself, it is due to an unintended consequence that emerged from both our interviews and our surveys: learning something new. Unlike more truly described ‘convenience’ foods, such as takeout or frozen meals, people (both in the interviews and surveys) reported learning new skills and information and gaining experience in the kitchen. As Cummings reports, “In both the interviews and the survey data of this study, people expressed pleasure in learning new recipes, working with new ingredients and using new techniques while making dinner from a meal kit service. One interview respondent said ‘I had a fish that I never would have tried or bought’ and a comment in the survey said ‘[I] liked trying new recipes and new ingredients’ in response to a question about the aspect of the service that were enjoyable.” In other words, meal kits enhance the experience of making a meal because they inform the home cook; they reinforce our DIY fascinations and also allow us to actually make something with relative ease.
Why, though, are we cautious in our confidence, identifying an equal possibility that meal kits will be a total bust, only to be remembered nostalgically in 2060 (as Gen Xers do about those TV dinners with the small compartments for Jello, fried chicken and mashed potatoes)? Because all the acts of cooking, the total cycle of planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning are consistently perceived as problems. Why? Because for many, the profound issue of everyday life lies in a perception of time poverty (See article on current struggles with Blue Apron). As Courtney Roark, a reporter for the Knoxville Sentinel summed up after she tried out three different services: “I always thought meal kit deliveries would make cooking easier, but all it really cut out was the trip to the grocery store (Roark).” Our 21st century selves reveal a cultural preoccupation with food, while we simultaneously do not want—or feel we haven’t the time—to be occupied with the work involved in getting food to the table in the form of nourishing meals. Anthropologists can help make sense of the seeming paradox with our long history of looking at everyday life, our explorations into lived experience, and our integration of the cultural and biological consequences of food to the human experience. Come join us!