I’ve been more than a little incredulous about meal kits.
My biggest complaints have been that they are expensive and not environmentally friendly. I’m not paying $8 or $12 per serving for a meal unless someone else is cooking it, and those bulky boxes weighed down with ice packs are so heavy to deliver to my doorstep.
When I opened a recent delivery from Purple Carrot, the vegan meal kit company that recently expanded to Austin, I saw even more of the little bottles and jars and bags that are a convenience weighing on my conscious. The ingredients looked fresh, except for the spring greens (above) for one of the meals that I could see hadn’t fared well during the long journey to my office.
This kit contained the recipes for three two-serving meals: Sweet potato bao buns with kimchi, peaches, spring greens and lemon aioli; miso tofu with soba noodles, shishito peppers and beans; and cauliflower steaks with zucchini-poblano sauce and pistachio dukkah. Twenty years ago, I probably wouldn’t have known what half of those ingredients were, but they certainly meet today’s food standards.
I made the meal that looked the most interesting first, that sweet potato tempura served on those soft bao buns. As with all the meals, the cooking time took longer than the card stated, but I didn’t mind because I was frying batch after batch of thinly sliced sweet potatoes, a vegetable I had not yet cooked in a tempera batter. With the weird but delicious smell of kimchi and peaches behind me, I stood at the stove in awe of my abilities. (I forget that I’m a food writer sometimes.)
I was gaining a new skill as I turned each orange round, learning little lessons about how much batter should be on each slice, how hot the oil should be, when is the perfect time to flip. Even though I like them, I never buy those steamed bao buns, and I’d certainly never thought to combine kimchi and peaches. The spring greens that came with the kit went into the trash, and I replaced them with a handful of arugula. By the time I was ready to eat, I felt like I could open a food truck serving these sandwiches.
That meal left me feeling virtuous. I’d added a new dish to my roster. I could recreate this recipe another time, and my culinary life is better for it.
The same is true of the zucchini-poblano sauce I made a few nights later. After sauteeing the zucchini and pepper in a skillet, you add it to a blender and make this thick, nutrient dense sauce that added so much flavor to the cauliflower steaks. (The leftover sauce complemented the chicken tostadas we made later in the week.) You could follow that similar technique with so many vegetables to create a bright, healthy sauce to toss with pasta or serve alongside a seared piece of meat.
My doubts returned, however, by the time I got to the final meal. I love tofu and was surprised to see a slightly different cooking technique than the one I use, where you sear the tofu first and then toss with the sauce. (I almost always marinade mine first.) But that excitement waned as I started to get bogged down in the steps to make the two (very similar) sauces and instructions that called for making the soba noodles long before you actually needed to.
The recipe was also vague in several key places, including how much of the soba noodles to cook — the package they sent included four-and-a-half servings, but the recipe is only supposed to serve two — and what to do with the shishitos after they steamed. This dish also yielded too much trash. Three little plastic bottles and three plastic jars doesn’t seem like much, but when I start to think about millions’ of meals worth of these plastic bottles, I cringe. I’d prefer one bottle with an already mixed miso, vinegar and sesame sauce, but maybe I’m in the minority here.
UPDATE: The company responded with a comment about my comment on waste:
Since they are a plant-based meal kit company (and plant-based eating is actually the fastest way to reduce your carbon footprint), Purple Carrot consistently works to make their packaging reusable, recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable. For example, they recently reduced their box size by 38%, and all of the materials used in their packaging are made from post-consumer waste.
What I did learn from cooking these meals is that meal kits really are a path toward culinary discovery. The companies try to sell them as an easy fix to get dinner on the table, but I haven’t found them to be 30 minutes or less or, to be frank, anything my kids would eat.
But now I understand that you’re not supposed to order meals you already know how to cook or dishes that include ingredients you’re already familiar with. The hundreds, if not thousands, of meals available through these companies, including Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and Plated, are almost like a try-it-before-you-buy-it program for new ingredients or new meals that you might one day cook on a regular basis.
At $10 per serving, that’s a pretty expensive experiment, but if you have a wide palate and deep curiosity, the once-a-quarter meal kit is an excellent way to plant some new seeds for the next time you’re in the grocery store. You can’t debate the convenience of having pre-measured ingredients show up at your door, but I still have reservations about ordering these kits on a weekly basis. When grocery stores get the hang of developing the recipes and marketing the kits (and bringing down the price), I will absolutely be buying them more.