Weeknight Dinner 2.0
A slew of new dinner kits promise gourmet meals with a fraction of the effort. But will all that ease be good for the planet (and our waistlines)?
I don’t mean to brag, but on a recent Tuesday, I steamed cod in a banana leaf for dinner.
I’m not the kind of person who regularly steams cod in banana leaves midweek. On good evenings, my husband and I jazz up frozen ravioli with some frozen peas. On bad ones, we trudge to the pizza place around the corner. Don’t get me wrong: Cooking is one of my favorite things to do, but during the week, I’m too frazzled to face my pantry. The idea of weeknight fish-steaming—banana leaf aside—was about as unimaginable to me as, I don’t know, weeknight floor-sealing.
So I was skeptical when, for my birthday, my mom gave me a gift certificate for four weeks of a cook-at-home meal-delivery service called Blue Apron. Each Tuesday, for about $10 a serving, I would receive a box containing recipes for three dinners of less than 800 calories each—and all the ingredients I needed to cook them in 40 minutes or less. I scanned the recipes on the company’s website. The fact that frozen ravioli was nowhere to be found filled me with mild panic.
In the past five years, food-delivery services have proliferated to the point where they are now a bona-fide industry. When Blue Apron was founded in 2012, it shipped 20 boxes of meals in its first week; today it delivers more than a million meals a month to customers living across 85 percent of the United States, including my corner of the world in Oakland, California. I’ve spotted meal boxes on my neighbors’ doorsteps and Blue Apron photos on my Facebook feed. The company’s competition includes similar services like Plated, Chefday, and HelloFresh. Less ambitious home chefs can opt for fully assembled frozen gourmet meals—super-fancy TV dinners—from Munchery, Babeth’s Feast, dcuisine, and Home Bistro.
Of course, food showing up on one’s doorstep isn’t revolutionary. But it used to be that the point of ordering in was to avoid cooking. Now cooking is no longer supposed to be a chore—spending long hours in the kitchen should be enjoyable, according to the leading food thinkers of our time. When the Financial Times asked celebrated chef Alice Waters to name her favorite kitchen utensil, she chose a particularly strenuous one: her mortar and pestle. “I consider it a therapy to pound garlic and mix herbs,” she said. That I consider it “a therapy” to shovel last night’s takeout pad Thai into my mouth while standing in front of my fridge is my own shortcoming.
Physically preparing a meal connects us with the agricultural systems that produce our food, making us more active and engaged consumers.
According to experts, it is people like me who are making America fat and, at the same time, contributing to food production’s negative impact on the environment. “The most important thing you can do for your kids’ long-term health is to teach them to cook,” wrote Michael Pollan in his 2013 book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. “The best diet is: Eat anything you want as long as you cook it yourself.” Food writer Mark Bittman agrees. “Not cooking is a big mistake,” he warned in a 2014 piece in Time. “And it’s one that’s costing us money, good times, control, serenity, and, yes, vastly better health.”
Research suggests that Pollan and Bittman might be on to something. A 2014 Johns Hopkins study found that participants who cooked dinner six or seven times a week consumed 6 percent fewer calories and 12 percent fewer grams of sugar than those who cooked no more than once a week. In 2012, researchers polled fifth graders in Alberta, Canada, about how much they liked certain foods. Those who reported helping with meal preparation at home showed a 10 percent stronger preference for veggies than their peers who didn’t help cook. There’s also a less quantifiable element: Physically preparing a meal connects us with the agricultural systems that produce our food, the Pollans and Bittmans of the world say, making us more active and engaged consumers. “If we decide to outsource all our cooking to corporations, we’re going to have industrial agriculture,” Pollan wrote in Cooked. “The most important front in the fight to reform the food system today is in your kitchen.”
Yet we are spending less time in there than ever. In 1965 the average middle-class American cooked for 98 minutes a day. By 2007 that number had declined to 55 minutes. As we spend longer hours at the office, we’re increasingly dining out or ordering in. About 20 percent of our calories come from restaurants and fast-food establishments, compared with just 6 percent in 1977. Since 1970, the number of fast-food joints in the United States has more than doubled. It’s hard to pass off as mere coincidence the fact that our waistlines have increased with these trends—in 1960, 13 percent of Americans were obese, compared with 35 percent today.
And who could blame us for trading the hot stove for the drive-thru window? Critics of the home-cooking movement charge that it’s antifeminist (because women still do the lion’s share of the cooking) and elitist (you try steaming cod in a banana leaf while holding down two jobs and shopping with food stamps). Home cooking, concluded Amanda Marcotte in a 2014 Slate piece, is “expensive and time-consuming, and often done for a bunch of ingrates who would rather just be eating fast food anyway.”
But what if technology could make cooking at home easier and more palatable by getting rid of the Cro-Magnon hassle? Pollan is cautiously optimistic about the prospect that dinner kits could help get Americans back in the kitchen, with all the health and environmental benefits that this brings. “People want to cook at home,” he told me, “but they’re pressed for time and intimidated by the thought.”
Yep, that describes me. Could I change? And if so, would it be as beneficial as home cooking’s champions claimed? For comparison’s sake, I signed up for a few frozen meals along with my Blue Apron subscription. Then I sat back and waited for my dinner to show up.
* * *
On the Tuesday of my first Blue Apron week, a 15-pound FedEx box was waiting on my doorstep when I got home from work. I hauled it up to my apartment and sorted through its contents. The ingredients were nestled atop frozen gel packs and recipe cards. I settled on the banana leaf–steamed cod with spiced rice, yu choy, and coconut and set aside the components: a vacuum-sealed package containing two fish fillets, a baggie with two folded banana leaves, a bag of rice, a lime, a clementine, a head of garlic, a sprig of cilantro, and a bunch of the leafy green vegetable yu choy. A small brown paper bag labeled “Cod Knickknacks” contained a hunk of ginger, a mound of dried coconut flakes, and a spice mix. Each of these ingredients was in its own tiny plastic bag.
Steaming the cod was a cinch. Following the clearly laid-out instructions on the recipe card, my husband and I wrapped each fillet in a banana leaf, placed the packets on a cookie sheet, and baked them for 12 minutes. The rice was cooked, then sautéed with the other ingredients. We unwrapped the cod and placed each fillet atop a mound of the rice. The fish was flaky and flavorful, the rice subtly sweet and fragrant from the coconut and citrus.
The next night was another success. The recipe for Korean rice cakes with spicy pork ragù and gai lan instructed me to use “as much of the gochujang [red chili paste] as you’d like, depending on how spicy you’d like the dish to be.” I congratulated myself on adding just enough to infuse the dish with a subtle heat.
But there was a problem: Detritus from our Blue Apron box began to take over the kitchen. My counter was littered with plastic bags of various sizes and miniature plastic bottles of sauce. Beguiling though it was, this seemed a bit much—and threatened to offset all that “connected to the source” stuff that was supposed to be beneficial for the environment. I also fretted about the journey my food had taken to get to my house. No one had ever coined the phrase “farm to FedEx to table”—and for good reason.
While no one has done a complete environmental analysis of make-at-home meal delivery, Blue Apron may beat grocery store shopping when it comes to food waste.
Curious about the planetary toll of my dinner, I called Blue Apron founder Matthew Wadiak. The company has two distribution centers, he explained, one in Richmond, California, and another in Jersey City, New Jersey. I live just minutes from Richmond. But if I lived in Chicago, my meal box would have had to make quite the schlep.
To offset this journey, Wadiak said, Blue Apron buys from environmentally conscious suppliers—farms that use cover crops and no-till techniques instead of carbon-intensive synthetic fertilizer, for example. He also pointed out that his company’s model cuts down on food waste by providing the exact amount of each ingredient needed for a given recipe—a few sprigs of cilantro, instead of a giant bouquet destined to liquefy in the crisper drawer. Considering that about 40 percent of all food in the United States doesn’t get eaten, this is a step in the right direction. Wadiak speculated that the overall packaging might even be less than you’d find in a grocery store: Ridiculous as a diminutive bag of two Brussels sprouts may seem, in the supermarket you’d have to put them in a standard-size plastic bag.
I ran Wadiak’s arguments by Minal Mistry, a sustainability solutions manager at GreenBlue, a nonprofit that works with industry to reduce the environmental impact of materials. While no one has done a complete environmental analysis of make-at-home meal delivery, Mistry suspects that Blue Apron may beat grocery store shopping when it comes to food waste. That’s a major victory: According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, if discarded food were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, after the United States and China. Yet on packaging, the grocery store would probably win, as home delivery requires more packaging for the amount of food being sent—that is, a higher package-to-product ratio. And typically, these materials are used just once. While Blue Apron’s frozen gel packs are technically reusable, Mistry said most people probably throw them out. (I did.)
It’s harder to declare a clear winner from a transportation standpoint. Because Blue Apron uses FedEx, its boxes carpool with other packages, mitigating the impact of the trip from distribution center to diner. But whether this method is more efficient than a trip to the store, Mistry said, depends on a number of factors: what kind of car you drive, how far you live from the store, the time of day you’re driving.
Still, the most important variable is the food itself, according to Christopher Weber, a research associate with the environmental think tank World Resources Institute. The largest ecological footprint comes during the production of food. Yet the size of that footprint varies considerably, depending on the type of food—specifically, whether the food required its own food. A 2014 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change found that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat eaters’ diets were almost twice those of vegetarians. “Whether you’re eating meat—and what type,” says Weber, “matters much more than how it arrives at your doorstep.”
Do-it-yourself dinner kits might not transform the fast-food generation into master chefs, but they could impart some of the kitchen know-how that’s been lost to the drive-thru window.
All the experts I polled agreed on one thing: Frozen meals, even gourmet ones, are probably not doing the earth any favors. The frozen dinners I tried to supplement my Blue Apron kits arrived encased in immense polystyrene panels housing giant bags of dry ice. The founder of dcuisine, frozen foods mogul Sam Metzger (the cofounder of Chipwich), told me that dcuisine’s freezing facility in Southern California is close to the farms where he sources most of his ingredients. Because the fresh food doesn’t have to travel very far before it’s frozen, he pointed out, there’s less opportunity for it to rot and go to waste. Metzger is also looking for less wasteful ways to ship his foods.
Yet the amount of energy required to freeze foods and keep them frozen en route to the customer takes considerably more energy, says Mistry, than to simply maintain freshness. And then there’s the dry ice itself. “That’s just frozen carbon dioxide,” he said. “When it evaporates, you’re literally releasing carbon dioxide straight into the atmosphere.” Great.
The quality of the frozen food was better than I’d expected. The flaky, creamy chicken potpie from dcuisine, for example, was a far cry from Stouffer’s, and Babeth’s Feast’s on-the-bone lamb shanks were tender and flavorful. But the meals were expensive: $16 to $20 a pop. Besides, heating up a frozen entrée is not the kind of wholesome cooking project that Pollan and Bittman had in mind when they recommended dining at home (though my husband and I did work together after dinner to shove the giant polystyrene panels into our outdoor trash can).
* * *
During our last week of Blue Apron meals, something odd happened: My husband and I began to complain. I whined my way through preparing pan-roasted salmon ramen with spicy miso broth and wakame. It took 10 minutes longer than the recipe card said it would and required three pans. The next night, my husband announced, “I am going to be chopping chard for the rest of my life” midway through making crispy chicken thighs with kumquat relish and freekeh salad.
After “the rest of my life” (five more minutes), we finished making the dish and rapidly consumed the result sitting in front of the TV. “Pretty good,” I said with my mouth full. “Yeah,” my husband agreed. “Not bad.”
But the meal deserved more than “not bad.” The chicken was perfectly seasoned, the freekeh pleasantly nutty. We had made an actual relish—out of exotic miniature citrus fruits, no less. Objectively speaking, this was a fantastic meal.
And then it hit me: We had come to expect fantastic meals—and that was where we’d gone wrong. Kumquat relish and cod steamed in a banana leaf were special foods. They came in special, excessive packaging that allowed them to arrive miraculously on our doorstep. But when we made dinners like this every night, they became the status quo. Packaging aside, our lack of appreciation for the special meals we cooked—now that was truly wasteful.
The bright side was that I had acquired actual cooking skills from Blue Apron, which Pollan believes might be the best thing about cook-at-home meal services. “Unless you are cooking many nights in a row and have some skills, you are going to waste some produce,” he said. “And when I am talking skills, I am talking making a soup with sad-looking odds and ends.” That kind of resourcefulness, he said, is a dying art.
“If these services are a way to dip your toe in the water of home cooking, that’s a good thing,” Pollan said to console me. Do-it-yourself dinner kits might not transform the fast-food generation into master chefs, but they could impart some of the kitchen know-how that’s been lost to the drive-thru window.
The next night, we were out of Blue Apron meals, so I reverted to frozen ravioli. I dressed it with plenty of olive oil and salt, and cut up some cucumbers for a salad. Was it good? Sure. Not banana leaf–steamed cod good, but adequate for a weeknight dinner. And that in itself was pretty satisfying.
KIERA BUTLER'S EATING ADVICE
When I am feeling too tired and uncreative to cook dinner, I walk—not drive, thus saving carbon emissions!—to Nick’s Pizza, which is around the corner from my house in Oakland, California. The baker there is really brilliant with sourdough and makes one of the best crusts I have ever had. When I do manage to overcome my laziness, I use meat that’s humanely raised. I try to buy organic and local products when they’re not too astronomically expensive, and I steer clear of fruits and vegetables that come swaddled in their own individual little cradles of packaging. Also, because I have read that fish farming is an environmental disaster, I make a real effort to buy wild-caught seafood. (Although I hope that fish farming becomes better soon; otherwise it won’t be long before there is no more seafood to be wild-caught.)
This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.
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