Meals in a Box: The Answer to Eating Your Vegetables?

More than a dozen companies will, for a price, send you the ingredients for a complete, relatively interesting dinner, or smoothie snacks even, if you choose that option. All you have to do is open the many large and small packages, read the instructions and in 30 minutes or so, eat your own freshly prepared entrée. The concept is practical for the many who do not have the time or energy after work to figure out what to prepare for dinner and then to make sure the ingredients are in the kitchen. Meal-in-the-box choices tend to be more imaginative than grilled chicken breast and frozen veggies because professional chefs devise the menus and make available the entire ingredient list from the main course protein to a tiniest pinch of some herb or spice that the customer probably never heard of and/or doesn’t have. No looking up recipes in a cookbook or on the Internet is needed, nor guess work about the cooking methods.  Detailed instructions are given, perishable foods are kept cold with icepacks, and preparation time is thirty minutes. The end product may not get you, the customer, a spot on the Food Network program “Chopped” in which professional chefs are given ingredients in a box and compete to make an original perfectly cooked entrée and sides in thirty minutes…But unlike the competitors who turn their food over to the judges? The customers of meals in a box get to eat their finished product.

However, making the meals from the ingredients in the box will cost about twice as much as making it from ingredients assembled yourself. According to Consumer Reports, one company’s blackened tilapia dish costs almost $12.00 per person, compared to a little more than $5.00 when put together oneself. A tofu and Chinese broccoli dish from another company costs over $11.00. These ingredients are very inexpensive and will cost approximately $3.50 if you buy the ingredients from the supermarket, and even less from a Chinese grocery store.  The prices for some of these dishes are less than in a restaurant (although perhaps not for the Chinese entrée) but add up quickly as the cost is per person. Moreover, unless the customers are small eaters, no leftovers for the next day’s lunch will remain. But it is also unlikely that there will be much wasted, thrown away, uneaten food. Nor will the refrigerator fill up with plastic containers full of tidbits from previous meals.

It is no surprise, given our current fixation of dietary restrictions that gluten-free, carbohydrate-free dairy-free, vegetarian, vegan, organic (of course) calorie-restricted meals are available depending on which company is providing the foods.

But are they healthy? Will eating a meal from a box provide you with some of the vegetable, fruit, grain, protein, and dairy servings you ought to be getting? It depends. Certainly compared to many takeout and restaurant meals that tend to be free of food groups containing nutrients your body needs, the boxed to-be-prepared meals often contain substantial amounts of vegetables, and sometimes whole grains. If you tend to ignore the vegetables in your refrigerator bin until they turn into a slimy green mass, then ordering meals with a substantial amount of vegetables will ensure that you are eating this essential food group.

Yet there is a possible nutritional caveat to some of the meals. The salt content may be higher than recommended, especially if some of the seasonings contain sodium, like garlic or onion powder, or if salt if added several times during preparation. Consumer Reports analyzed sodium content and found many dishes containing 30% more than recommended, and some dishes containing as much as 1 gram of salt per serving.

Are boxed meal ingredients a trend, or the beginning of a permanent shift in the way people prepare meals? Probably the latter because they appeal not only to those who don’t (and won’t) prepare meals from scratch, but also to a generation who have been preparing meals from scratch for decades. For those who have been afraid to boil water, learning how to cook from the boxes might eventually give them confidence to cook on their own. It is sort of comparable to shifting from paint-by-numbers to covering a blank canvas with one’s own creation. For those who are tired of figuring out what to cook for dinner and despair at the high prices and noise levels of most restaurants, boxed meals are an easy way of eating interesting food less expensively (and in a setting that doesn’t require either waiting or tipping.)

Many companies are selling meals for people on all sorts of diets and presumably are competing with portion-controlled, factory-prepared meals sold by some national weight-loss companies.  Since the meals in a box are portion and ingredient controlled, the dieter does not have to be concerned about going over a calorie limit. There is no guessing about whether the weight of the entrée or the teaspoons of olive oil will fit the calorie requirements for a particular meal. On the other hand, by requiring the dieter to get involved in food preparation, she may lose her fear of not being able to prepare a meal on her own that allows her to continue to lose weight and/or keep it off.

This trend is still relatively new, but its rapid growth indicates that it meets the lifestyles demands of large numbers of people. However, since spending a little time in meal preparation is still necessary, we should not be surprised if, a few years from now, some of the boxes will contain a robot that will do the cooking.

According to a 2016 Consumer Reports analyses, home delivery of meal ingredients is about a $400 million dollars a year industry. Although the major portion of the sales are focused along the coasts and in major urban areas, sales are projected to increase throughout the country. They may not be replacing all home delivered pizza and Chinese food, but certainly offer healthier and more varied options.

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