Wonderful Or Wasteful? Getting To The Bottom Of Meal Boxes

Do meal boxes live up to the hype? Or are they just a spendy, wasteful trend?

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Doesn’t it seem like meal boxes are everywhere? Each year, a number of new boxes hit the market, targeted at a specific audience with very specific needs. There are boxes for plant-based and vegan diets, like Veestro, Purple Carrot, and Sun Basket’s Vegan Plan; there are boxes for individuals who want to lose weight; there are even boxes for candy lovers. There are boxes that place a focus on the experience, boxes that simulate gourmet cooking without the time-consuming shopping trips and food prep.

With the spotlight on meal boxes, it is hard to determine if they’re worth the hype or nothing more than a gimmick. It almost seems too good to be true. Can a prepacked box delivered to your front door really offer enough benefits to justify the expense? Are there downsides to the boxes that are being overlooked? Good questions. We dug into the pros and cons of signing up for a meal box subscription and investigated the most common concerns about these services. Here’s the truth about the meal boxes your favorite vlogger keeps yammering about:

Are meal boxes cost effective?

The first time I cracked open a meal box after it landed on my front porch, I had serious reservations about what was in front of me. For what I had spent, this didn’t seem like a lot of food. I’m not alone. The cost of meal boxes is a serious cause of hesitation for some. Olivia Christensen, mom of three, tells HealthyWay she has considered signing up for a meal box subscription on multiple occasions, but it’s always her reservations about the price that keep her from moving past the browsing stage. Big brands like Hello Fresh and Plated advertise a starting price of just under $10 for each serving. This can be a deterrent for people living on tight budgets—or those who’d rather use their funds elsewhere.

“It is expensive,” says Betsy Larson, a working mom of two. “Not more than eating out, but more than doing it all yourself at the grocery store. You definitely pay for the convenience.” Larson isn’t wrong. You definitely can eat more cheaply if you grocery shop and prepare the ingredients yourself. In just a few minutes browsing Pinterest, you can find recipes promoted for their budget-friendly nature: $3 pizzas, dinners under $5, and college-budget friendly meals. If saving money is your main goal, a meal box might not be the best choice for you, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be worth the expense. What a subscription is worth and what it costs are two different things, and many people were willing to pay a little more to have more convenient options or to step up their home-cooked meals beyond ramen or tater tot casserole. For Larson, the real value of the box was that it made her life easier. She’s a full-time working mom with two kids under 3. Meal boxes eliminate time-consuming tasks from her weekly to-do list. She doesn’t have to grocery shop. She doesn’t have to plan ahead for dinner. The recipes were easy to follow.

“I gifted a meal box subscription to a friend of my son’s who was diagnosed with cancer,” shares Maggie May Ethridge, mom of four and a freelance writer. “He loved the meals and was very happy with the service—they were on time and in the right place. He said the meals were easy to put together and tasted great.” Deciding whether a meal box—or any other service—fits into your budget is more complicated than comparing dollar-to-dollar. Sometimes, a purchase is cost-effective because it is the right fit for your lifestyle or it meets a set of circumstantial needs, not because it has the lowest price point.

Are meal boxes eco-friendly?

Another big question about meal boxes is how eco-friendly it can be to rely on pre-portioned and pre-packaged meals. Last year, Buzzfeed reporter Ellen Cushing pointed this out, calling out Blue Apron for creating unnecessary waste. Cushing said that not all of the packaging was recyclable and that some of the recyclable items required driving to a specialized facility. She is quick to point out that people who need the convenience of hand-delivered food aren’t likely to have time for a road trip to a recycling facility. Although Cushing makes many valid points, determining the eco-friendliness of these meal boxes isn’t always easy. Some programs are trying harder than others, and the sustainability of a product involves much more than the material trash on your countertop after you prepare a meal. For instance, a HelloFresh spokesperson tells HealthyWay that they help reduce food waste by pre-portioning the ingredients in their kits. Food waste is one factor of sustainability the consumers often don’t see; we don’t get to witness the impact. However, food waste is a big deal. It is estimated that 40 percent of the food in the United States doesn’t get consumed. Beyond pre-portioning their food, HelloFresh has partnered with SpoilerAlert, an organization that is working hard to reduce food waste in the United States. “The partnership focuses on optimizing diversion of healthy surplus food away from landfills to alternative outlets, such as hunger relief organizations,” says the HelloFresh spokesperson. “This has helped to improve HelloFresh’s operations and make a meaningful difference in local communities. The company is now leveraging this data to better inform purchasing decisions and drive additional waste reductions.” Food waste is not only impactful due to the cost of transporting it back and forth; it is the single largest component of landfills, according to the Department of Agriculture. Once there, the decaying food produces methane, a greenhouse gas. Landfills are the third largest source of methane in the United States. Another factor at play is the impact of how the food is grown and harvested. Meal boxes like Blue Apron have worked to reduce environmentally negligent food production by partnering with farmers who care for the earth, according to Pacific Standard. Most of HelloFresh’s packaging can be recycled through curbside pick up services, according to their website. Even the ice packs can be cut open, emptied, and then tossed in a recycling bin.

Not all meal box services are following sustainable practices, but Dan Scalco, who has made a side hustle out of reviewing meal boxes for Food Box HQ, says that a few stand out above the rest. While Scalco notes that some meal box companies aren’t up to standard, he’s quick to praise companies who use compostable liners for their shopping containers or allow customers to ship back their shipping containers to be reused. Terra’s Kitchen, for example, actually ships all the food in a vessel with shelves. Their company requires customers to send back the vessel after it’s emptied. They then reuse the vessel until it is unusable, whereafter they break it down and recycle it. “Green Chef is one that I’ve seen that has done a really good job at making their packaging as environmentally friendly as possible,” says Scalco, pointing out that they also use a recycled inner liner instead of styrofoam. He also names Sun Basket, HelloFresh, and Blue Apron as companies that have made huge strides to reduce food and trash waste. It isn’t a perfect industry, and there are certainly valid concerns about how some companies do business, but there are plenty of options for meal boxes that align with earth-friendly convictions.

Are meal boxes for everyone?

Another hesitation expressed by meal box skeptics is whether the subscriptions can meet their specific needs. Kim Borgionio, for example, has real concerns that a meal box exists that can work with her food restrictions. “As someone with food restrictions, I’ve looked into these sorts of things, but it seems you have to be very flexible to do them,” she says, noting that many meals boxes seem to require a lot of flexibility in taste and dietary choices. According to Scalco, there are actually many boxes out there that take into account that people are looking for options. If you have a food restriction or unique dietary preference, don’t write off meal boxes as an option for your lifestyle. “A lot of people think they don’t have a lot of options—there are so many,” says Scalco. Personally, Scalco and his wife have tried boxes for the paleo diet, the keto diet, Whole30, vegan diets, and conventional diets. He sees the ability to customize your meal box and try new things without a lot of effort as one of the main benefits of giving these services a try. Even if you don’t have dietary restrictions, a meal box is a chance to say, “I want to try the paleo diet, and this is a simple way to make that happen.”

One segment of the market that may continue to have a hard time finding a box that fits their lifestyle is large families. For example, Sun Basket advertises themselves as a family meal box, but actually only serves a family of four. For families of six, like mine, our only option would be to order two boxes each week. Gretchen Bossio, a mother of four, has worked around this limitation by ordering a box for two as a fun change in the family routine, cooking that for herself and her husband and then preparing a simpler meal for her four children. With enough maneuvering, it really does seem like there is a meal box for everyone. Finding the right box for you and your family is likely a matter of doing a little research, becoming familiar with their production methods and the recyclability of their packaging, and digging up the details on the ingredients being used in each meal. “There’s something out there for you,” says Scalco. “If you’re on keto or if you’re Whole30, whatever it is, there’s a whole range of them out there.”

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