By CINDA CHAVICH
My first experience with a modern “meal kit” was a promotional box celebrating the Chinese Lunar New Year, a meal of Chicken and Shrimp Chow Mein that arrived at my door from Chefs Plate. It was a simple but tasty combination of sautéed chicken, shrimp, bok choy, mushrooms and noodles, the kind of stir- fry dish I might make myself on a weekday, if rather light on vegetables and flavour by comparison. Happily, the recipe called for making a spicy garlic and chili oil condiment to serve on the side, another step but something that gave the basic noodle bowl a needed boost for my palate. What struck me most about the meal kit dinner, beyond the one- size-fits-all flavour profile, was the fact that it required so much actual cooking. This wasn’t simply an exercise in assembly and re-heating (as many restaurant-based meal kits are) — it required peeling and chopping vegetables, searing meat and finishing it in the oven, boiling the noodles, whisking together the sauce ingredients, making the chili oil and then sautéing vegetables and shrimp, before the final combination with noodles and sauce in the pan. Two of us spent most of the estimated 45-minute prep time to put it all together before sitting down to dinner, which might well run longer for less experienced cooks. The promise of a meal kit like this one is a healthy, home-cooked meal, made with whole foods, and that’s a good thing in a world that’s flooded with frozen, processed and drive-thru fast food. With a full-colour recipe booklet — complete with step-by-step instructions and a detailed list of the ingredients — it laid out everything necessary to cook this easy noodle dish from scratch. And I wondered if even a novice cook might decide, after a few weeks or months on the company’s weekly subscription rotation, if it might not be simpler, and cheaper, to go it alone. Could the modern meal kit, I mused, be the gateway drug to a new generation of freshly empowered home cooks? It’s an idea that’s not lost on Husein Rahemtulla, one of the founders and COO of Vancouver-based Fresh Prep meal kits. “I wasn’t comfortable in the kitchen at all before we started this business,” Rahemtulla admits. “I wasn’t a cook before — it’s been a real benefit to me.” Rahemtulla and business partner Dhruv Sood were childhood friends growing up in Vancouver, both attended McGill University to study business, and both missed home cooking while away at school. It was a yen for a homestyle Thai curry that inspired the idea to create kits for home cooks — a way to make delicious food from scratch without hunting down and buying all of the spices and other ingredients that might end up leftover and wasted.
When they launched Fresh Prep in 2015 with Becky Switzer, another high school friend, the idea was to create healthy, zero- waste meals using fresh, local ingredients. “That’s what planted the seed for Fresh Prep, cooking a meal without investing in ingredients we were never sure we’d use again,” he says. “I don’t want to buy garam masala and use it once or have a lot more cilantro than a recipe requires. It was an obstruction for getting into cooking at home.” According to meal kit blogger Kyle Provost, who writes about his meal kit experiences at mealkitcanada.ca, meal kits are making better home cooks and more adventurous eaters. “While meal kits haven’t made us into five-star chefs, they have allowed us — rookies in the kitchen — to make a wide variety of fresh, delicious, nutritious meals in only 30 minutes,” he writes of his own family’s kit cooking. “First, it took longer, but as our cooking skills improved, the total meal prep time reduced significantly.”
Teach a person to cook
Linda Weber has a husband and two adult kids to feed and says meal kits have inspired her children to get into the kitchen and cook. “We’ve been interested in trying meal kits for a while,” says Weber, who is a regular Fresh Prep customer, ordering three family meals every week. “We try to support local businesses and we like that this is local.” Pandemic restrictions meant family members were staying closer to home and eating in became the norm, she says. “We used to be running in different directions, grabbing things on the go, but since the pandemic we’ve been all sitting down together and eating meals as a family,” she says. While restaurant takeout is one option, the Webers found meal kits provided better quality and choices. “Fresh Prep sends all of the ingredients and gives us the option of choosing the meals we want — we always find something interesting,” Weber says, adding the kits appeal to her vegetarian daughter and her active son “We have been surprised at the size of the portions. My son is into sports and has a big appetite, and we’ve been able to have meals sufficient for all, and even had some leftovers.” A meal kit can be like having a culinary mentor in the kitchen, she adds.“We’ve tried some foods we’ve never had before,” she says, pointing to a recent meal of Miso Crusted Arctic Char. “My husband likes to cook now and my daughter is learning how to do new things. It really is teaching them to cook.”
Beyond healthy family meals, cooking can introduce people to fresh, seasonal ingredients and the local farms that produce them. It’s the “teach the person to fish” story for the modern food movement — once you cook a free-range chicken or taste a local strawberry, it’s tough go back to fast, processed, industrial food. Meal kits help make those connections, Rahemtulla says. “Cooking in general, and expanding our consumption of whole foods, addresses a lot of bigger societal issues, whether environmental, personal or social.”
Chefs sharing secrets
Meal kit subscription services — including Fresh Prep, Chefs Plate and Hello Fresh — focus on everyday dining, making it uncomplicated to get dinner on the table by eliminating the chore of meal planning and grocery shopping. Every service has its unique recipe selections and price point, with most promising to deliver everything needed to prepare meals for between $8.50 and $12.25 per serving. But Chef Alex Chen of Vancouver’s Boulevard Kitchen has a plan for those days when you want to cook something special. Like many top city chefs, Chen had to think fast when the pandemic closed his high-end downtown restaurant to indoor dining. With his kitchen team, he designed the Boulevard Provisions takeout menu, featuring ready-to-reheat soups, mains and side dishes, from clam chowder and chicken cacciatore to coconut vegetable curry, sous-vide vegetables, cornbread and caramel chocolate mousse. The online menu includes individual meals and weekly Provision Packs, with both prepared foods and raw premium proteins including the wild ling cod and USDA prime New York strip loin served in the restaurant. When customers wanted more, Chen responded with full “theatrical” meal kits and step-by-step videos featuring the Iron Chef champion himself. “The main aspect of these meal kits is that it’s no different from the person going to the restaurant,” says Chen, who now delivers all of the ingredients to create your own salt-crusted whole sea bream with side dishes or crispy pork belly porchetta dinner, complete with a video master class to demystify the preparation and plating process. “My job is to remove the stress, remove the long part of the preparation, so you can make a restaurant-quality meal at home,” he says, noting the veal stock that comes with the French onion soup kit takes 16 hours to prepare in the restaurant kitchen. Presenting cooking instructions via video gives Chen the chance to share tips and techniques that would be too complicated to describe in a written recipe, he says. Whether it’s caramelizing pearl onions for Coq au Vin, basting butter-poached lobster or achieving the perfect, gooey mac and cheese, Chen walks the cook through each recipe. He says the meal kits have been ordered by couples and families for special dinners, and scaled up for online, corporate, team-building events. “Anyone can do this kind of meal kit and have some fun in these tough times,” Chen says. It’s a project that helped keep his hotel kitchen team intact while maintaining a revenue stream for the restaurant. In fact, Chen’s takeout dishes have become so popular, several will soon be available at local grocery stores. “We still want to get back to going out to restaurants, whether for fine dining or sushi,” Chen says, “but this time has changed a lot of habits and behaviours. With meal kits, some people are becoming more adventurous in their home cooking.”
More cooking, less waste
Having the groceries for dinner delivered to your door eliminates the challenge (and risk in the pandemic environment) of grocery shopping, and the stress of meal planning while, according to the meal kit companies, also drastically reduces household food waste. With just enough fresh dill and feta cheese to finish your Greek Chicken Bowls, there won’t be extra ingredients languishing in the back of the fridge (though likely no leftovers for lunch, either). Meal kits don’t always reduce garbage, however. Arriving in a large, insulated cardboard box, with ice packs and ingredients individually packaged in plastic and cellophane, my Chefs Plate dinner came with a fair bit of baggage. And I wondered where the food in the box was sourced. Chefs Plate — now owned by global Hello Fresh, the world’s largest meal kit company — offers meal kit delivery across Canada, with a distribution centre in Delta where meal kits for Western Canada are packed. A statement from their public relations firm said the company “prioritizes local producers whenever possible, working with Canadian and B.C. based growers such as Champs Mushrooms.” Fresh Prep, on the other hand, is a Vancouver company with local social and environmental performance a focus of its business model, an even a B Corporation certification to match those goals. The company promises “higher quality ingredients” including Ocean Wise seafood, local proteins and low impact packaging. “We work directly with local purveyors and farms in B.C. that support sustainable practices,” says Rahemtulla, noting Fresh Prep has its own delivery fleets to serve Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo and the Okanagan, and uses reusable cooler bags. “That reduces packaging and saves us money, too, so we can spend more on proteins.” The latest innovation at Fresh Prep is a unique plastic and silicon container, designed to ferry all of the prepped and portioned meal kit ingredients for each recipe to your door. The reusable box is returned to the company when the next order arrives. Rahemtulla says the company spent three years and $7 million to launch the Zero Waste Kit, a first in the industry. “From the beginning, we have prioritized leadership in sustainability and, in the midst of our growth, we dedicated time and resources to evolving our packaging,” Rahemtulla says. “We believe that with innovation, businesses can offer both quality and sustainability without sacrificing convenience.”
Making cooking easy
If meal kits make cooking easy, the Fresh Prep Zero Waste Kit makes the job of putting a meal on the table even easier. “It makes for a much nicer cooking experience,” says Rahemtulla, noting the ingredients are arranged in the sealed container in order of use, with a “map” to accompany each recipe. “You don’t have to cut open a bunch of packages and deal with unsightly waste in the kitchen. It’s almost like a cooking show, with a mise en place in front of you.” But even without an organized container or a video chef to talk you through the cooking process, all meal kit companies provide an illustrated recipe card with every meal, usually also published online. In fact, savvy cooks could prep their own meal kits with the information presented on most meal kit websites or draw daily inspiration from their easy recipes.
Some customers may even “graduate” to shopping and cooking on their own after learning from meal kits. Meal kits may not be for everyone, but they are certainly a convenient way to make sure you have everything you need on hand to make something relatively fast for dinner. You can leave it to someone else to come up with a recipe and do all of the shopping and chopping. If you usually toss out half of the groceries you buy or spend a lot of money on takeout restaurant meals, you may even save money by using a meal kit subscription service. And who knows? You might even learn to cook.