Doorstep Dinners

A new wave of home-delivered fresh ingredients and gourmet recipes makes a move on suppertime.

Ever found yourself forlornly eating healthy take-out from the prepared food aisle at Whole Foods while struggling with buyer’s remorse? “But I am SO busy!” you tell yourself, while munching that time-saving quinoa-cranberry-kale salad that cost 250 times more than its ingredients.

Or perhaps you’ve instead found yourself staring at the wooden crate of daunting produce delivered from your local CSA, wondering how you’re going to transform jicama and wilted dandelion greens into something palatable in 30 minutes.

Is it any wonder that so-called “quick-casual” restaurants like Applebee’s or, worse yet, Olive Garden, turn monster profits while feeding us crappy industrial food? Hey, it’s food and it’s fast, and at least it wasn’t Taco Bell or McDonald’s, right?

Thankfully there’s a whole new crop of start-ups, pun intended, that are focused on delivering delicious, semi-prepared meals that even novice chefs can prepare successfully.

These new “meal kit” companies are a far cry from Jenny Craig, the Zone or other delivery services that focus on weight loss.

Rather they’re an attempt to fuse trending concepts of sustainability and locavorism with the convenience of home delivery and quick preparation times. Sure, you’ll need some pots and pans, some olive oil and some S&P, but basically everything else arrives at your doorstep ready to rock.  

One of the most exciting contenders in this category is headquartered right around the corner in El Segundo. Now shipping to 48 states, Chef’d has a sleek, user-friendly website with fabulous food photography that will have you drooling onto your credit card in no time.  

Chef’d has very wisely partnered with a variety of chefs who provide recipe content for the site. Looking for awesome curry? Want to try something Fabio did on Top Chef?

Got a vegan houseguest coming to town? Chef’d allows you to quickly order just about anything, with carefully-packed, insulated boxes delivered to your doorstep in 24 to 48 hours.  

I had maple-glazed salmon with fresh corn quinoa and spinach and chicken breast with herbed goat cheese and wild mushroom sauce from Chef’d. Both arrived with ingredients nicely chilled and precisely labeled.

The meals I selected were portioned for two and clocked in at about $32; I found it easy to feed a family of four from what was included, so that brought the per-person cost down to a wallet-friendly $8 per plate. I liked that Chef’d includes easy-to-follow, 8½”-by-10” recipe cards with mise-en-place, prep time and suggested beer and wine pairings too.

Would I cook this way every night? No, but ordering the occasional Chef’d meals for your family would save you a whole pile of time at the grocery store, farmers market, etc.

The quality of the ingredients was excellent, as was the customer service; they called me to make sure I was happy with my box.  

 

 

 

Plated is another contender in this burgeoning market. Cofounders Nick Taranto and Josh Hix are men on a mission, and that mission is to “transform kitchen zeroes into heroes.” What distinguishes Plated is its brilliant use of technology to minimize food waste.

Typical grocery stores and restaurants have waste rates of up to 40%, whereas Plated uses predictive analytics and smart fulfillment centers to reduce waste to an alleged 2%. With 95% U.S. market penetration and investors betting that the meal kit category will grow to $3 billion or as much as $5 billion over the next decade, Plated is poised to be huge—provided hungry Amazon doesn’t gobble them up, that is.

Plated sent me two of their most popular entrées nationally: a chicken tikka masala and cheesy beef enchiladas with avocado, spinach and black beans. Like Chef’d, the website is easy to navigate and filled with tempting choices.

A further distinction with Plated is its subscription-based business model. While they offer free “plates” to try before you buy a subscription, the commitment to Plated means you need to be actively planning your meals in advance. That too is ultimately a time- and money-saver, but I kind of liked that Chef’d lets you simply buy what you like, when you like.

Plated also included detailed prep and caloric information, in addition to noting specific farms and places of origin for every recipe component included. Plated has a serious commitment to sustainability and carbon footprint reduction; all materials are recyclable, and all its vendors are thoroughly vetted prior to being included in a box.  

It’s essentially like someone did all the healthy-eating research for you, went to Whole Foods for you, became your personal sous chef who prepped everything for you and then split—so you can play the role of the glamorous, professional chef that you aren’t. It’s fun, it’s easy and it’s actually often cheaper than that trip to the grocery store or dinner out for four.

Meal kits are a promising innovation for families interested in eating better at home. It would be nice to see the marketing for these business models include lower-income bracket, urban families too—those who could most benefit from healthy, affordable ingredients with easy-to-follow directions at home.

For now, both Chef’d and Plated skew toward affluent families who appreciate the distinction between chard and kale and who don’t have the time to run to the store to purchase either. Increasingly, time (and water) are the most precious of all grocery staples in this brave new world.