Meal Solutions, Meal Box, Dinner Box, Dinner in a Box, Dinner Kits, Meal Kit, "Cook at Home Kits" or whatever you or the numerous companies fighting in this space want to call it, it’s a service of delivering exactly measured groceries for a specific number of meals for a specific number of people with the recipes included for you to create at home. Let’s call them “Cook and Eat” food services to simplify this article.
This type of service differs from the countless food companies delivering “Ready to Heat” or “Heat and Eat” meals (either chilled or mostly frozen) where the meals are pre-made and/or pre-cooked thus simply need reheating. The most common or longest standing of these of these services being Lite’n Easy or Meals On Wheels.
However, a new breed of “Cook and Eat” & “Heat and Eat” brands that have launched over the past couple of years who are now targeting the time poor (working individuals and couples), the skills poor (i.e. those that can’t cook), the health conscious (fitness as well as dietary) or the aged. The “Heat & Eat” don’t usually target families as consumer research often shows that parents feel guilty using ready to heat as the main supply of nightly food, however once or twice a week is not an issue for segment.
The “Cook and Eat” services target families due to their larger orders, which in turn means larger spend which in turn means lower margin for delivery. The longest standing of the “Cook and Eat” services in Australia is HelloFresh which launched here in 2012.
The below chart shows all the Meal Solutions Services available in the Sydney market (at least at the time this article was published).
The “Heat and Eat” market is massively saturated with over 30 companies offering the precooked service… This market is easy to enter especially if frozen as they can mass-produce dishes and freeze them down until someone orders them thus not having to worry so much about wastage. For example Dish’d (which has a lot bigger footprint in the Victorian market with a retail store in Prahran) is owned and operated by Simplot Australia. Simplot own a just a few Australian food brands, some you may of heard of? Lean Cuisine, John West, Birds Eye, Leggo's, Edgell, the company who makes Chiko Rolls plus many other brands. From experience, this would mean that creating Dish’d is almost as simple as creating a brand as most of their products could be sourced through their current massive production.
There is definitely a place for these services and some of the services are at polar ends of the food production spectrum. The Dinner Ladies for example prepare daily fresh meals delivered chilled (& a few frozen) and is more about helping with the main component of the meal rather than including side dishes.
The fresh meal box or “Cook and Eat” services on the other hand are about delivering most of the ingredients for a complete meal and they target the time poor, the novice, the stuck in a rut or the “want something new” type of cook. The parent or partner who still wants to feel like they have made the meal instead of a cheating “heat and eat” meal. Most of these “Cook and Eat” services will promote the benefits of reducing waste and thus saving money. However this is not always the case.
The cheapest service we could find was actually promoted on Google adwords by My Food Bag (as seen to the right);
$3.50 a plate! Wow super cheap! But wait, when their website was checked for clarification on what you would get for $3.50 a plate, the lowest possible per plate cost we could find was $6.36 per person. We checked hard, really hard, even calculating every offer they had, including the $45 off first order but no nothing close to $3.50 a plate. Maybe you’re meant to share a plate??
So we decided to do a comparison on these services to get a clear understanding of what the savings are and if using one of them is actually cheaper than going to the supermarket once a week.
My Food Bag (who from review of all the “Cook and Eat” services we have listed) is the cheapest “Cook and Eat” service in Sydney at $6.36 per person via their Family Box which feeds 2 adults and 2-3 children (under 8yrs) for 5 nights a week costings $159 in total each week.
They have a dish called Traditional Italian Meatballs with Rigatoni Pasta and Chopped Green Salad (which My Food Bag was kind enough to supply a copy of the recipe) at $6.36 per person. From the picture that was displayed on their website it is a pretty basic dish. Flavoured mince, tomato based sauce, pasta and a salad consisting of 2 main ingredients, iceberg lettuce, cucumbers and a little vinaigrette (which you had to source yourself). Total cost from My Food Bag for this meal is $31.80 for the family (that’s taking into account the $6.36 per person x 5 which is the backwards way they calculate the per head price i.e. $159 divided by 5 nights divided by 5 people).
If we sourced the same ingredients from a supermarket (Coles in this instance) then it would cost the over 50% more to use My Food Bag rather than doing the shopping yourself. Here is the breakdown of the costs per recipe and ingredients My Food Bag supplied us and then for what we could get the same ingredients from at coles. (FYI we don’t have any affiliation with them etc). We chose the ingredients cased on premium products to show were weren't referencing no name brands etc. That is to say, you could get even cheaper that what we have listed.
52% more is not cheap. We also did not include delivery fees in this comparison because quite frankly whether you use one of these services or not, you still need to go to the supermarket (Woolworths, Coles, Aldi, IGA etc) to get all your other household needs such as toilet paper or even dessert etc. (weirdly none of them offer dessert..) so you can get the ingredients for this recipe at the same time.
No wonder these companies don’t promote their service on dollar savings (except for Hellofresh which does actually promote that they are cheaper than supermarkets, yet when we double checked their online comparison we found that they only take the “whole pack” cost into consideration. In my opinion, it is very unlikely that you will throw every unused bit away after that one recipe. They also added a $9 delivery fee.
These types of services are banking on it being all about convenience and assisting in taking the effort out of deciding what’s for dinner. They also promote less wastage however any reduction in food waste by getting the exact measured ingredients seems a bit counterintuitive with the dramatic increase in packaging as there is a bag for e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g., well almost.
There’s also one last issue, with most of the “Cook and Eat” services, you don’t get to choose what you or your loved ones are having for dinner, they decide for you (except for Marley Spoon, Culinary Carton and The Cook’s Grocer). In my opinion this causes major issues with kids… Not only do you have to hope to dear god that they like the Cauliflower Fettuccine or the Honey Mustard Chicken dish, but if you actually find a dish your kids like, rest assured you won’t see it again for a couple of months whilst they go through their recipe rotation.
Gone are your family favourites spagbowl or steak a three veg that you know the kids will eat. I have personally used My Food Bag and our kids (one whom has an amazing palette for food) didn’t like half the dishes we received. The My Food Bag website says, “There are six different food bags to choose from, designed to delight pretty much everyone, from fussy pre-schoolers to finicky foodies.” however when you can’t choose the meals and it changes every night this is a pretty long call to make in my opinion.
You can always pause your subscription or take a 3 or 4 day a week service with most of these companies but you will need to let them know at least a week in advance that you want to change or suspend. I have heard a horror story from a friend of mine who tried to pause his delivery whilst they went away for a week and the company not only said that it was too late to pause but even said it was too late to stop the delivery, even though it was the day before it was to be delivered!
Look, cost might not be everything to you as feeding fussy kids might not be either and a bit of disposable income is a wonderful thing to waste for convenience. So ultimately you need to weigh up whether getting someone else to do your shopping and dictate what meal you and your family will be eating each night is worth double to cost.
In my opinion, If you have kids and money and think these services will suit your situation then i highly suggest you check out Marley Spoon, they have some great dishes, a talented chef and above all you can also choose the meals you want to get. The Cock’s Grocer and Culinary Carton also offer similar services and choice.
These services are going to be fighting it out for a while so find the deals and use them! They will be fighting until the major supermarkets wake up to the fact that they can quite easily enter this market with quick dominance. Coles is the closest to this with their affiliation with taste.com.au where you can browse recipes and with one click, add them to the coles.com.au shopping cart.
By Tim Elwin