By Linda Esterson
After arriving home from Manchester Valley High School track practice, 15-year-old Gabe Szybalski dropped his backpack and headed to the kitchen. Unlike his peers, he wasn’t rummaging through the refrigerator for a snack. Instead, he pulled out a bunch of small plastic bags, a pan and a recipe card, and got to work. In 20 minutes, he whipped up seared pork with blueberry apricot sauce and sauteed greens.
Gabriel had assistance, but it wasn’t from a person; it was from a package dropped at his front door by a meal delivery service. By the time his sister and parents arrived home, the nutritious, balanced meal was prepared and on the table.
According to a July 2017 survey by Morning Consult, a national survey research technology firm, 19 percent of U.S. adults have tried a delivery meal kit service, such as Blue Apron, Hello Fresh orPlated, which provide premeasured ingredients and step-by-step meal preparation instructions, delivered to the customer’s doorstep. Of that group, 38 percent are service subscribers.
Katrina Ross orders from Hello Fresh and Blue Apron to help provide healthy meals for her busy family of six. The ER nurse practitioner began ordering two meals a week in January, after her daughters Kerigan and Emerson helped prepare a meal while at a friend’s house.
“I think they’re fun, and the food’s always been really good,” Ross said. “I like it because the portion sizes are normal.”
Admittedly “not a leftover person,” Ross applauds the amount of food provided with her meals and likes the fact that none is wasted, since the service includes precisely measured ingredients.
Ross spends about $130 per week between the two companies, which serves each of the four family members twice (her two oldest children are busy with high school and college commitments during the year). Ross considers the price reasonable, and it costs less than dining out at restaurants like Panera.
The Hampstead family enjoys the variety of the meals, including chicken parmesan, pineapple pork tacos and lime chicken tacos. Her daughters also enjoy the meal preparation, and it often becomes a family activity. The girls even cook meals with a baby-sitter for fun.
Gabriel says he doesn’t particularly enjoy cooking (he calls it “a chore”). But he does it to help the family.
“It’s extremely easy — everything you need is in a bag and set aside,” he says. “This makes it a lot easier than digging through a recipe book to make a meal or using the internet.”
Most recipes, he says, take 20 minutes or less to prepare.
Gabriel’s mother, Erin Gibson, began ordering from the services about two years ago to help her “super busy” family eat healthy, all-natural, organic foods. She values the time and cost savings — eliminating the need to drive up to 45 minutes each way to places like Wegmans or Whole Foods for organic ingredients, as well as the need to buy eight ounces of a spice for a recipe requiring two tablespoons.
Green Chef offers the family vegetarian, paleo, gluten-free, omnivore and carnivore options, layered in insulated packaging and cooled with ice packs delivered directly to the doorstep. The meals are supplied with color-coded and labeled ingredients that are chopped, peeled and shredded. Green Chef, Gibson says, is higher-end, as it is certified organic and gluten-free. She pays $112, including deliver, for eight meals (two meals each for four people).
The family orders another three meals (per person) from Sun Basket, at an average cost of $150 per week. Sun Basket operates a little differently; its meals require a little preparation, including peeling, cutting and slicing vegetables, for instance. But, Sun Basket’s meal choices are more extensive, Gibson says.
Gibson, a Hampstead attorney, likes that the services help teach Gabriel and her daughter, Elizabeth, how to cook and that meal preparation has become a family activity. It’s also fast and simple.
“I don’t have to worry about measuring or searching around the cabinet to find what I need,” she says. “And I like that we are having really good, well-balanced meals.”
She also likes the meal variety and the seasonal vegetables, some of which are not generally available in Carroll County.
The only downfall, she says, is that there aren’t any leftovers.
Christine Robson, who orders three gluten-free meals each week for her and her husband, Dale, from Green Chef, echoes the disappointment of not having leftovers. She also laments the packaging waste.
The Morning Consult study indicated that 39 percent of those who tried a meal delivery service said they used the service just once. Price was the main reason for canceling a meal delivery service, (cited by 49 percent of respondents). Gibson, however, feels the services save her money, as she’s not starting a meal only to find she’s missing ingredients and ending up ordering takeout and waiting longer for food. She budgets about $1,000 a month for the services.
“For all-organic, for the type and quality of food, it’s a good deal,” she says. “It’s worth all of that money not to have to go to the grocery store.”
Also a plus is flexibility. A meal delivery service allow customers to stop orders at any time or stop deliveries when you don’t need or want them. When they’re busier with choral and band concerts, field trips and sports, the family orders more meals, says Gibson.
Christine Meraklis, a certified nutrition specialist and licensed dietary nutritionist in Mount Airy, says the struggle is “very real to figure out what to feed the family every night.”
Some families resort to fast food available in the drive-through, but that is the least healthy option, she says.
“Fast food may be quick, but what I tell clients is that it’s not worth it in the long run,” she says. They may spend less money on the food, but the long-term health consequences cost more in medical care. “If they can take kids through the drive-through and get a different kind of salad each night, that’s great, but I just don’t think that happens.”
Meraklis wants people to consider the chemicals, salt, dyes and preservatives added to fast-food ingredients to keep them fresh or to improve taste. These additives can lead to health problems.
According to the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood published in 2013, children who eat fast food three times a week or more have as much as a 39 percent increased risk of asthma, rhinitis and/or eczema. In addition, a 2012 Harvard Medical School study concluded that a hidden cost of inexpensive and filling fast-food meals and snacks is a “wallop” of salt, which harms cardiovascular and kidney health.
“They play on the [trio] of fat and sugar and salts,” she says. “It’s addicting. It tastes good and the brain wants more. It’s hard to get out of the cycle.”
Meal delivery services are better, but care is required to order the healthiest options. Meraklis recommends choosing a plan that is low in sugar, low in carbs, and uses the healthiest fats.
The best option, of course, is home cooking, when ingredients and portion sizes can be controlled, health is maintained, and packaging waste is minimized, she adds.
But, she says, “Our lifestyle today makes it very hard to slow down and take care of ourselves. What we put in our bodies really does matter.”
Meraklis suggests planning meals for the week and preparing them on weekends to ensure the family has healthy, nutritious meals.
A slow cooker or instant pot delivers a hot meal at the right time.
Gabriel says her family has also gone that route.
“I used to do crock pot, deep-freezer meals and casseroles,” she says. “[Meal delivery] is even easier.”
Fast Food And Your Health
A diet heavy in fast food increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Consuming fast food even once per week increases the risk of heart disease by 20 percent, when compared to those who do not eat fast food. Eating fast food twice per week increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 27 percent. – Andrew O. Odegaard, Woon Puay Koh, Jian-Min Yuan, Myron D. Gross, and Mark A. Pereira. Western-Style Fast Food Intake and Cardio-Metabolic Risk in an Eastern Country
There is a 5 percent increase in obesity rates for high school students who have a fast food restaurant within .1 miles of school. – Currie, Janet, Stefano DellaVigna, Enrico Moretti, and Vikram Pathania. 2010. “The Effect of Fast Food Restaurants on Obesity and Weight Gain
A hidden cost of the inexpensive and filling fast-food meals and snacks is a wallop of salt (sodium), which negatively impacts cardiovascular and kidney health. – Harvard Medical School
Children who eat fast food three times a week or more have as much as a 39 percent increased risk of asthma, rhinitis and/or eczema. – Ellwood P, Innes Asher M, García-Marcos L, et al Do fast foods cause asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis and eczema? Global findings from the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood
Those who cook most meals at home consume fewer carbohydrates, less sugar and less fat than those who cook less or not at all. Furthermore, those who frequently cook at home also consume fewer calories when they do dine out. – www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-a-livable-future/news-room/News-Releases/2014/Study-Suggests-Home-Cooking-Main-Ingredient-in-Healthier-Diet.html
Cooking at home provides for greater adherence to DASH and Mediterranean diet, increased fruit and vegetable intake, and a greater likelihood of having a BMI and body fat percentage in the normal range. – Mills et al. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (2017)