Are your meal delivery kits ruining the Earth?

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A few weeks ago, we celebrated Earth Day by not driving anywhere and receiving a beautiful gift: a meal kit. Opening the cardboard box reminded me of my unboxing experience with my Apple MacBook. The box led me through different layers of ingredients and gorgeous packaging with cute labels and illustrations.

I felt so much gratitude for this gift of food and having a plan for dinner that night. If we didn’t get gifts like this—including wall art, clothing, and kids toys—the Little King would be strutting around in a diaper with wipes pinned together for clothing. But there was a problem, a real stinker that ruined the gift for me, especially on Earth Day.

An illustration of planet Earth popping out of a cardboard box with meal delivery kit items in the backgroundPin

This incredibly thoughtful gift, a veggie ramen meal kit for 4 people (vegetarian, of course, in honor of Earth Day), promised us a delightful Friday night meal, a lifeline for two tired and hangry parents (thanks to Alex’s disruptive work trip to Ann Arbor, MI earlier in the week). But, before we could reheat and enjoy this glorious noodle dish—and you know how I get weak in the knees for any kind of noodle—Alex had to find the ingredients. And I had to grapple with an ugly problem in my head.

The problem with meal kits

The ingredients came buried under an inch-thick layer of mashed cardboard that reminded me of asbestos. Yum! The ingredients lived in several small, hard-to-reuse, plastic containers, with more package filler to stop things from bouncing around the box. A black-and-white brochure introduced the celebrity chef who designed this ramen with instructions on how to reheat it. Several ice packs kept things chilled.

I stared at the box and cracked up laughing. 

“How much carbon do you think it took to get this heavy-ass box of food to us so we could celebrate EARTH day?”

Therein lies my problem with meal kit delivery and everyday food delivery. I’m no luddite. I want convenience as much as the next parent who uses poop-tracking mobile apps and Amazon Fire tablets so the kids can watch TV rather than rampaging through the airport. But food and cooking are two areas where I don’t believe in outsourcing every single day to companies that ship a gigantic box of fresh food and still make me do most of the prep work before I can put a morsel into my mouth. 

What do you get when you order a meal kit delivery? A box full of fresh ingredients that you still have to rinse and chop (even if they say you don’t have to rinse…do you know who last touched that raw green onion?). And wait, you have to COOK.

What you’re really saving is:

  1. The grocery shopping time
  2. The time it takes to decide and plan
  3. Looking up some instructions.

Prep, cooking, and cleaning up are still on you. Can you get similar benefits of meal delivery kits while still respecting the planet?

How to cut down on grocery shopping time

You can easily solve Number 1 by getting grocery pick up. Hey, maybe you’re super short on time and money isn’t a barrier, so you get local grocery delivery instead. That’s still more cost-effective and less transportation cost than shipping this box of veggie ramen from New York (which probably cost about $100, so that’s $25 per person for 1 meal).

Next, once you have a grocery list loaded into your account, it’s less work to put those items into your online cart and check out than the time it takes to pick up this box, move it into the kitchen, unbox everything, and clean up the mess. Trust me, we are still getting rid of the packaging. The asbestos-looking cardboard packer has taken up over half of my trash can. I will have to make an extra trek to take the garbage out this weekend. 

How to solve decision fatigue

Number 2, the veggie ramen, and most of the other meal delivery kits, like Hello Fresh, Blue Apron, and Sun Basket, tell you what to cook. Several friends who use these services swear by them as a solution to decision fatigue. I get it. We make dozens of decisions a day, and when you’ve got a kid hanging off your nipple, it feels so tiring to decide what to make for dinner at the end of the day. The meal kits kind of solve this by telling you what to eat and delivering it to your door. I’m sympathetic to this plight; that’s why I’m relying on my flexible cabbage soup a few times a week.

But there’s also plenty of solutions for decision fatigue like subscribing to a meal planning service that gives you the recipes for the week and the accompanying shopping lists (which you can plug into your cart easily, see Number 1 above). 

Wait, I have to cook?

My biggest problem with meal delivery kits (ignoring the carbon footprint) is that you still need to rinse and prep the ingredients, then get some pots and pans dirty. You’d think that for this many freezer packs, the food would be ready to pop in the microwave to reheat and eat. Nope, soggy noodles in frozen broth with wilted vegetables and brown scallions ain’t a good look. So, you gotta get your hands dirty.

Once you’re done eating, you’ve got extra pots, pans, a strainer (gotta drain those noodles to stop them from overcooking), plates, bowls, and cutlery to wash. Granted, I use a dishwasher so washing up moves quickly. But not everybody is so lucky to chuck their plates into a quiet miracle machine that suds their dishes and makes them glisten. If you do dishes by hand, add another 15 minutes to the clean up time.

What’s the solution?

I solve this convenience problem with less packaging and delivery by having 2 to 4 cook-while-distracted-no-need-for-recipe dishes I make per season (like this ramen noodle soup). I don’t need to think much about cooking. Sometimes, I look up after half an hour in the kitchen and can’t remember how I finished cooking a meal. Call it a state of flow or straightforward-cooking-I-don’t-have-to-think-hard-about. I cook the same thing with a few tweaks to make it seem like a different dish.

TIP: If you use tofu instead of chicken, it tastes different. If you use cheese instead of egg, it tastes different. If you use kimchi, it tastes different. If that doesn’t work, I put in new sauces to spice things up—Dijon mustard versus mayonnaise versus sriracha.  

Since I hate food waste and go to great lengths to try to avoid it, I thinned the overly salty soup and threw in more of the same salad greens that the noodle kit came with. Alex also added grass-fed beef short ribs to the soup (hah, so much for vegetarian Earth Day). This stretched out the soup so that we could make it last for at least 8 meals, thereby making it more like $12.50 per serving. Most importantly, we have less cooking to do tomorrow.   

Are meal kits worth it?

When I came downstairs for breakfast this morning, an empty package of ramen noodles sat on the kitchen counter. Alex left me a fried egg with a runny yolk. I cooked another package of instant noodles and served it with a bowl of ramen broth from last night. Topped with the fried egg, this luxurious breakfast reminded me of how generous the Earth is and how lucky we are to receive these abundant gifts.

The ramen meal kit did feel like eating out at a restaurant, which we rarely do. If I see the kit through a restaurant-dining lens, then the packaging isn’t quite so bad considering we wouldn’t get a kit more than a few times a year. Plus, living in Boulder, I struggle to find East Asian food like the abundance that California and Auckland have. Although I felt pretty guilty about all the resources it took to ship this meal to my doorstep (so that I could indulge in “celebrating” Earth Day), it tasted lip-smackingly good. 

What to do about subscribing to meal delivery kits every week? It’s obviously your choice to keep buying meal delivery kits. But there are ways you could enjoy similar convenience (grocery delivery) while someone else decides what to eat for you (meal planning services), and save some coin (while saving the planet) by doing something almost identical but a tad bit different from meal delivery kits. At the very least, consider stretching your kit by adding in extra veggies and noodles. 

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Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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