Tracy Chislett Parsons relied heavily on meal boxes earlier in the year during a major snowstorm and later during COVID-19 lockdown.
These meal kits, containing full recipes and all the ingredients needed to make them, are delivered directly to her door, decreasing her need to make grocery store trips. A wide variety of boxed food services are currently available for home delivery throughout Atlantic Canada - users just need to sign up and select the meals they’d like to receive.
The Mount Pearl, N.L., woman got started when a friend gave her a code for a free week of meals, and then she was hooked.
“I love the step-by-step instructions, so my husband often takes a bigger role in meal preparation and cooking,” she says. “It has allowed us to try different meals that we wouldn't typically have tried, and 99 per cent of the time, the meals are a hit. The serving sizes are large as well, so we usually have enough for leftovers the next day, which is a bonus.”
She’s been pleased with the quality of the food as well, and the few times she’s run into problems, customer service has been quick to respond.
Courtney Nash of St. John’s, N.L., agrees, saying for a busy household with young kids and parents who are balancing working and parenting, these boxes take all the stress out of meal planning.
Although a definite time saver, and because the product is good quality, Sarah Wade of Torbay, N.L., says the price reflects this. It’s significantly more expensive than buying the ingredients yourself, she says, but recognises it is a cost versus time decision.
For Wade, the price and lack of leftovers for lunch the next day means these meal kits are not a feasible option for her family.
Another issue for Wade is the amount of waste produced by each box.
“There’s a lot of waste since every single ingredient is individually packed, so I felt guilty every time I opened one,” says Wade. “The outer box is recyclable, of course, but a lot of single use plastic is used in packaging up those pre-measured portions.”
To avoid some of these issues, Tiffany Loomis Panama of St. John’s, N.L., uses a meal planning service called Cooksmarts. They don’t deliver to the door, she says, but offer meal plans for the week which includes recipes and grocery lists.
“I’ve learned to cook, so I am more easily able to throw things together from nothing,” says Panama. “It’s really been a life-changing service for us, and for a small fee, we have cut down on our grocery bill and our food waste which is really important to us.”
Overall, she says, a meal planning service like this is much less expensive than any box delivery.
What are meal boxes and meal services doing to our local businesses and farmers?
According to Patricia Bishop of Taproot Farms in Port Williams, N.S., these products are undercutting the local market. Farms simply can’t put a meal box together for that price. Bishop knows, because they’ve tried.
“It is not possible for local businesses to compete. It is no different than buying cheap imported food, which is cheap on the back of people and environment. At the end of the day, consumers need to decide what they are going to invest in,” says Bishop.
The problem, says Bishop, is that the meal boxes are easy.
“There isn't a person I know who isn't tired of sorting out dinner or challenged to know how to cook basics, or who isn't wildly busy running,” she says.
The marketing is great because you get to feel good about cooking with your family, helping them build skills, you don't need to worry about making dinner plans because it has already been done, and you don't need to think. It’s all easy, she says, and that’s what society wants these days.
“Important stuff isn't easy, though. It takes effort each day to raise children, nourish our bodies, care for our planet,” she adds.
Taproot Farms offers a community supported agriculture (CSA) weekly box of farm produce, but Bishop says they have lost many customers to the pre-prepared meal boxes. As a farmer, she says she must either sort out how to make these meal boxes herself or she’ll lose out.
Currently available for residents in the Annapolis Valley or Halifax area are a combination of fruit and vegetable or meat and barbecue boxes.
“And, I guess I decided we would have to lose out because we can't do it all,” she says.
But she knows some people are struggling, and just need the meal boxes.
For those who do not have a CSA near them, or still want to have a full meal while supporting local, there are options.
For example, Creative Kitchen is an in-home personal chef service in P.E.I. run by Chef Jen McKenna to help with weekly meal preparations. Families can pick from a wide variety of meal ideas or suggest your own, then their trained chefs will go into your home to create meals for your family. You do the shopping; they do the cooking and cleaning.
Belbin’s Grocery in St. John’s, N.L., offers a Dinner’s Ready program, which includes an array of ready-to-go, home-cooked meals prepared fresh daily, says general manager Rebecca Stowe. The goal, she says, is to have meals that taste like home in fresh or frozen options to feed four to six people.
“We serve local Newfoundland favourites that our customers grew up with, such as seafood chowder, fish cakes and pea soup. The best part is we eliminate all the preparation,” says Stowe.
All meals are prepared and packaged in-house and Stowe says customers can come to the store and select their meals or phone in and add them to their pickup or delivery order.
“Sometimes we want that fresh baked bread or pie that nan used to make, but we just don’t have the time to prepare it ourselves. This is where services like our Dinner’s Ready program play a big part,” says Stowe.
Looking at market opportunity
In Halifax, N.S., a new business servicing the city and surrounding area, has just begun called CHARBOYZ, run by chef Jason Bourgoin. CHARBOYZ delivers ready-to-grill barbecue boxes straight to your door, which include everything you need for your meal including marinated meats, special sauces and rubs, buns, and easy-prep grillable side dishes.
Each box includes detailed cooking instructions in the box and a live online cooking class with Bourgoin. He says that makes it a perfect choice for both newbie cooks and seasoned grill-masters alike.
“Basically, we want to make it easy for people to enjoy delicious, chef-inspired barbecue at home,” he says.
Their boxes, Bourgoin says, allows customers to support local farmers and producers.
“We try to use as little packaging as possible and our boxes and the insulation are all recyclable. Because everything is local, our environmental footprint is quite small,” he adds.
“Knowing that for many families, budgets are tight right now, a CHARBOYZ BBQ Box is on par with buying from your local butcher or specialty grocer.”
When choosing meal options, we need to do what works best for our families. But Bishop hopes people will consider the impact it will have on local food and consider that when deciding where to spend grocery dollars.