The taste of virtue: Meal boxes as self-improvement

By Rachel Katz

It’s Wednesday night and you just got home after another night of accidentally working too late. You’re hungry and pressed for time, but you swore that this would be the year you would learn how to cook and stop ordering take-out every night. You put your delivery menus away, and resign yourself to an egg-on-toast dinner.

This is probably a familiar story to many young professionals and busy students, especially those who see caring for oneself through food as a form of self-improvement. While there are plenty of young people who enjoy cooking, and given the rise of “foodie culture”, even more young people who care deeply about food, there are still huge financial and time barriers to making the act of cooking dinner accessible.

Until now, supposedly.

Over the past few years, a number of meal prep box companies have popped up around the country, each one promising fast, healthy, tasty, and relatively inexpensive meals. These companies tout themselves as being an ideal way to “[learn] fun new recipes, discover new ingredients (some can be hard to find!), save prep time and also reduce unnecessary waste”. These recipe boxes can also help with meal planning, and they’re designed to reduce the stress that can come with scouring the grocery store in the after-work rush.

Generally, these boxes are targeted at younger people with busy schedules. Companies implicitly market themselves as being a healthy meal you can squeeze between gig-economy jobs. And they appeal to the desire to be in the know about food that is common amongst millennials; each delivery comes with fresh ingredients and a well-designed recipe card featuring detailed instructions on how to create “Instagram-worthy, picture-perfect meals” that satisfy both your appetite and any need to update your social media channels. On the surface, these seem like a pretty decent invention, perhaps preying on the time-pressed and health-conscious a little bit, but all in all not a bad way to ensure you’re eating some fruits and veggies.

A promotional image from a meal box company featuring an attractive, balanced meal of chicken and some kind of salad.

This too could be YOUR dinner!

But perhaps there’s something deeper going on here as well.

When people buy into these meal box plans, they’re outsourcing much of the logic of meal-planning and cooking. While they still have to find the time to choose, chop, prepare, and cook the ingredients, all of the skills involved with learning how to grocery shop in an effective and efficient manner are taken care of. Users are looking to enact adult responsibility and self-sufficiency, but by making use of these services, is the result more adult responsibility and self-sufficiency lite? Goodfood Box and Hello Fresh promote the idea that their boxes are a great way to take care of yourself (and your family) in an adult manner, but by outsourcing all the thinking involved in preparing food, are users are actually still enacting dependency needs without any awareness.

Companies like Goodfood and Hello Fresh are able to attract a user base in a few ways. Their streamlined logo design and playful advertising goes head-to-head with the clever billboards put up by Skip the Dishes and other delivery services, indicating that they are another, better option for the busy consumer. Additionally, these boxes save users the time they would spend shopping without sacrificing the “virtue” that comes with having made a home-cooked meal. This allows the cook to feel more virtuous than they likely would had they just ordered takeout for the fourth night in a row, and as a result, makes them feel like a better person. And then there’s the promise of an Insta-worthy meal at the end of the process. These meal kits allow users to be seen in the social media sphere and show off their healthy, homemade meals in a way that isn’t possible with styrofoam take-out containers.

A collection of food box ingredients, including vegetables, spices, and either fish or chicken

I was trying to make up a snarky caption but it’s getting too close to lunch and now I just want potatoes

There’s nothing “wrong” about enjoying these boxes and the services they provide. The packaging is typically all recyclable, and if you can afford the cost of the box, you don’t need to worry about the fluctuating prices of produce at the grocery store. That said, there are questions that remain about the effect of these meal plan boxes. The most obvious is the discussion of privilege – privilege to chose, to afford such choices, freedom to believe that choice is an option. We want to feel and appear virtuous, like we’re doing not just a good thing, such as feeding ourselves, but the right thing – and in a global north context where more food is wasted than consumed, we can believe that we are feeding ourselves food we made because we had the time to not get take-out again. We associate homemade food as being this great thing in our lives, but for most people  in Canada, the standard weekly cost is too high, or the fact that the meals are not premade is inaccessible in terms of time or feasibility.

There’s also the question of takeaways. I did a brief poll of some peers to see what those who have used a recipe box service feel as though they have learned throughout the cooking process. While some learned a combination of meal planning and/or kitchen technique tips, 39% said they had gained no valuable skills – but the other 60% said they did – so what to make of that? Some respondents added that they mostly appreciated the convenience factor of the kits, a feature that’s undeniably helpful for busy students in particular. But it does lead me to wonder if and how a longtime customer can then reduce their meal box usage or stop it altogether. If they haven’t learned enough real cooking skills, what happens if the plans become too expensive or boring or the quality of the food diminishes? At the end of the day, have these users really gained any skills? It would seem as though there is no way to curtail the enactment of dependency needs through use of these meal kits. As a result, it seems like these kits don’t really teach us how to take better care of ourselves once we move outside their boxes.

Ultimately, skill-building isn’t part of Goodfood or Hello Fresh’s M.O. and that’s fine. But as the generation of target users (millennials) continues to age and move into adulthood, it seems as though these boxed meals simply replace some of the convenience of dining out with an inflated sense of virtuousness and disguised helplessness that, produces a subject that becomes only a competent consumer.

Next time: how to improve your finances in a dire global economy, with technology!

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