The dinner kit is served

New York TimesFebruary 19, 2013 

  • Skip the supermarket

    The two weeks I spent cooking dinner from the kits available in New York City were surprisingly pleasant. As a veteran of the scramble to feed a family of four after work, I found it restful to bypass the stress of choosing a recipe at work, mentally mapping the ingredients (is there still some chicken stock in the freezer?) and sprinting through the market on the way home.

    I tried two kits from each service. Fresh ingredients, especially from Blue Apron and Plated, were comparable to (or, surprisingly, better than) what I can buy on the trip home, although the quantity of plastic and cold packs required to ship them was often alarming. Most dishes were ready in 30 to 40 minutes and tasted reasonably good. Some recipes, especially those from HelloFresh and Blue Apron, were easy to follow; others weren’t precise enough on amounts and cooking times.

    Many dishes were too sweet and bland, but it was easy to correct the seasonings.

    Each dish was more expensive than it would be if made from scratch, but cheaper than in a restaurant. And the more you buy, the lower the prices can go. If you think of the dinner kit as an alternative to delivery or eating out, as the companies would like you to, the pricing makes more sense. – Julia Moskin

    HelloFresh

    Three kits a week, subscription required, $12.50 per meal per person. Available nationwide. Visit hellofresh.com for info.

    Pros: Clear recipes, top-quality ingredients and generous servings.

    Cons: Some recipes read oddly, like a pasta with lamb billed as “a combination of Thai and Italian flavors” that has no Thai ingredients.

    Plated

    Four-kit minimum, $10 to $15 per meal per person. Not yet available in the Triangle. Sign up at plated.com for notification of launch in your ZIP code.

    Pros: Trendy but simple recipes; lively website featuring creative collaborations with chefs and food blogs.

    Cons: Recipes are in tiny print; portions are small.

    Blue Apron

    Three kits a week, subscription required, $10 per meal per person. Now available in some areas of North Carolina. Visit blueapron.com to check availability where you live or sign up for notification of launch in your ZIP code.

    Pros: Very fresh ingredients, from suppliers like Pat LaFrieda meats; large, clear recipe cards.

    Cons: Recipes like pickled daikon and ground lamb kebabs may seem unnecessarily adventurous.

Nick Taranto thinks you should cook your own dinner tonight. He even thinks you might pay him for the privilege.

At 28, Taranto already has a double-Ivy education (Dartmouth, Harvard) and served in the Marines; he was a microfinancier in Indonesia and a private wealth adviser on Wall Street.

Now his professional focus is on perfecting recipes for maple-glazed salmon and Mexican lasagna – and on how his new e-commerce business, Plated, will buy, measure, cut, chill, box and ship every ingredient to your door. All the home cook has to do, in theory, is click on “order,” open a box and follow a recipe.

This ready-to-cook meal is called the dinner kit. And Plated – along with a host of similar services – is the latest in a stream of technological innovations and corporate interventions, from the cake mix to the cookbook app, that have long promised to relieve Americans of kitchen drudgery while retaining the flavor and cachet of home cooking.

“When we started jobs in New York, we realized that cooking dinner is really, really hard,” Taranto said of himself and his business partner, Josh Hix, 31. “There’s not enough time in modern lives to recipe-select or grocery-shop.”

Home-delivered food, of course, is not news, and neither is online shopping. Over the past decade, services like Peapod and FreshDirect have accustomed millions of consumers to buying fresh ingredients online, while frozen-dinner delivery businesses like Schwan’s have sold them on fully prepared meals.

But the dinner kit aims for a sweet spot somewhere between the bunch of asparagus and the finished asparagus-stuffed salmon. And it addresses some paradoxes peculiar to today’s home kitchens: While Americans, fed a steady diet of TV cooking shows and nutritional news, care increasingly about what they eat, many feel too harried to hunt down new recipes and make dinner from scratch. Yet they remain unwilling to live on takeout and heat-and-eat meals alone.

The dinner-kit business model – online ordering, overnight shipping, premium ingredients and weekly recipes – has already proved successful abroad. The first service, Middagsfrid, started in Sweden in 2007, and the concept was quickly replicated elsewhere in Europe.

All the dinner-kit companies provide essentially the same service: easy-interface websites with fresh graphics and pretty pictures of food, where cooks can choose from an ever-changing roster of recipes for a quick weeknight dinner. (Some allow ordering by the individual meal, others by subscription only.) Ingredients are shipped fresh, not frozen, insulated in a trove of packing and cooling materials.

The box – or bag, or crate – includes a recipe, usually with photos showing each step. Inside, ingredients are already portioned and measured: If a chili recipe calls for a teaspoon of cumin, there it is, neatly labeled, in its own little cup. Two tablespoons of olive oil arrive in a tiny screw-top jar; six sprigs of cilantro in a zipped plastic bag. The cook still has to dice the onions, mince the garlic and simmer the stew, but the start-to-finish cooking time is significantly shortened.

“It showed up in my kitchen at the point where I had already found the recipe, gone to the store, taken off my coat and put everything out on the counter, but I didn’t have to do any of that,” said Peter Eisen, who tried Plated last December. “It was like I had gone through a hole in the ‘Matrix.’”

To some home cooks, the dinner kit appears as a godsend, saving precious time while offering exotic ingredients and new recipes, like seared cod with yuzu butter, or charred Nordic chicory with hanger steak. Others say it looks like play food, providing a facsimile of home cooking that does not nurture the skills or taste that make a cook.

“I felt completely infantilized when I saw all the ingredients laid out, as if a grown-up had to do it for me,” said Laura Shapiro, a culinary historian and the author of “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America.”

Dinner kits are not the only service promising to simplify and improve on the home-cooked dinner. There are meal assembly centers like Dream Dinners, where customers choose recipes and fill bags with prepared ingredients, to be cooked at home; services like Simply Fresh to You, in Charlotte, that deliver par-cooked entrees; and shelf-stable kits like Chef Set that provide everything but the protein and produce for a full meal.

Just how many Americans are ready to pay regularly for such hybrid meals – part prefabricated, part homemade – is unclear. Sucharita Mulpuru, a retail analyst at Forrester Research, said there were no numbers yet on this tiny sector of the $1 trillion food economy. But, she said, entrepreneurs always hope that they can slice off a piece of that bigger pie.

“I have no doubt that one of these guys will make it,” Mulpuru said of the dinner-kit services. “But the food business is so hard, and people are picky. I’m skeptical that this model will become more than one small player among many dinner solutions.”

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