Living

Grocers are entering the crowded meal kit market. We test drive 3 of them.

Fresh Market’s Szechuan Shrimp Stir Fry Market Meal Kit is easy to prepare and layered with flavor from the Szechuan sauce to the fresh shrimp and veggies.
Fresh Market’s Szechuan Shrimp Stir Fry Market Meal Kit is easy to prepare and layered with flavor from the Szechuan sauce to the fresh shrimp and veggies. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Singles, families, empty nesters, couples, working moms and millennials are looking for easier ways to get dinner on the table.

Whether you are trying to save time, or add some variety into your menu, meal kits may be the answer.

Meal kits are now a $2.5 billion business and growing, says Bob Goldin, a partner at Pentallect, a Chicago-based food industry consulting firm.

And Triangle grocers are working to fill the void. Unlike the kits delivered directly to your door, or those that may require a subscription, these meal kits can be picked up from a store (for the most part without ordering in advance), and are more affordable.

Some of them are easier to get on the table than others. Many come with some prepared items along with raw ingredients that need cooking. They also range from simple fare to more elevated dishes that you may order in a restaurant.

Goldin says it’s hard to know how well meal kits are selling in the grocery stores. But he says super markets needed to get in the game because meal kit delivery companies pose another threat to their business.

“They are doing it somewhat defensively because they see the dollars going elsewhere,” he says.

But there’s still a lot of experimentation of how they’re sold and at what price points.

“It’s early in their evolution,” Goldin says.

In the Triangle, several grocers are now in the game, including Fresh Market, Publix and Lowe’s Foods.

Lowe’s Foods provides Ready Set Supper meal kits built for two. The meals cater to foodies looking for a restaurant experience at home with the entrees showcasing “local flavors from Southern Chefs.” The chefs behind the meals include North Carolina’s Vivian Howard, owner of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston. Kelly Dillon Davis, the director of Lowe’s Brand Insights & Outreach, said to expect more variety in the future.

“While we do not currently have a chef from the Triangle area, we are actively recruiting chefs from the Carolinas,” Davis says. “We have partnered with two chef owned restaurants in Winston-Salem, Meridian and Sweet Potatoes, and we have recipes in process from South Carolina.”

We tested meal kits from area grocers to see whether they should be added to our meal rotation.

RAL_ BOXEDMEALS3-FE-082418-
Writer Bridgette A. Lacy likes how quickly she can prepare Fresh Market’s Szechuan Shrimp Stir Fry Market Meal Kit. The meal only took 15 minutes to prepare. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

The Fresh Market’s Little Big Meal

Fresh Market presents the largest variety of meal kits of the stores we tested. These meals pack a lot of bang for the buck with minimum effort to get dinner on the table.

The details: The Little Big Meal is designed for a family of four and comes with quick and tasty options for $20. The meal is sold for a week, and then the next one is available for purchase. The items for the Little Big Meal are all located in one area of the store with a list of items that go with the kit and a brown bag to put them in. For more, go to thefreshmarket.com/marketmealkits.

What you get: The meal normally comes with several choices of proteins, sauces and sides so you can eat a variation of the meal twice in a week. While sometimes the vegetables can be a little chunky, a little dicing here and there gets the meal on the table fast. Some of the most popular ones are the Burgers, Stir Fry and Fajitas.

For example, the Fajitas meal comes with a choice of chicken strips, shrimp, sirloin steak along with a choice of sauce, tortillas, shredded cheese, sour cream, a veggie kit and a pound of a prepared side (either Texas Caviar or Elote Corn Salad). Other Little Big Meals include: Burgers, Lettuce Wraps and this summer even a Crab Cake dinner.

RAL_ BOXEDMEALS4-FE-082418-
Fresh Market presents the largest variety of meal kits with a variety of eight Market Meal Kits, which features everything you need for a meal for two in a box including ingredients, seasonings and even oils in individual bags. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Pros: The Little Big Meal by far offers the most economical and quick meal. Great variety of one meal, allowing you to have the same entrée in a different way by changing the protein, sauces and sometimes side. It’s a great way of introducing something new in the family dinner rotation.

Also, more than other meal kits, this one is easy to re-create it. This kit often introduces you to a new product, such as a simmering taco sauce that you can purchase separately and add to your pantry for another time. You season it yourself. You also often have enough extra sauce or ingredients for another meal.

Cons: Fresh Market only offers one Little Big Meal per week, so if the meal is not something you like, you have to wait until next week.

The Fresh Market’s Market Meal Kits

The details: Fresh Market also sells a variety of eight Market Meal Kits, which are more like a restaurant meal than homemade.

The meals feature everything for a meal for two in a box, including ingredients, seasonings and even oils. Fresh Market’s website even suggests wine pairings for the meals made within 15 minutes or less.

The cost ranges from $14.99 to $16.99. The entrees with chicken are on the cheaper side and those with shrimp and beef pricier.

What you get: Some of the meals include Korean Beef Stir Fry, Thai Coconut Chicken with Rice & Fresh Vegetables and Ginger Glazed Salmon. For example, the Ginger Glazed Salmon contains two salmon fillets, buttery mashed potatoes, asparagus and a ginger sauce made with garlic, ginger, soy sauce and spices.

I tried the Szechuan Shrimp Stir Fry, which came with white rice just needing to be heated, a vegetable medley, peeled and deveined shrimp, Szechuan sauce, olive oil and restaurant blend seasoning package.

Pros: This was a quick, tasty meal. I had it in the bowl in 15 minutes. It was layered with flavor from the Szechuan sauce to the fresh shrimp and veggies.

Cons: The broccoli required a little more chopping.

RAL_ BOXEDMEALS2-FE-082418-
Writer Bridgette A. Lacy prepares Fresh Market’s Szechuan Shrimp Stir Fry Market Meal Kit at her home in 15 minutes on Aug. 24, 2018. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Publix’s Aprons Meal Kits

The details: Publix offers a variety of Aprons Meal Kits in the store’s meat department. The kits are designed for two and include Pork Tenderloin with Apple Compote and Wild Rice; Southwestern-Style Chicken with Orzo, Roasted Corn, Peppers, and Black Beans; and Harissa Chicken with Asparagus, Diced Apricots, Slivered Almonds, and Basmati Rice.

The kits sell for $14.99 but can often be found on sale for $12.99.

For families, Publix also carries several Slow Cooker Meals, including Mojo Taco; Chicken Dumplings and Pork Carnitas. These “dump and go” meals are the ultimate in convenient meals. The slow cooker entrees range in price from $18 to $25 and take four to eight hours to cook, depending on the meal.

For more, go to publix.com/recipes-planning/aprons-meal-kits.

What you get: The Apron Meal Kits come with simple instructions, and the items in the box are already cut, diced and chopped.

Pros: I tried the Harissa Chicken kit. It was a flavorful meal for two with little effort. This meal was on sale for $12.99. The entrée has a generous portion size, enough for three meals instead of two. It was also a good way to try something new.

Cons: While the Harissa Chicken ingredients were clearly labeled, I also tried the Southwestern-Style Chicken kit, and it wasn’t clear which chicken parts were included in the kit. Also, you may need to ask the meat department if they have other varieties than the ones in the cold case. During one shopping trip, I only saw two choices.

RAL_ BOXEDMEALS7-FE-082418-
Fresh Market’s Szechuan Shrimp Stir Fry Market Meal Kit is easy to prepare and layered with flavor from the Szechuan sauce to the fresh shrimp and veggies. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Lowe’s Ready Set Supper

The details: Lowe’s Foods provides Ready Set Supper meal kits built for two. These $17.99 meal kits contain the raw ingredients, already prepped, as well as oils, vinegars and spices. Ready Set Dinner is in the meat department of the store. Davis said the store should have at least four different kits to choose from but some stores may have less.

What you get: Howard’s best sellers include Parmesan Sweet Potato and Turkey Shepherd’s Pie and Chicken and Rice as well as recipes like Spiced Honey Pork with Cumin Barley & Wilted Ginger and Strip Steak with Potatoes and Asparagus.

For more, go to shop.lowesfoods.com/shop/collections/2505188.

Pros: The Spiced Honey Pork packs a lot of flavor. It’s a good way for cooks of all level to add more recipes to their dinner menu options.

Cons: This meal is for those who love the “AChef’s Life” star, not necessarily for someone wanting a quick dinner. The Spiced Honey Pork box says the meal takes about 45 minutes to prepare, and the instructions call for nine steps and 9 tools, dishes and utensils. In other words, the kit is made for two in more ways than one. You’ll want a second set of hands to cut, chop and cook.

In my test run, I found it to be labor intensive for so little food. While there was plenty of barley leftover, the boneless pork chops were very small. The honey and the mustard for the recipe came in packages, which were difficult to open. The vinegar came pre-measured in a cup. Why not do the same for the honey and mustard?

The grocery wars started with Harris Teeter and Publix. It has gotten more competitive in recent years.

Bridgette A. Lacy is a freelance writer and the author of “Sunday Dinner: A Savor the South cookbook” by UNC Press of Chapel Hill. Reach her at bridgettelacy@att.net.
  Comments