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Cauliflower Farfalle from Fresh Prep, a local Vancouver meal prep company.

Handout

When I received an offer for a free box of three meal kits from Chefs Plate, I initially thought it was spam.

“Is this legit?” I asked the friend who had referred me.

He and his husband are enthusiastic home cooks. Hence, I had trouble believing that they would be promoting one of these big-box subscription kits, which deliver bundles of preportioned raw ingredients with step-by-step instructions to your doorstep each week.

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Meal kits have been around for nearly a decade. I’ve never really understood the appeal. I always thought they were meant for harried parents or kitchen imbeciles who can’t even fry an egg.

“It’s great!” enthused my friend, who used to invite me over for lavish Filipino banquets cooked from scratch.

Breakfast Sarnie from Fresh Prep.

Handout

Times have changed, to say least. The COVID-19 pandemic is slowly turning even the most ambitious home cooks into creativity-sapped slugs. Grocery shopping and menu planning, for some of us, has gone from joy to chore. Parents are exhausted. No one wants to think too hard about the future, let alone about how to whip the wilting remains of the crisper into an inspired family dinner.

Cooking fatigue is real and the meal-kit providers have, perhaps unfairly, reaped the greatest rewards. After years of stagnant sales, the industry is booming worldwide.

I say it’s unfair because after two months of cooking from various meal kits, I’m still not convinced that the big companies offer great value (plans range from $8 to $13 per portion) or even much convenience.

The smaller, local options knock them out of the park at every level: flexibility, quality for price, menu choices, freshness, taste, ease of preparation and sustainability.

CHEFS PLATE

I started with Chefs Plate because it was free. My first thought, when the box arrived with a thump at my door from UPS, was “Wow, that’s a lot of packaging.” The cardboard boxes and insulated liners are recyclable, but the soft plastic wrappers covering every bland ciabatta bun and limp sprig of cilantro are not as easy to dispose of. And what do you do with all those ice packs?

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My second thought, as I began cooking a fairly pedestrian beef meatball and barley stew that definitely could have been improved with home-cooked stock, less soy sauce and a shot of spice, is that it entailed an awful lot of work.

I actually have to dice a full onion and chop the celery? Where is the convenience in that?

Many of the dishes took much longer to prepare than the 30 minutes advertised. Most nights, I still ended up with a sink full of pots and pans. And the meals barely fed two hungry adults.

The blah meals were mostly overwhelmed by the lifeless flavours of factory-farmed meats, waxy cheeses, sodium-saturated broth concentrates and mystery packs of gravy-spice blends.

For a couple of weeks, I enjoyed the novelty of not having to think about what’s for dinner. Then I got bored, started missing leftovers and actually became quite angry, knowing that I could do better on my own.

HELLO FRESH

For comparison’s sake, I tried Hello Fresh, a Berlin-based company that owns and operates the Canadian-founded Chefs Plate as a separate division. It was even worse. The plans are less flexible (you must order a minimum of three meals a week), the cost was more expensive (because it charges $9.99 for shipping) and the choices less enticing (more Parmesan-crusted chicken?).

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In my box (I cancelled after a week) the produce arrived wilted and browned.

Even more frustrating, the instructions didn’t always make sense and the recipe cards were printed in a font so small they were impossible to read.

FRESH PREP

The instructions to prepare a meal from Fresh Prep are easy to follow.

Handout

I was about to give up on meal kits when another friend suggested Fresh Prep, a Vancouver-based company that’s been around since 2014 and has been growing steadily.

Fresh Prep offers fewer meal-kit choices (10 to 12 a week, compared with nearly 20 for Chefs Plate and Hello Fresh), but about half the weekly menu is vegetarian or vegan.

Plus, it offers all sorts of add-ons for snacks, quick meals and basic groceries, much of it sourced from small, local partners (par-cooked baguettes from Nelson the Seagull, dips and flatbread by Tayybeh, ready-to-heat butter chicken from Urban Tadka and frozen French onion macaroni by Les Amis du Fromage).

The meal kits are much faster to pull together because the company does most of the prep for you. No washing, dicing or chopping, although you might have to pick the fresh herbs or rinse a can of lentils.

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The instructions are easy to follow. The ingredients are great – the fish is all Ocean Wise-approved, the quinoa is local and traceable from Flourist, the produce is fresh.

Baked Halloumi from Fresh Prep.

Handout

The portions are plentiful (leftovers every night) and the meals taste terrific. My partner noticed the difference immediately and actually thought I designed our first meal – lentil shepherd’s pie with cheddar-mashed potatoes – without any assistance.

Another laudable difference – one that makes it a market leader – is the emphasis on sustainability. Fresh Prep is a Certified B Corporation. Because it uses its own in-house drivers, it is able to deliver the kits in reusable cooler bags that you leave outside your door for pickup when you are expecting your next package. Plus, it collects the ice bags and all the soft plastics for recycling. All you have to do is rinse them out and place them in your cooler bag.

Starting mid-February, Fresh Prep will be using even less plastic when it rolls out the zero-waste meal kits, with almost all ingredients portioned into long trays with pop-up lids, which are returned and reused.

Fresh Prep is definitely a meal-kit company that I can get behind and will likely order from again.

Fresh Prep puts an emphasis on sustainability.

Handout

TRACTOR AT HOME

But now there is an even better option.

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It’s called Tractor at Home. It’s a new pivot from Tractor, a local quick-service healthy-food restaurant chain that now offers ready-to-eat meal delivery. Many restaurants now offer frozen foods and provisions, but this is the most extensive selection I’ve seen.

Its weekly box options are very competitively priced – six meals for two people (two lunch and four dinners) for $78. The plans, which also come in two or 10 meals, are flexible and can be customized.

The packaging is minimal. The choices are vast. The food is wholesome, nutritious, delicious and very generously portioned.

But best of all, it doesn’t require any prep. My box this week included a tofu Caesar salad that I only had to toss and frozen turkey meatballs that I simply popped in the oven with a side of lemon-Parmesan green beans that I slid out of a bag onto a baking pan.

Tractor at Home has only recently launched and currently has a waiting list. But keep it, or other restaurants, in mind.

Meal kits might be popular, but they’re not simple. When I’m looking for convenience, I want ready-made meals, not a pile of dirty dishes and eye strain.

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