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Dinner’s in the bag – meal kits give home cooks a helping hand

Judy Hume, left, from Fresh Canteen along with Vanda Boaventura and Taylor Wild prepare food in Toronto for recipe boxes. Fresh Canteen offers subscribers all of the ingredients needed to make as many meals as customers require along with recipes and step-by-step photo instructions.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

This is part of a series exploring the cultural, technological and social trends that are informing the way we dine and select what we eat. Read the rest in the series here.

People are eager to cook more, but often lack the time and skill to pull off the kinds of dishes they see on television or order in restaurants. Smart retailers have noticed this and are creating cooking packages with fresh ingredients and simple, easy-to-manage recipes that take the planning, shopping and guesswork out of making dinner.

The concept is relatively new in North America, but already has gained a following in Europe. Sweden's Middagsfrid, founded in 2007, is considered the first company in the world to offer grocery bags filled with fresh ingredients based on particular recipes. It now operates in Norway, Denmark, Germany, Belgium and Sweden.

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The concept is also proving popular in Britain where companies such as Gousto and Jessica's Recipe Bag are becoming more popular. Just this past April, U.S. startup Blue Apron received an investment of $50-million (U.S.) from venture capitalists – valuing the company at $500-million – but still faces competition from similar companies such as Plated, Chefday! And HelloFresh.

The idea is starting to catch on here in Canada, as well.

After several months of testing boxes and ice packs, recipes and ingredients, Judy Hume opened Fresh Canteen in June of last year. Her company delivers two to four recipes a week from a constantly rotating menu that might include shrimp cakes one night, rib-eye steaks with spinach and strawberry salad the next. Each box comes with all of the ingredients needed to make as many meals as customers require along with recipes and step-by-step photo instructions at a price averaging about $12.50 a person a meal.

Hume admits to being surprised by the wide variety of the customers who subscribe to her service.

"We first thought that our clients would primarily be downtown, young professionals and young families. We have a lot of those kinds of clients, but the one that has surprised us is the older block – empty nesters who want to get back into the kitchen, reinvent themselves and get revitalized in terms of cooking.

"There's also a component of people who unfortunately have been house bound or who have some sort of illness and we have almost become a service to them that has helped see them through a difficult time in their lives. That was tragic in some ways, but a nice surprise, too. We got some really great e-mails from families who said we'd been a big help to them," Hume says.

Already, in the year since Fresh Canteen opened, two more Ontario-based recipe bag services have opened.

Story continues below advertisement launched in August of 2013 and offers meals that work out to about $6.95 a meal. The latest entrant, Mealspirations, collaborates with former Bymark and North 44 chef Matthew Kennedy and offers meals ranging from easy to ambitious, starting at about $12 each.

Company co-founder Linda Ogbeide started the company for a simple reason: "I used to work at a really hectic job," she explains, "and I found that by the time I got home I didn't have any energy to cook. I didn't want to do anything.

"My business partner comes from Europe and he said to me, 'Why don't you do a meal kit service?' I told him I'd never heard of that before, and he said, 'Well, maybe that's a reason for you to start something.'

"I thought about it and realized there's a lot of other people who have the exact same problem I had."

Catherine Finley was one of those people. She started ordering from a recipe bag service last year and consistently orders four meals a week unless she and her family are on vacation.

"My husband and I both work full-time," she explains, "and our children are old enough now that they have to eat proper food and be exposed to a variety of tastes and eat something other than chicken every day and pizza, which was all I seemed to manage before. Now, it takes me two minutes online and I don't have to think about it for the rest of the week."

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For Mario Quiquero, another loyal customer, the benefits of recipe bags are twofold.

"I love to cook and I love to eat," he says, "but I don't always have the time and I don't always get creative enough, so when I do this it gives me a chance to really try different foods."

His subscription has also had an unintended consequence: "I think it's made me a better cook," he admits.

"It's definitely broadened my horizons because the stuff that I would normally go to a restaurant for I can now do at home. It still gives me that ability to cook and it's teaching me stuff, too. For me a lot of it is food discovery."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story quoted Vince Saroli when it should have been Mario Quiquero.

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