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HOW LIBERATING ARE DINNER KITS?

 CRISPY CHICKPEA SALAD

The popularity of the the Dinner Kit reminds me of the highly successful ad campaign for cigarettes in the nineteen-sixties. At the height of the women’s liberation movement the Leo Burnett agency created a slogan to sell spindle-thin, candle-length Virginia Slims to women  The catchy phrase went, “You’ve come a long way” (they added "baby" later).  It was just tobacco, but in a new package, and the scheme worked.

Frozen dinners had already begun to liberate women working during the war in the nineteen-forties. C.A..Swanson and Son’s popularized the prepared meal in 1954 with it’s Thanksgiving dinner portion in sectioned trays.  2.5 million dinners were sold that year.  The company received hate mail from from husbands who wanted their wives to cook from scratch (to no avail). 

The newest dinner solution for the working woman is a kit containing fresh ingredients in exactly the right amounts, home delivered.  Assembly time is under 30 minutes.  Is this another “you’ve come a long way” moment?  I decided to find out for myself.

DINNER KIT INGREDIENTS

Fierce competition among more than 150 businesses that offer kits online by subscription has led to alliances between leading brands and grocery chains. I purchased a Plated brand Crispy Chickpea Salad kit at my neighborhood Jewel/Osco.  A salad had to show proof of concept, right?

To my surprise, the information on the nutrition label was almost a deal-breaker.  The contents consisting of red quinoa, canned chickpeas, feta cheese, black olives and half a cucumber contained 97% of the USDA’s daily recommended allowance for salt, 54% for fat and 900 calories per serving!   Okay, I’ll just eat less I told myself and dropped the kit into my shopping cart. 

 Once home, I unwrapped layers of plastic packaging to reach each fresh ingredient.  As the pile of plastic waste mounted, I thought about the expense of portioning, wrapping, assembling, packaging and delivering thousands of kits daily.  A business model that does not lend itself to economies of scale, seems unsustainable.   

 LEFT: RED QUINOA. BLACK OLIVES, CUCUMBER, BASIL AND PARSLEY LEAVES
RIGHT: TOASTED FETA CHEESE WITH HARISSA PASTE; ROASTED CHERRY TOMATOES AND CHICKPEAS

Back on task, I dutifully followed the illustrated recipe card and my meal was ready in twenty-five minutes as promised.  Why did I feel I’d just hosted a Food Network show?  Following a script takes all the messiness, uncertainty and decision making out of cooking.  The salad was tasty but not much fun for someone who likes to cook.

 Thus far only 9% of Americans have purchased a dinner kit.  On the other hand, everyone has frozen food items in their freezer.  Dinner kits cost between $10 to $14 per serving which is less than a fresh entree at a restaurant but triple the cost of a frozen dinner.  The process of flash freezing fresh food was developed a century ago, and frozen dinners have evolved to reflect current consumer tastes.  That includes healthful portions, reasonable pricing and recyclable packaging.  They microwave in much less time than a kit and require no assembly before or afterward.  

I look forward to coming home in the evening to a delicious dinner that requires very little prep.   Nothing fancy mind you, just fresh and healthful.  How far will we have come when a Whole Foods dinner delivered by Amazon Prime is waiting on the doorstep?  I prefer to microwave something I’ve already prepared that’s waiting in the refrigerator.

PLASTIC WASTE FROM PLATED'S CHICKEN PESTO PASTA
WITH EXCESS CREAM, BUTTER AND FLAKED PARMESAN