To cook or not to cook

Last night, I attended my favourite fundraiser: the Unwasted Dinner, put on by Kingston’s Loving Spoonful, an organization that works to build a healthy, sustainable and food-secure community. Five local chefs volunteered their time to prepare a seven-course meal made from locally-sourced, surplus ingredients: food that would otherwise have wound up in the garbage. We enjoyed dishes using leftover produce from grocery stores and restaurants, meat and eggs from farmers, wild mushrooms from a food scavenger and so on. It was a meal that would have stood up well against anything to be found in a restaurant.

It’s a skill to plan a meal, let alone a meal for 120 people, with seven courses, without knowing until the day it is to be eaten what ingredients you will have to work with. However, even when it comes to planning and preparing a simple family meal, it seems that many people lack the confidence, interest or time to do this.

It can be a chore

Those, like me, who love to cook, welcome an occasional break from the constant routine. Meal planning, food shopping and cooking can feel like a never-ending cycle, especially on days that are already full with work, children and other responsibilities.

If we try to eat in a way that is not environmentally rapacious, it becomes even more onerous. Is it better for the environment for me to make one trip in the car to a supermarket, even if that means buying few, if any, local foods or should I make the extra trips to the health food store, the farmers’ market and the butcher? Should I take the bus or walk, even though that will add time that I don’t have to the outing? Do I shop every few days to reduce the amount of food waste I produce?

Add to that a desire to be creative, try new recipes or to work around the dietary needs and wishes of family and friends, and we may find ourselves dashing out to pick up a pizza more often than we mean to.

Delivered to the door

Enter the capitalist solution: meal-kit delivery services.

This industry seems to have exploded, almost overnight.  According to the CBC, meal-kit delivery services are a $120-million industry, and growing. Thirteen percent of Canadians have used these kits at some time and 42% are interested in trying one out.

A quick search of the internet took me to websites for Hello Fresh, Chef’s Plate, Freshly, Make Good Food, Blue Apron and Home Chef, by which time I was overwhelmed.

Each seems to offer something slightly different: some deliver meals that need nothing more than assembly and final cooking; others allow the home chef to chop and mix ingredients then cook the meal; some have special menu options for families with children, single diners, vegetarians, those who are counting calories. Others provide meal plans and grocery lists and leave the rest to the cook.

Pros and cons

These meal-delivery companies are meeting a need. Single parents who have young kids and work outside the home are hard-pressed to find the time to plan, shop for and prepare nutritious meals on a daily basis. People who live alone struggle to cook for one in a way that is creative and not wasteful. Elderly people still enjoy a home-cooked meal but may lack the energy or kitchen equipment to prepare from scratch. Some disabilities may also make from-scratch cooking a challenge.

Why buy a full bottle of sesame oil if you have never cooked with it before and don’t know if you will like it? With a meal kit, you get just enough for the meal you are preparing.

But what is the environmental impact of all that packaging and transportation? A recent study found that meal-kit delivery services have less of a negative environmental impact than cooking. The researchers claim that preparing the same meal from scratch produces 33% more greenhouse gases than making the same meal with a meal kit. While there is more packaging in meal kits, the research found that there was less food waste and fewer emissions from transportation.

Meal kits do cut down on personal food waste, whether that is in the form of ingredients that go bad in the fridge because our eyes were bigger than our stomachs when we did our grocery shopping or because we just don’t get around to eating those leftovers.

And, if we drive every time we need a single ingredient or several times a week to pick up fast food take-out, we are creating increased greenhouse gas emissions.

But the research focused on food waste at the supermarket level, which seems a bit disingenuous to me in this context. It also readily admits that the meal-kit industry needs to address the packaging issue. (While some claim the packaging can be returned to the company for re-use, in many cases, this is dependent on the local distributor.)

There are alternatives

There are non-commercial ways to meet some of the needs presently being filled by meal-kit delivery services.

Variations on the community kitchen theme allow people to cook collectively and take home meals or components of meals (spaghetti sauce, soup stock, salad dressings, etc.) to make daily meal preparation less onerous. In a community-kitchen setting, we can all learn new skills and new recipes without having to stock up our own kitchen with ingredients and equipment we won’t use very often. Cooking together can be a lot of fun, too.

Connect a community kitchen with a community garden, and you can cook with local, fresh produce, minus all the packaging that surrounds supermarket food.

For those with the space, a well-organized freezer can make it easy to cook ahead and then pull daily meals together in relatively short order.

Using a crock pot means you can have a meal almost ready to go when everyone comes in the door at the end of the day.

Living my own life

Not everyone has the time, interest or ability to plan and prepare meals on a regular basis and, for them, perhaps meal-kit delivery services are part of the answer.

But I love everything about putting meals together: planning, shopping and cooking. It is an activity that lets me unwind and relax. I don’t want to use the personal shopper services that some supermarkets now offer or have someone else tell me what my menus for the week should be. I want to go to the market, the Asian grocery store, the health food store and the butcher. It is one of the ways I stay in touch with my community. (And, while I drive from my home to the downtown, I park centrally and then walk to each of these stores, which I hope mitigates some of the environmental impact of my style of shopping.)

I will take that inconvenience over paying someone else to live my life for me, any day.

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