On Nutrition

Meal kits are a hot trend, seemingly the answer to not just the question “What’s for dinner?” but also “When am I going to find time to go to the grocery store?” But while they offer a measure of convenience along with encouragement to cook at home (who can argue with that?), meal kits aren’t always the simple solution they appear to be.

One meal-kit component that never sat well with me and with many of my patients and clients: the packaging. So much packaging. If you care about the environment, all of that cardboard and plastic and freezer gel packs can replace your hunger with pangs of guilt. But a recent University of Michigan study may put your mind at ease. Overall, meal kits have a much smaller carbon footprint than the same meals purchased from a grocery store.

Researchers ordered five two-person meals from Blue Apron — salmon, cheeseburger, chicken, pasta and salad — then purchased the ingredients to make the same meals from a grocery store. They looked at every step of the process from farm to fork to landfill for both sets of meals, and found that on average, greenhouse emissions were one-third lower for the meal kits. How is that possible, you ask? While the amount of packaging is worse for meal kits, it’s only part of the picture.

Who makes the best meal kit? Here's our taste-test of ones from Amazon Go, PCC and QFC

Where meal kits come out the winner is for food waste and transportation. Meal kits preportion ingredients, so there’s little food waste. When you have to throw out rotting produce and freezer-burned burger buns, all of the energy and materials that went into producing and transporting those foods to your kitchen are for naught.

Plus, a lot of food waste happens at the grocery store, whether in the form of overstocking or discarding “ugly” produce. This is not an issue with meal kits. The energy expended per meal kit by a delivery truck is also less than the energy expended by the average trip to the grocery store in a personal vehicle.

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It’s easy to focus on food packaging, because it’s so visible, but the reality is that if food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases — coming in behind the U.S. and China — because of the combined impact of production, processing and distribution, per a 2015 report from the United Nations. According to another U.N. report released in 2019, it’s a common belief that packaging should be reduced wherever possible, but the impacts are generally small compared to the impact of food waste, especially if the packaging itself helps prevent food waste.

So if packaging has been the one thing holding you back from that Blue Apron, Hello Fresh or Sun Basket subscription, consider this a green light. Should everyone who’s environmentally minded should go the meal-kit route? Of course not. If you are a confident, improvisational cook with a well-stocked pantry, following a new-to-you meal kit recipe might feel tedious — especially after a busy day. On the other hand, if you prefer the security of a recipe, but have trouble planning dinners and get tired of buying a whole bunch of parsley when you only need a few sprigs, then meal kits may be the difference between cooking at home and grabbing takeout. That’s a good thing.