Food to go: Meal prep companies are on the up and up

A growing number of companies are supplying a market for customers seeking healthy meals but who lack the time to buy or cook food, writes Sharon Ní Conchúir.

WHAT’S for dinner? Whether you’re a hassled and harried parent, a busy office worker or both, this is a question many of us have come to dread.

So many people struggle to muster up the energy to prepare a healthy meal at the end of a long, exhausting day. Some are so busy that it can be hard to find the time to shop for ingredients, let alone prepare and cook the food.

When you find yourself in this situation, the temptation is to microwave a ready meal or call for a takeaway. But there is another option. A growing number of companies are now offering meal subscription services that offer everything from sending you the ingredients required to make a week’s worth of home-cooked meals to filling your fridge with pre-prepared and ready-to-eat dishes. From meal planning to shopping and cooking; they do the hard work for you.

Drop Chef is one of these companies. It was founded four years ago by three friends who spotted a gap in the market.

“We realised that people wanted to cook a healthy and delicious dinner from scratch using fresh ingredients,” says co-founder Ryan Scott. “But they only wanted to spend 20 to 30 minutes on it after they came home from work or in between picking the kids up from after-school activities.”

Drop Chef now caters for these people by providing them with three nutritionally balanced dinners every week. The ingredients come pre-measured so that all you have to do is follow an easy step-by-step recipe card, with the guarantee that dinner will be on the table within 30 minutes. There are menu plans for individuals, for couples and for families and the options change weekly.

This week, for example, Drop Chef’s customers could have dined on teriyaki-glazed chicken wings and sweet potato wedges one day, followed by Sicilian linguine with tuna and heirloom tomatoes the next, and Irish striploin steak with fresh vegetable quinoa fried rice the day after that.

Clean Cut Meals, founded by Micheal Dyer and Conor McCallion, offers a slightly different service. The company focuses on fitness, with menus for those who are trying to lose weight, build lean muscle, bulk up, or follow a vegetarian diet. Pick the plan that suits you, choose how many meals you would like to have delivered (up to a maximum of 20) and they will arrive pre-prepared every Monday so that you can face into the week with a fridge full of food.

With its help, you could start your week with a bowl of porridge oats, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, protein powder, almond milk and mixed berries for your breakfast. Or you could tuck into a plate of Mexican beef with spiced rice and mixed vegetables for your lunch and you could end the day with a dinner of vegetable satay with noodles and cashews.

Other meal subscription services cater to different needs. For example, Paleo Ireland caters for those who follow a high-protein diet, while Low Cal Meals Delivered is specifically for those who want to cut down on their calorie intake.

Micheal Dyer and Conor McCallion, founders of Clean Cut Meals
Micheal Dyer and Conor McCallion, founders of Clean Cut Meals

The market for these services is growing. Both Drop Chef and Clean Cut Meals now deliver nationwide, with 35% of Clean Cut Meal’s weekly delivery going outside the Dublin area. It seems that no matter where you are in Ireland, there are people who don’t have the time, energy or inclination to cook dinner every day.

Clean Cut Meal’s customers tend to be busy young professionals and avid gym goers. Most of Drop Chef’s customers are interested in maintaining a healthy lifestyle but are lacking the time to plan meals, shop for food and do all the peeling, chopping and stirring that is required to cook a nutritious meal.

The team at Drop Chef has also found that there are those who subscribe to these services for short periods of time. People who are recovering from illness may not be able to shop and cook for themselves. New parents may be so overwhelmed by the relentlessness of a baby’s demands that they can’t leave the house to get to the shops, not to mention cooking.

Meal subscription services offer a lifeline to these people, but they do come at a price. Three meals for one person costs €29.85 with Drop Chef, whereas Clean Cut Meals charges €145 for a full week’s worth of meals for one.

This is a significant amount of money. Is it worth the cost? Just as importantly, do these meals offer the same nutritional value as home-cooked dinners?

Aoife Deane, a registered dietitian based in Cork, understands the need for these subscription services. 

They are probably perfect for people for whom money isn’t an issue, but time is.

“You’re paying for the convenience and you’re also paying for the variety of food. With these services, you don’t end up eating the same dinner every day.”

Communications manager with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute Louise Reynolds says there are obvious advantages for people who are switching from ready meals to a high-quality meal delivery service, adding, “the cost may even be a little cheaper than buying takeaways.”

However, as a mother of four, the dietitian doesn’t think it would work for her. “I don’t see it as a viable option for someone in my situation,” she says. “It would work out very expensive compared with going to the supermarket and buying fresh, seasonal food. Then again, I’m not the target audience for this service. If you’re working long hours and are time poor but cash-rich, this could be a good option.”

According to Deane, most of the meal-prep companies appear to be complying with the latest nutritional guidelines.

“If they are controlling for factors such as limiting red meat consumption to once a week, adding oily fish to the diet once or twice a week, including plenty of fruit and vegetables and minimising salt, they are doing a lot of the work for people,” she says. “Instead of having to think about all of this yourself, it’s all done for you.”

From her professional experience, she also believes that the meals offered by these services are more nutritious than what people are eating otherwise.

“It does seem like they are following healthy eating guidelines, which means that they are better than the average.”

This is especially true if the alternative is a Chinese takeaway or something from the hot food counter at a service station, options that are often high in saturated fats and calories. “These meals are just as convenient as a takeaway, but they offer far more nutrition,” says Deane.

Neither Deane nor Reynolds has any particular worries about the food being pre-prepared or frozen before eating.

“One of the main pieces of health advice we receive is to eat more fruit and vegetables,” says Deane. “The official advice is at least five servings a day. In Ireland, we’re eating on average 2.5. So, worrying about whether it’s pre-chopped or frozen isn’t here or there.

“Vegetables that were chopped yesterday will still have the water bulk and fibre you need. It may be somewhat compromised when it comes to antioxidants and vitamin C but it’s better than not eating vegetables at all, which would probably be the alternative.”

In Ireland we are not eating enough fibre, says Reynolds, “so anything that increases our vegetable intake is to be welcomed”.

Home-cooked food may still be best but it takes a lot of planning and time, often at a premium when you’re working full time.

According to the experts, meal subscription services come in a close second. If you’ve got the money to pay for it, you never need to worry about what’s for dinner ever again.

Why the freezer is your best kitchen aid

We don’t all have the disposable income to spend on meal subscription services, but this doesn’t mean that feeding ourselves and our family should be a daily struggle. By setting time aside for meal preparation at the weekends, we can save on time and energy during the week.

There are other advantages to week-end meal preparation too. It can save us money. Knowing there’s a chicken casserole waiting at home means that we’re less likely to pick up an expensive takeaway after work.

It can also help us to make healthier food choices. We all know what it’s like to reach for a bar of chocolate in a moment of hunger and then regret it later. The chances of doing that are less if there’s a meal in the fridge.

If you’re new to meal preparation, here are some tips that I learned when I was running my café in Dingle and, as a result, had very little time or energy to cook at home:

  • Write out a list of the meals you want to eat the following week. Try to incorporate protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and plenty of vegetables. Try to vary your meals too. It can get very boring if you eat the same thing for dinner night after night.
  • Take a look at the ingredients you’ve got in your fridge and in your store cupboard and write another list of what you need to buy in the shops.
  • When you come back from shopping, wash and dry your fruit and vegetables immediately. This will save time all week long and it will make for easy grab and go.
  • Set aside a couple of hours for cooking. The length of time may vary depending on what you’ve decided to prepare.
  • Plan to cook at least two all-in-one dishes — a lasagne, chilli con carne, or fish pie, for example. Also include a few others that can be assembled quickly. Something like a spicy chicken and vegetable mix to put inside fajitas could fit the bill here.
  • Once all of your dishes have cooled, place in plastic containers or bags and place in the the fridge or freezer.
  • Allow yourself to feel a sense of accomplishment. By making the most of your time at the weekend, you have set yourself up for a week of healthy and stress-free dinners.

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