Meal kits have been migrating away from mail order and into grocery aisles over the past year. But is the next step in meal kits a blast from the past? Is the race to create more cooking convenience turning meal kits into just a fancier version of frozen dinners? And does it matter?
I started thinking about this when Stouffer’s dropped us a note this week to let us know about its new line of frozen meal kits. The Stouffer’s Complete Family Meal Kits, which started rolling out earlier this month, cost $15.99 each, serve a family of four, and come in Roasted Tuscan Style Chicken, Braised Pork, or Sesame Chicken flavors. Ingredients are pre-chopped, take less than 25 minutes to prepare and will last 12 months in the freezer if you want to wait.
On its face, the Stouffers frozen meal kits solve a lot of the issues we have with the more traditional mail order meal kit products:
- The food is pre-measured, pre-cut and all laid out in individual bags
- Meal components require little work to reheat (just boiling, frying or microwaving)
- They don’t have to be eaten right away
- They don’t arrive on our doorstep in a monstrous box with excess packaging
While you’re grabbing a Stouffer’s meal kit from the store freezer, you may also notice that Tyson has its own version of the frozen meal kit. In fact, as my colleague, Catherine Lamb pointed out earlier this year, we are in a frozen food renaissance, and meal kits are no exception.
In September of this year, Kroger launched its “Easy for You!” frozen-food-meets-buffet-cuisine line. As I wrote then, Easy For You! “lets customers bundle together frozen entrees and sides into a package that can be taken home and heated up. Selections include prime rib strips with mushroom and gravy, gumbo and mac and cheese among others. There are even videos at the display to show customers how to prepare their food. All meals are sold by weight at $7.99 a pound.”
Easy for You! may not technically be a meal kit, but it’s pretty darn close. When you consider that Kroger started rolling out its Home Chef-brand meal kits in October, it’s not hard to see them combining the two lines into one frozen “Easy for You-Home Chef!” offering at some point.
Meanwhile, over in Belgium, Mealhero is doing just that, selling frozen food meal kits components that you can mix and match and reheat in an accompanying countertop appliance. Back here in the U.S., First Chop sends out boxes of pre-made frozen meats that you just sous vide to prepare.
And I suspect we’ll be seeing more frozen meal kits options on the way.
From a business perspective, frozen meal kits make some sense as there’s less logistical pressure to ship perishable ingredients in a timely fashion. And with ingredients already cut and cooked, there isn’t a need for odd shaped containers to protect something like a whole tomato, so companies can rely on more standardized packing materials (and, in theory at least, cut down on waste).
From a consumer perspective, frozen meal kits make sense because you can pick them up as you do your normal shopping and keep them in the freezer to eat whenever you want.
As a child of the ’70s who grew up eating his fair share of Swanson’s salisbury steak dinners, it’s just funny to see old ideas get new packaging. But at the end of the day, whether meal kits are just refashioned frozen dinners doesn’t really matter. There won’t be just one meal kit solution, or one meal kit form factor. There will be many, as companies carve out their own niche: organic meal kits, meal kits that teach you how to be a better cook, specific diets meal kits, and meal kits that come in a box from the frozen section of the grocery store.