One could argue that time is a human’s most valuable resource. How we spend it can affect our mood and daily interactions. Given the finite nature of time, many people consider it a precious and irreplaceable resource that should be used wisely. When it comes to cooking meals at home some people want to spend the least amount of time possible. Our lives are busy and the last thing we want to do when getting home from work is to spend an hour or more cooking in the kitchen, eating, and then cleaning up. Perhaps the solution is meal kits or fresh food boxes. But how fresh are these subscriptions?

Meal kits, which are pre-packaged sets of ingredients and recipes that are delivered to consumers, can be a convenient and time-saving option for people who want to cook at home, and although quick they are not necessarily the same as fast food. Fast food refers to food that is prepared quickly and typically consumed on the go. It is often made with highly processed ingredients and can be high in calories, fat, and sodium. In contrast, meal kits are designed to be cooked at home and typically include fresh ingredients and recipes for home-cooked meals.

sustainable fresh meal kits

Perth Metro customers have reported varying reasons for choosing meal kits. Negative motivations such as not having enough time for home cooking, not enough skills, and expensive once-off ingredients. They find it challenging to source the food required to keep them healthy. Or positives like convenience or better quality delivered by professionals. Varying subscriptions can help those that want to improve their cooking skills (Hello Fresh) or be aware of their nutritional intake (MACROS). Whether you are being mindful of your dietary needs (Dinnerly) or your budget needs (EveryPlate) there is a meal delivery service for you. These consumers recognise that meal kits are a step up from fast food, but they may not quite be ready to cook from scratch at home.

One potential benefit of meal kits is that they can reduce food waste by providing consumers with the exact amount of ingredients needed for a single recipe, rather than having them purchase a whole packet that may go unused. They provide a list of pantry staples to get started and offer simple step-by-step cooking instructions. Food waste discusses the amount of food that is produced but goes uneaten. In Australia, food waste costs the economy around $36.6 billion annually. Food waste can occur at various stages of the food supply chain, from production and harvesting to processing, distribution, and consumption. The sustainability of meal kits and ready-to-go meals depends on several factors, including the ingredients and packaging used, the distance the meals are transported, and how they are disposed of.

excess meal kit packaging

However, the packaging used for meal kits, including single-use plastic containers and insulation materials, can generate waste. Some meal kit companies are working to reduce their packaging waste by using more sustainable materials or by allowing customers to return packaging for reuse or recycling. Sustainable packaging is packaging that is designed to minimize its environmental impact while meeting the needs of consumers and the supply chain. This can include using materials that are renewable, recycled, or biodegradable, as well as designing packaging to be reusable or recyclable. Sustainable packaging can also involve reducing the amount of packaging used or using packaging that is more efficient to transport.

The transportation of meal kits can also have an impact on their sustainability. If the ingredients in a meal kit are sourced locally, it can reduce the distance they need to be transported and the associated greenhouse gas emissions. However, if ingredients are sourced from far away or shipped internationally, the transportation emissions can be significant.

Access to food preparation and cooking facilities, nutrition knowledge and cooking skills are among the top factors impacting community food security. By having food delivered we may also be limiting the understanding of where our food comes from. Then we need to consider the accessibility and distance to these facilities for our rural and remote WA communities. Of course, the availability and cost of fresh ingredients can vary depending on the location, season, and budget. Some people may have limited access to fresh ingredients or may find them too expensive. But constantly ordering Uber Eats is never going to improve your basic cooking skills.

If you don’t have time to cook for yourself and need a convenient and nutritious solution, another option is a prepared meal delivery service. These ready-to-go meals are often developed by dietitians to ensure your portion control and nutritional needs are met. They are still typically made with fresher ingredients than fast food and allow better control of the quality and healthfulness of your food. They are often sold in single containers ready to heat and eat quickly. This single-portion packaging makes them more environmentally friendly than meal kits as the ready-to-go meals generate less packaging waste.

sustainable ready to go meal

Many people value fresh food in home-cooked meals because it is often considered to be healthier and more flavourful than processed or pre-prepared meals. Cooking with fresh ingredients can be a way for people to be aware of what they are consuming, reducing the intake of harmful chemicals or additives that can be present in processed food. We know everyone is struggling with the cost of living and the affordability of fresh food seems to be an easy cost to forgo by supplementing with cheaper alternatives. Our recent blog discussed food security issues caused by climate change. By choosing highly processed convenience foods you are choosing foods that are not consistent with good nutrition, health and well-being.

The way the packaging is disposed of is a contributing factor that may not solely lie with the end user. A manufacturer has a responsibility to provide their consumer with a product that does not damage the environment regardless of how it is disposed of. An “extended producer responsibility” has been implemented in some countries for the tobacco industry and there are suggestions more industries should follow suit.

If you are a food and beverage manufacturer in Western Australia, there is an upcoming event dedicated to preparing your business with actionable solutions for sustainable packaging and food waste innovations. Turning the Dial is on the 27 and 28 February 2023 and you can get your tickets now.

The similarity of meal kits to fast food depends on the specific products and ingredients that are used. But overall meal kits and ready-to-go meals are providing an option for those who want to eat healthier than fast food but are yet to enjoy cooking or master their skills in the kitchen. Overall, the sustainability of meal kits and ready-to-go meals depends on how they are produced, packaged, and transported. Some meal kit companies are taking steps to reduce their environmental impact, so it’s worth researching the brands you are interested in. While you are likely to reduce your food waste with these portioned kits, you may be increasing your single-use packaging waste. Consumers need to consider these environmental factors when choosing a meal delivery service.

Written by Laura Leyland, Farming Champions Committee.

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