The meal-kit business may be heading for a food fight. On one side: retail giant (and Whole Foods acquirer) Amazon, which recently started selling boxes of pre-measured ingredients and easy-to-follow cooking instructions to some customers. On the other: smaller companies that were already doing this, including HelloFresh, Plated, and Blue Apron, which went public on June 29. But no matter which company emerges victorious, the meal-kit industry is still rife with issues.
Though Amazon’s move sent the newly public meal kit company Blue Apron‘s stock into a tailspin—falling by nearly 11% on Monday—it was an apparent triumph for the kits in general, which have been billed not only as a hot new investment opportunity, but as a way to curb America’s affinity for junk food and eating out.
Numerous studies show that when people cook their own meals with fresh ingredients, they’re more likely to make healthier food, which can lower their risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity. And yet, “it’s hard to convince people to cook when there are so many options that are arguably more convenient, especially if they don’t know how to cook,” says Mark Bittman, author of How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food. That’s why services like Blue Apron—including Purple Carrot, which Bittman helped launch—have attracted so much attention: they promise nothing short of a cooking revolution, one that could touch every household in America. (Time Inc., whose brands include TIME, offers the FreshRealm meal kit service through a partnership with Real Simple and Cooking Light.)
But several years on, the results are mixed. There’s no denying that meal kits have attracted a sizable fanbase: Blue Apron alone netted $795 million in sales last year, and meal kits are considered to be a $2.2 billion global business. But the latter figure comprises well under 1% of the $1.3 trillion food market, and it’s far less than the $14 billion market for preprepared foods. Meal kits “have the potential to be disruptive,” says Darren Seifer, a food and beverage analyst at the market research company NPD Group, who has done extensive research on them. “But they’re a little too small right now.” So far it’s estimated that only 5% of U.S. households have tried meal kits.
Meanwhile, Americans are spending less time in the kitchen than ever. Only about third of all age groups from millennials to people 70 and older cook every day—and only around 44% cook “a few times per week,” according to a recent Harris Poll. “In an ideal world, people would be taught the value of food and cooking at a very early age,” says Bittman. Instead, he adds, they see advertising for pre-made junk food, which can bias them against wanting to cook, or seeing it as a necessity.
There’s also the issue of cost. On average, each meal from a meal-kit delivery service sets patrons back between around $8 to $12. Even Amazon’s kits are reportedly priced between $8 to $10 per serving. And while that may be a bargain for urban dwellers with a certain amount of disposable income, it’s a burden for others: Seifer says 56% of users who give up meal kits cite cost as their main reason for doing so (to say nothing of those who couldn’t afford to try them in the first place). The counter-argument, of course, is that meal kits are intended to replace meals that patrons would otherwise have ordered or eaten at a restaurant. But Seifer says most users report using the kits to replace meals they would have cooked at home—and they’re likely to have paid less if they bought groceries instead.
Convenience is a sticking point, as well. Even with easy-to-follow instructions and pre-portioned ingredients, meal-kit meals can be labor-intensive; some recipes require more than an hour, including preparation and clean-up.
That said, there is evidence to suggest the meal-kit movement is gaining momentum, with experts at the food industry analysis company, The Food Institute, estimating that the market could reach $3 billion in the next few years. Per NPD, the number of American homes that have tried meal kits is up 2% from last year. And today more Americans say they care about the quality of ingredients in the foods they eat than ever before. Yet with logistics master Amazon in the game, it may be hard for smaller companies to compete.
Getting the next generation to want to cook is a challenge, but it may be worth the effort. Bittman argues that if schools reinstated cooking education as part of the curriculum, it might be easier to instill values surrounding food and ensure that people know the basics of how to make it. Changes in food delivery, which are underway now, might also be part of the solution. “I am hopeful that the Amazon purchase of Whole Foods will be a good thing,” says Bittman. “I can envision people ordering the ingredients for a recipe and having them arrive on their doorstep by dinner.” Whether that convenience will translate to more young chefs in the future remains to be seen.