In Austin, Some Assembly Required for These Meals
By Amy Madden
For Reporting Texas
Though John Harrell is a single father, he doesn’t worry about dinner. Since the Austinite started using a dinner-kit service about a year ago, he knows his meals will be delivered to his doorstep.
“The convenience … is very appealing to a bachelor and single father like myself,” said Harrell, who buys dinner kits from Fairy Tale Meals. “The meals are reasonably priced, flavorful, very easy to prepare, and I do not have to go to the grocery store.”
Dinner kits are a budding trend in Austin among families, young professionals and even students. The kits make cooking easier by providing customers prepared ingredients in exact amounts, eliminating the grocery shopping and prep work.
These days, nearly one-third of all American households are headed by a single parent, and the number of hours that Americans work is slowly increasing. A few hours saved can mean more time with kids.
While critics say such meals can be expensive and even environmentally incorrect, dinner kits have become a popular alternative in Austin, and a few enterprising city-dwellers have started businesses to capitalize on the micro-trend. Though each business has its own approach, the goal is the same: to provide customers with a healthy, home-cooked meal.
Fairy Tale Meals
Price: $11 to $39
Offering: Slow-cooker meals delivered weekly
Kristen Low, 26, wasn’t always able to make a home-cooked meal. As a young professional with a daughter, time for cooking wasn’t something she had a lot of.
“I worked in finance and had long hours and long days,” Low said.
So in October 2012, Low and family friend Allie Ash, 29, co-founded Fairy Tale Meals, a dinner-kit service featuring slow-cooker meals. Fairy Tale delivers every Monday, providing customers ingredients for up to two slow-cooker meals and one salad a week.
“Your meal cooks while you’re away,” Low said, “so you don’t need to add anything else to your busy, long list of things to do.”
Low said the meals, like baked ziti and chicken tetrazzini, are great for families, office lunches and even college students because they are cost effective – a meal that feeds six to eight people is $35 to $39 – and require minimal effort.
“Everyone deserves to come home and smell dinner waiting,” Low said. “It’s a nice treat.”
Price: $21.99 to $39.99
Offering: Half-hour dinners for afternoon delivery or pickup
Peasy founder Megan Clark, 31, knows from experience that some people like to cook but are too busy to do so.
“When I was working at Sweet Leaf Tea, I was really busy as a brand and innovation manager, and I was so frustrated that I was having less and less time to cook dinner every night,” she said. “I thought if someone could just plan and shop and do some of the up-front prep work for me, then I could just show up at home and actually do the fun part, which is the last half hour of cooking and eating.”
That’s when she started Peasy. The service, which launched in mid-July, prepares its kits in a professional kitchen and distributes them from a food trailer in Central Austin.
Clark said it’s that convenience that makes Peasy appealing: Customers can drop by on their way home from work and get the makings of a home-cooked meal.
“So many people still do want to cook,” Clark said. “There’s a natural conflict there with the current professional lifestyle of most working people.”
Each of Peasy’s kits includes pre-washed, chopped and measured ingredients; pre-cooked proteins; and a recipe that can be completed in half an hour or less.
The kits, featuring meals like chicken paprikash and roast pork pizzaiola, cost about $20 to $40 for two to six servings and are available for office delivery or pickup Monday through Friday afternoons.
“It’s definitely cheaper than going to a restaurant,” Clark said. “And it is definitely healthier.”
Price: $2.49 to $89.99
Offering: 100 different breakfast, dinner, side dish and appetizer kits
Another Austin business has been offering dinner kits – and more – for about three years. Greenling, which specializes in local and organic foods, offers dinner kits as well as breakfast kits, side kits and appetizer kits, among others.
“One of the most exciting things is that it’s helped people get to know local and organic foods,” said Kathryn Hutchison, a Greenling employee. “They’ve been very popular.”
University of Texas graduate Mason Arnold founded Greenling in 2005. After five years of delivering fresh, local ingredients to Austinites’ doorsteps, Greenling began offering meal kits in September 2010.
“The meal kits were really a passion project of Mason,” Hutchison said. “We think they’re really fun.”
Greenling has more than 100 kits, all created in-house by the company’s development team. The kits, from small snacks and drinks to main dishes like spaghetti and quiche, range in price from about $3 to $90.
“The kits are portioned out so there’s no waste,” Hutchison said. “They’re a great way for people with limited time and experience to access organic and locally sourced food.”
‘An Interesting Niche’
While dinner kits can be a big help for consumers, critics note some drawbacks. Food blogger and Austin American-Statesman food writer Addie Broyles said the cost keeps many people from buying them.
“The big downside is that you’re paying for the convenience, and I think that that is pretty prohibitive for a lot of consumers,” Broyles said. “At some point, it becomes even more expensive than just eating out.”
She also noted that the kits generally aren’t environmentally friendly, as all the spices, proteins, vegetables and starches come individually packaged.
“Every time I’ve cooked one of these meals, I have created more trash than I would have if I had purchased the ingredients themselves and just cooked out of my own refrigerator,” she said.
Though she doesn’t think the trend will catch on for the majority of American consumers, Broyles did note that dinner kit services have found a market.
“I think it’s an interesting niche in the Austin food business world,” Broyles said. “There will always be niches.”