Feeding Ourselves: Thoughts on Cooking and Convenience

Drawing of a bowl a fruit and a pear and orange on a table

I came across this article yesterday that reported the findings of a study showing that “[o]nly 10% of consumers now love to cook, while 45% hate it and 45% are lukewarm about it.”  The 10% number surprised me, as many people in my social circle cook most of their meals and seem to enjoy making their own food.  I’ll admit that I tend to fall into the lukewarm category, though it’s more accurate to say that my desire to cook ebbs and flows.

I know that cooking my own meals is generally healthier and more cost-effective than eating at restaurants.  Cooking can be a lot more satisfying, too.  I don’t live in a big city with an endless number of restaurants, and sometimes I’m just not that excited about my options for eating out.  On occasions when I want a specific dish, my chances of satisfying the craving are sometimes better if I make the dish myself rather than trying to find the precise offering at a local restaurant.  I also imagine that for families with kids and hectic schedules, eating at home is probably easier than going to a restaurant.

On the other hand, when I come home from work in the evening and am already hungry, planning and preparing a home-cooked meal is not always appealing.  Often it just seems easier to go out to eat or pick something up on the way home.  The cooking itself is not really that time-consuming or difficult.  The problem lies in the planning: finding a recipe, making a shopping list, going to the store, etc.

I enjoy cooking most when it’s a creative endeavor, when I’m using up items I already have in my kitchen and combining them in my own way to make a delicious dish, unconstrained by a recipe.  I enjoy it the least when I have to spend forever looking through recipes, trying to decide what I want, hunting for ingredients in the grocery store, then following detailed instructions and hoping the dish turns out as expected, and later trying to find a way to use leftover ingredients so they don’t go to waste.  Some people avoid these drawbacks by preparing a limited repertoire of go-to dishes over and over again, but I get bored easily when I try to eat the same few things week after week.

Photo of a convenience store with food signs and tables outside

Nowadays, there are a number of services designed to take much of the planning and prep work out of cooking, and they seem to be growing in popularity.  When I lived in Pennsylvania, I used Dream Dinners for a while.  With Dream Dinners, you select family meals from a monthly menu, then go to their site once a month to assemble pre-chopped ingredients into freezer bags.  You freeze the meals when you get home and place a few in the refrigerator to thaw each week, then follow the enclosed recipes to prepare each meal.  It definitely cuts down on the planning and prep work, though I found that not all of the meals were the healthiest, and I didn’t love relying so heavily on frozen foods (even though nutritionally, there’s probably not much of a disadvantage to frozen produce).

Last year, I tried Purple Carrot, a vegan meal kit service similar to Blue Apron and Plated (both of which friends of mine had tried and enjoyed).  I wanted to stop eating meat, but I initially struggled with how best to feed myself on a vegetarian diet, as so many of my staple dishes were meat-based.  Purple Carrot helped me to discover creative, delicious vegan recipes that were healthy and generally easy to make, and I didn’t have to search for the recipes or go to the grocery store to find the ingredients.  Additionally, there were no leftover ingredients, which minimized food waste.  One downside was that the service offers customers no choices in terms of which meals they will be making each week, and I didn’t always like all of the dishes.

I eventually paused my Purple Carrot subscription and decided to try Veestro, which is an entirely different kind of company.  Veestro also offers vegan meals, but they are frozen meals and most are single-serving options similar to what you would find in the freezer aisle of the grocery store. I would go online every month or so and select 24-32 meals (to reach the $200 free shipping threshold), and about a week later, a dry-ice-packed box of dishes would arrive at my door to fill my freezer.  These meals were great for healthy, hassle-free lunches that required no planning – I could just grab one on my way out the door in the morning and stick it in the microwave at lunch time.  Unfortunately, the wide-ranging food aversions caused by my pregnancy caused me to take a break from Veestro, but I may pick it back up again in the future.

Most recently, at the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend, I learned about PlateJoy and decided to give it a try.  I only signed up a few days ago, but so far, I love it.  It’s a meal planning service that is much more flexible and customizable than any of the services discussed above.  PlateJoy doesn’t sell you food – you have to go to the grocery store and buy it yourself (although many grocery stores now have order-to-go services can take care of that for you, and PlateJoy works with Instacart if it’s available in your area).  PlateJoy allows you to specify preferences and dietary requirements for each member of your household, and then it generates weekly menus for you that are designed to reduce food waste and use up things you already have in your kitchen.  It generates a shopping list for the week that’s sorted by areas of the grocery store for quicker shopping (i.e., all the produce is grouped together, all the condiments are grouped together, etc.).  For a more detailed overview of what it offers and how it works, I suggest watching this introductory video.  PlateJoy currently offers a ten day free trial, and if you decide to continue with the service, it costs less than $12 per month for a 6-month subscription and less than $9 per month for a one-year subscription.  Having used the service once, I think that it will be well worth the cost because it cuts down on the mental load associated with cooking while still allowing me to buy local ingredients and choose dishes I want to make.

Over to you, readers.  Do you love to cook, hate to cook, or fall somewhere in the middle?  Which meal planning services have you used and what do you think of them?  What tips do you have to make cooking more enjoyable and streamline the process?

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