Meal kits - does the convenience cancel out the flaws?

February 4, 2022

Over the past few years, we’ve tried a number of the home-delivery meal kits available online. Most require a subscription, many offer vanishing discounts, and all of them generate abundant waste from the packing materials required to ship perishable foods. On a recent trip to The Fresh Market, I noticed they also offered meal kits of two different types.

The first version, called the Little Big Meal, features a set of ingredients to assemble a specific menu. For example, several weeks ago they offered fajitas, where customers selected chicken or beef strips, then collected tortilla shells, sliced vegetables, sour cream, shredded cheese and a seasoning mix – all arranged around the cooler holding the refrigerated items. These are designed to feed a group of four people at a reasonable price point.

Last week, they offered a hibachi meal made with a choice of chicken, pork or shrimp served over rice. The veggies were pre-chopped, and two sets of sauces were available. The final element of the meal was a choice between spring rolls and potstickers. Based on the instructions, this seemed quite simple to prepare and offered lots of options to personalize the meal.

Another version of their meal kits is called just that, and the kits contain pre-packaged ingredients bundled together. We chose the lemon caper salmon filets with couscous and asparagus. This kit made two servings for just under $20 – less than a restaurant meal would cost for one person, but higher than buying the ingredients instead of the kit. And, the experience was a bit uneven.

On the positive side, the salmon was perfectly fresh and trimmed of skin. There was a generous amount of asparagus, but it had been randomly chopped instead of cut into uniform pieces. The couscous could have been cooked stovetop in about 10 minutes, but they opted to precook the grains and have them reheated in the microwave.

My major disappointment was the lemon caper sauce. The image on the packaging shows a bright-yellow glaze studded with capers. In the photo of our version, the sauce is more like a brown gravy, and we had to add more capers from the jar in our refrigerator. I couldn’t taste any lemon and wished I had thought to grate some zest into the sauce to brighten the flavor.

The one other thing about the kit was how it instructed you to prepare each ingredient sequentially, instead of breaking out another skillet to cook everything at once. Following the directions allowed the asparagus, couscous and salmon to cool off while the gravy heated. If I were to make this again, I would start simmering the gravy at the same time the asparagus steamed and the salmon seared.

And, there’s the question – would I try this again? I think if I was in a pinch for time or if the cupboard was bare, I’d pick up one of these quick and easy kits. But, if I was already in the store to buy the kit, why not just buy the ingredients to make the dish? That way, I could control what went into the sauce, making sure to include lots of lemon and capers. If you’d like to make this salmon dish, I’ve included the recipe to grill it stovetop as well as cooked in parchment, along with two sauces.

Couscous & Asparagus*

1 C pearl couscous

1 1/2 C vegetable broth

1 T olive oil

1 bunch asparagus

2 T water

salt & pepper, to taste

In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a boil over high heat. Stir in couscous and cover; cook until tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the woody sections at the base of the asparagus stalks. Trim into 1-inch pieces. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium and add the asparagus. Cook for 2 minutes, then add water. Cover and steam until tender, about 3 minutes. In a serving bowl, combine couscous and asparagus, tossing to blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper. *Adapted from The Fresh Market.

Lemon Caper Sauce

4 T unsalted butter

1 minced garlic clove

2 T fresh lemon juice

1 t lemon zest

2 t capers

2 t snipped chives

Melt the butter in a small skillet over low heat. Add the garlic, lemon juice, lemon zest, and capers. Bring to a simmer and continue cooking over low heat for about 30 seconds. Add the snipped chives and serve immediately.

Creamy Dill Sauce

3/4 C sour cream

2 t Dijon mustard

1 grated garlic clove

2 T chopped fresh dill

1 t lemon zest

2 T lemon juice

1 T milk

1/4 t salt

1/4 t white pepper

Whisk ingredients together until smooth. Serve over grilled fish or chicken. Store leftovers tightly covered in the refrigerator.

Skillet Salmon*

2 6-oz salmon filets

salt & pepper

1 T olive oil

Trim the skin from the salmon, if desired. Season filets on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a skillet. Add salmon and cook 3 to 4 minutes on each side, turning once. Serve with herb sauce. *Adapted from The Fresh Market.

Salmon in Parchment

2 6-oz salmon filets

salt & pepper

4 lemon slices

2 T white wine

Preheat oven to 400 F. Place each salmon filet on a rectangular piece of parchment paper. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place 2 lemon slices on each piece of fish. Drizzle each with 1 T wine. Fold paper to enclose the filets and crimp the edges to seal. Bake until puffed and fragrant, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve with herb sauce.




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