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Are meal boxes on the menu for FIRE seekers?

This article on meal boxes is by The Mr & Mrs from Team Monevator. Check back every Monday for more fresh perspectives from the Team.

For years, money slipped through the fingers of The Mr and me. Our outgoings kept pace with – and often outstripped – our earnings.

Even once we’d noticed this insidious ‘lifestyle creep,’ our immediate options seemed limited. 

We had little scope to increase earnings [1], invest savings, or slash housing or travel costs.

But we could cut other spending. Significantly.

Our fight back began with food.

Ending the bloat

For the past decade, we’ve experimented with ways to feed a family of four (plus dogs [2]) on a tight budget. Our efforts have ranged from discount stores to tending an allotment.

Yet holding down our food costs was a slog.

The Mr has always loathed shopping, particularly supermarket shopping. And I resented the time and energy I spent planning, prepping, and cooking nutritious food for an unenthusiastic family.

However, swapping household roles would be worse!

Every so often, tiredness, boredom, or disorganisation would get the better of us. We’d rebel against our self-discipline and seek a quick fix.

Comfort snacks. Unscheduled takeaways. Blowout restaurant meals. All bad for the budget and bad for our waistlines.

Each lapse would prompt tough measures to get us back on track.

This yo-yo scenario was how matters seemed set to continue, until…

Opportunity knocks

Five years ago, on a day when The Mr was home alone, a vivacious sales rep called by. The rep was signing up customers for a new subscription food service.

The Mr: I don’t remember using the word ‘vivacious’ but maybe my description conveyed it.

When I returned home, The Mr excitedly brandished glossy leaflets at me and explained we no longer had to eat crappy food. In fact, the rep would be back later to collect our payment details.

The Mr: For the record, this is literally the only time I have ever bought anything sold door-to-door. But – just sometimes – good things can happen this way!

I flicked through the blurb. So, there were companies that specialised in delivering meal kits to your door?

Wow – didn’t we already have online shopping?

When the rep returned, I was ready with a stern expression and my arms crossed. No way was I spending extra money and more time in the kitchen, whatever fantasies The Mr might be entertaining.

I said to the rep: “Sell meal boxes to me.”

The pitch that got us into meal boxes

“Imagine that a large box – carefully packed with fresh ingredients – lands on your doorstep each week. You’ve chosen the delivery date, some delicious meals, and the number of servings you require.

The menu contains more than 40 meal options. These change on a weekly basis. High-quality seasonal ingredients are bought in bulk and the savings passed on to you. There’s minimal packaging and minimal waste as you buy only what you need. Meals are planned by professional chefs and are healthy, nutritious, and portion-controlled. Clear step-by-step instructions and timings are available online or on reusable recipe cards.

It’s easy to suspend delivery if you’re away. Or to alter the number of meals required. There’s no need to trawl the supermarket aisles or to fret over balancing the family’s dietary needs.

We aim to deliver fine dining at home at a very competitive price.

Any questions?”

Reader, I signed up… on a discounted trial basis.

The Mr: Phew!

Meal boxes unpacked

It’s tricky to compare exact like-for-like options between the various subscription services. Some have tried though: BBC Good Food recently analysed [3] meal kits from the main UK providers.

For the budget-conscious Monevator reader, the best value is usually a family box containing three or four meals for four or five adults (or two adults and three kids).

Introductory discounts for new customers can reduce costs for a few weeks while you try out a service.

Fixed-price family boxes are offered by HelloFresh [4] (a German company that began UK operations in late 2012) and Gousto [5] (appeared on Dragon’s Den in 2013).

During the pandemic, Morrisons entered the field [6] with a meal-kit box containing five family meals. But while the cost is much lower, Morrisons doesn’t offer a choice.

Not falling into the budget meal bracket, but potentially useful for post-FI [7] readers, is UK company The Mindful Chef [8]. It’s aimed at the health-conscious and caters for (some) dietary needs ( for example gluten-free).

The Mindful Chef also offers meal boxes for one person.

For comparison purposes, The Mindful Chef’s family box (three meals) varies in price according to the recipes chosen. A test selection costs £64, or £6 per portion.

Note: prices quoted were noted on 31 July 2021 and do not include any promotional discounts.

But is it good value?

When we started using meal-kits, I obsessively price-checked each recipe against buying the same ingredients from the supermarket.

On the whole it was roughly equal, though some proved more expensive.

However I was not including delivery charges or petrol costs. Nor the re-planning on finding key ingredients were out-of-stock. Nor had I put any monetary value on the time that The Mr and I were saving.

The Mr: These are not to be ignored. And we find some ingredients (like Henderson’s Relish) aren’t even stocked by the local supermarkets.   

However for the geeks out there, we price-checked a recent Gousto recipe.

Gousto: chunky veg stew with goat’s cheese

Matching the exact quantities – regardless of actual packaging amounts – for this meal against our three nearest supermarkets:

But wait! Unless you’re buying at a market, it’s tricky to buy exact quantities. Most food is sold pre-packaged, or bottled in set amounts. While you may end up with a larger quantity that lasts longer, it will cost more at the outset.

Assuming that you had none of the ingredients – except olive oil, which Gousto also requires as extra – we recalculated the costs of this recipe using the closest packaging match and loose veggies (where these are available or work out cheaper).

We’ve also given a portion-cost for consistency, although you will have surplus ingredients like pumpkin seeds for other meals:

Again Gousto’s £2.98 per portion charge holds up fairly well by comparison.

I hope you can see that meal boxes are not the luxury purchase you might have thought they were.

Not to taste

Meal boxes will not suit everyone. Here are some who might pass.

Rarely in – If no one’s around to take delivery or there’s nowhere sensible to leave a package, then meal boxes don’t make sense.

Those on a tight budget – Simpler low-budget meal plans can be quite a bit cheaper per head. If you’re time-rich and cash-poor, meal kits may raise your costs.

The Mr: The really budget-conscious people I know look for alternatives to supermarkets. For example, Suma [9] deliver wholefoods very cheaply but only in bulk. You need somewhere to store it, or else to club together with other households.

Foodies – While meal-kits may inspire some of us, others will be reluctant to outsource all their fun. Some of my friends spend hours poring over recipe books and heading off to the shops with a long list. There’s no accounting for taste…

The Mr: I know some people who need to ‘eyeball their vegetables’. It won’t work for them either.

Tasting notes

Originally, I saw the costs of a regular meal box as being akin to having a fixed-rate mortgage.

There’s a certain relief in fixing your mortgage costs, provided you don’t then agonize over whether the variable rate is lower.

I thought meal boxes would similarly make things simpler, but also add to our monthly spend on food.

In fact, our spending has decreased, despite the national rise in food prices [10].

One reason is that having restaurant-standard meals at home means we don’t feel deprived and so we rarely eat out these days.

Plus nobody in our family now minds our own boring cheap meals that help to balance out costs for the remainder of the week.

We create far less food wastage. Yet we don’t overeat because something is about to go off and we can’t bear spoilage, either.

And – saving the best until last – armed with clear instructions and all the ingredients, our kids have turned into good and confident cooks.

In short, I spend less time in the kitchen. The Mr spends less time at the shops. The family eats well. And spending on food is kept in check.

It’s an approach that works for us.

See all The Mr & Mrs’ articles in their own archive [11].