Contemplating Meaning With Meal Kit Services

We need food to survive and, in many ways, our making our food is our making ourselves. We may not farm, we may not fish, but we do make our meals.

It’s something I enjoy even when I don’t enjoy it: I plan the week’s meals on Sunday and go food shopping and, throughout the week, everything is taken care of with this meal plan. On days when I’m tired, there’s a can of soup waiting or some monstrous food from Chipotle. On normal days, I whip something together from memory, from years of studying and trying recipes and knowing what works well together. On special days, an extravagant meal is made for family and friends with a lot of wine. Either way, nothing is that complicated, nothing takes more than thirty minutes to do. On occasion, I will try something new, taking an hour to make with an iPhone guide and patience from any parties who are waiting to eat.

For those like myself in creative industries and a continuing hunger to diversify how we are creative, making food is an easy way to exercise such muscles. It’s a lot like painting to me: you take all these different culinary colors, smash them together, and create a temporal work that you taste your way through. It’s one of the few things in life that are unabashedly good, that I can always trust to fulfill me.

So what happens when you have a meal kit service? Does it all disappear?

I never cared to ask nor did I ever have a desire to try them. No Green Chef, no Plated, no Sun Basket: none. I have beyond a working knowledge in home cooking and entertaining and services as such seem to both strip agency and creativity in how you eat. Yes, I know some people must love these service. Yes, I’m sure many people need such handholding. Yes, I’m sure meal kit services fulfilled a desire for some to get better in the kitchen. That is not me, though.

But, of course, the question remains: what would happen if such a service was tried? Is a sense of self lost?

Well, I did try one out and I have to say that it enabled a bit of a baby crisis. After my friend Lindsay was gifted a Blue Apron box to be delivered when out of town, she asked me if I’d like to give it a try after a similar conversation about meal kit services as such being a redundancy for some. Curious, I decided to give it a try. Why not? At worst, it would be silly and make for a funny story. At best, it would be silly and I would secretly love it.

Neither happened though, despite an extremely well orchestrated study’s release that revealed time freeing creations like meal kit services make you happier. The stages of processing the process of meal kit cooking was strange, like grieving: you shrug off the basil gnocchi and shrimp as a gooey fluke, you become enraged by how much waste every meal produces in plastics and papers and non-recyclable material, you don’t look forward to making a meal that was chosen for you, you try to figure out if said meal of coconut noodles and bok choy would be anything that you would order or eat independent of this service, you accept that what you made isn’t bad and, despite being a foster child whether you willingly subscribe to the service, is something you will likely not adopt into your cooking repertoire as a recipe.

To cook things you otherwise wouldn’t want to make was nice though. It pushed you to try different cuisines and techniques and produce items you never consider. Yet, it was that cooking process that confused, that felt the most alien. You follow a paper, a lightly laminated one, that tells you how to cut things and when to place them, all of which are given to you in exact amounts, for you to simply open, toss, and serve. There is no thinking. You go into culinary autopilot. You feel a sense of euphoria in being cooking while disconnected, truly, to stare at this shiny paper as you stir things. You don’t have to process measurements in your mind. It is all taken care of, for you. You have become a culinary dependent. You have willingly given away your right to think about what you’re eating and how you make what you eat, putting your autonomy on the plate as well. Meal kit services make your life easier but strip you of an identity as a cook. You are processing: not cooking.

Apparently that is part of the appeal too. As the New York Times wrote of the phenomena in 2013, meal kit services help by “saving precious time while offering exotic ingredients and new recipes” while mentioning that the concept is inherently faked, like “play food” instead of something actually requiring effort to make. This is exactly it: instead of going full Soylent by replacing the making and machinations of a meal, it renders you a conduit for pre-cooked food to cooked food. Meal kit services are helpful but they remove the joy of cooking. But, then again, for those truly pinched by time or who desire a domestic handholding, it works.

That, for better or worse, is not me. It was easy to stare into the cobalt chest of the beast, to be embraced by its bulging muscles that turn you too into an unimaginative soup in its arms. I wanted to do that, truly. Yet, by the final meal – a loose take on shakshuka that was supposed to be for dinner and that, blasphemously, included an entire squash – I took to improvising for most of the recipe. The final result was fine but, because of the robotic inclusion of silly business like the squash, the meal was a squishy ratatouille mush mess. It tasted better the day after when remixed into chilaquiles, without the laminated paper directions, without the kitchen nanny state management.

Food isn’t a technology: it’s nourishment. While we love technology, while we love to fall into the embrace of our robotic lords, some things I will never quite latch onto because there is too much of a loss of self involved. Meal kit services were that for me. It’s easy to see who might need this and who might really, truly enjoy it. For me, though, cooking and the culture of eating is too tied to my meaning and to relinquish that to someone else isn’t an added bonus.

I’ll waste my extra time and be more stressed by meals. I’ll manage food prep independent of any pre-packaged ease. To make food is to make the self and, if that is outsourced to a third party, then you might end up with a lot more problems than finding free time.

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