Baking a cake has evolved over the years.
When my grandmother learned to bake, she had to buy all the ingredients at the store, including flour, eggs, butter and sugar, and bake the cake from scratch. As time went on, things got easier. You could buy pre-made icing, and companies started putting cake mixes in a box, so all you had to do was add water and turn on the oven. Some are even made in the microwave.
Silicon Valley is now trying to speed up the process for home-cooked meals. Start-ups with names like Gobble, Blue Apron, Marley Spoon, HelloFresh, Plated, Peach Dish, Platejoy and Home Chefall offer variations of the same service: Pay a small fee for a box of food that arrives on your doorstep with premeasured, prepicked and (in some instances) precut and precooked ingredients. All you have to do is heat up the stove, and voilà, you have a “home cooked” dinner for you and your family.
These quick-cook meals are supposed to be healthier and tastier than fast food, yet offer the convenience and speed of takeout.
Making a home-cooked meal for your family can reap countless rewards. Social research has highlighted the importance of eating dinner together.
Children have higher self-esteem, better vocabulary, a more positive outlook on the future and are much less likely to try drugs or get pregnant as teenagers, according to several research papers published in pediatric and scientific journals. These meals, according to studies, are also a parapet against depression and can help children cope with being bullied online.
But should we let these start-ups sit at our dinner table, too?
I recently tried Gobble, which sells “farm fresh 10-minute gourmet dinner kits” that are delivered to your door. You go online, sign up for three meals (I chose the vegetarian options) and the number of people you’d like to “cook” for (in my case, just my wife and I), and a few days later, a refrigerated box filled with three bags of food, one for each meal, arrives at your doorstep.
To make my first meal (a vegetable potpie), I opened a bag of assorted veggies, all prechopped and precooked, and heated them in a pan, with a bag of sauce. I also heated four pieces of precut and precooked pastry dough in the oven. Six minutes later, I poured the veggies into a bowl, topped them with the pastry dough and rang the dinner bell.
Another meal I tried, an Asian omelet,took four minutes to make. It required me to slice open several plastic bags filled with precut vegetables and noodles, which I then sautéed in a pan with an egg mixture I squirted from a tube. Other tubes provided garnish and flavor.
As my wife and I sat down for dinner, I wondered aloud if this was more like cooking or ordering takeout. I’m pretty sure it’s the latter.
Some of Gobble’s competitors come much closer to real prep work. Blue Apron, for example, delivers whole vegetables that you actually have to chop yourself. (Gasp!)
Others, like Sprig, deliver a “healthy and organic” meal that is pre-made, like fancy airplane food. (Almost all of these meal services come with a ridiculous amount of packaging, which may be a turnoff for eco-minded customers.)
So, are these food start-ups good for the home, or yet another setback for the traditional nuclear family?
Lynn Barendsen, executive director of the Family Dinner Project, a group with ties to the Harvard Graduate School of Education that promotes the benefits of home cooking, said it depends entirely on which services you use, who you are, and what you did before these companies came along.
If your family eats pizza every night in front of the TV or laptop, a meal from Gobble or one of its competitors is a much better alternative, Ms. Barendsen said. But if you’re teaching your children about cooking and where food comes from, then you’re depriving them of the full home-cook experience.
“Dinnertime has to do with the prep time and taking your kids to the grocery store,” she said. “It’s the time in the kitchen and it’s also the time afterwards, cleaning up together.”
For low-income families who are eating dinner from a drive-through every night, Ms. Barendsen added, these start-ups are probably no help. Gobble costs $12 to $14 for each meal. Plated charges $12 a plate and Blue Apron is $10 a person.
Ms. Barendsen said the Family Dinner Project is trying to teach low-income families to make dinner for an entire family for less than $20.
Jenny Rosenstrach, author of the book and blog “Dinner: A Love Story,” who has tried some of these services, is in favor of these start-ups if they help get families in the kitchen that were not there before.
But she said there are three downsides: the price, the carbon footprint of the packaging and how they deny children the opportunity to learn about ingredients and food labels. “They should learn what a good tomato looks like,” she said.
I realized another downside when I sat down to my vegetable potpie. The pediatrician for my 3-month-old son gave us a short list of things to help stimulate his brain. Besides playing music and reading him books, one suggestion was to cook in front of him, as a way of talking to him about food and cooking.
The last thing I want is for our son to grow up thinking home-cooked meals arrive in a half-dozen plastic bags and take less than four minutes to cook. That would be like making him a birthday cake in the microwave. Where is the love in that?