Meal kits and smart ovens

During the pandemic as a way to get food without having to go to the supermarket (especially in the early phases when we were seeing panic buying and shortages) I decided to try out one of these meal kit services. For those not aware meal kits are a sort of halfway house between prepared meals and just getting ingredients from the supermarket. They give you a set of pre measured ingredients to the correct portions for specific meals and then you prepare them yourself with varying degrees of effort required.

Initially I went with Hello Fresh having seen a lot of good reviews. My intention was to have the meal kit as my evening meal and then something simple for lunch so I would need 7 meals for a week. None of the meal services I've found seem to allow for exactly 7 meals they will do less they will do more but not exactly 7. Most of them are also geared towards multiple people not a single person like myself.

Dealing with that I went for a 3 meal for two people plan (so I got 6 individual meals by spreading each meal's two portions across 2 days) on their "veggies and meat" and picked the calorie conscious option just for the hell of it might as well be more healthy in what I eat since being inside all the time means less exercise.

The meals come in a box that is insulated and then packed with these freezer gel packs, all of it is supposedly recyclable. The gel packs keep everything cool and stay frozen for days even after I've gotten the box the things will usually stay cold for at least another couple of days so it'll keep things fresh even in transit. Each meal is in a separate paper bag full of the veggies and other ingredients then plastic vacuum sealed bags with any meat (most of the meals I had came with chicken as their protein component) which is packed between the gel packs so it stays coldest. You get to pick from a pretty good selection each week I think I had something like 15-20 different options to choose from and they don't seem to repeat that often. Each week you pick the meals you want ahead of time or let them pick for you they also offered additions like extra meals or extra servings of stuff and even lunches and puddings all for an extra fee of course.

They typically have a protein like chicken then some sort of carbs potatoes or couscous or farro then some veggie like beans or asparagus and they will add some sort of sauce to that.

It's not a effortless process you have to cook the meals yourself cutting peeling chopping everything and it requires a few staples like butter salt pepper that the kit doesn't provide. Each meal comes with an instruction card that takes you through the process step by step with pictures and timings all pretty easy stuff. You need pans and baking trays and a variety of the normal kitchen equipment but nothing particularly special.

The meals were very tasty and I enjoyed pretty much all of the ones I got (a few slipped in arugula/rocket without me noticing which is poison and should be destroyed with fire). Their meals were on the small side portion wise but maybe that's part of the calorie control thing I have heard from others that the they thought the portions were a little small. But it was a nice option to get good meals without going out. For several months I would cook the three meals at the beginning of the week eat half then have the other half for the rest of the week then get something to fill in that last day.

I'm someone that likes cooking but even given that some of the meals get a little involved and sometimes you don't want to spend all that time after work shaving carrots or pickling things.

With that in mind I saw another meal kit option one which included a gadget. The Tovala smart oven and associated meal delivery service.

Tovala make a small (about the size of a microwave or toaster oven) smart oven which has a variety of ways to cook things including steam cooking to allow it to prepare meals faster and with better results and less user action require. It can do a combination of steaming, baking, broiling, toasting, and reheating to cook things and utilizes a barcode scanner or associated app to tell it what combination and when to do those things.

Its meal kit is also individual meals (again not 7 either you can get 6 or 8 and since this is individual meals I don't see why they don't have a 7 option!) and they come as little packs with two foil trays one with a protein and then the other some sort of side vegetable or carbs and you just take the trays apply some sort of sauce to the meat if required whack them in the smart oven scan the barcode press start and 20 min or so later plate it and maybe apply some garnish or topping and you're done very little effort involved.

I've had the tovala machine for the past week and had most of the meals since each are individual that makes for 6 different meals and they have a pretty good selection (maybe slightly less than hello fresh I think with something like 12 options although it shakes it up a bit with the option to swap the side dish around on some of them) the hands off cooking works pretty well and the meals that the thing produces are pretty tasty. The chicken cooks really succulent and moist thanks to the steam, salmon I tried was well done, and the beef based meal I had which was cuban style ropa vieja was well cooked.

It has a little less variety in meals than the Hello Fresh in terms of constituents usually hello fresh would have at least three parts to a meal usually protein veg carb sort of thing most of the time. Tovala's offerings are two parts a protein and then either a carb or a veg side dish occasionally something combining the two. I assume that's just down to their setup of giving you two part meals but so far I've not found the meals feeling bland or unvaried it compensates by having some garnish or topping for extra variety since you are getting a different meal every day it adds variety there too. The portion size seems a little bigger than Hello fresh.

I'm sure it's not perfect for everyone the small oven and individual meals mean it would be impractical for more than one or two people (you can cook multiple of the same meal at once in the thing but if you wanted to cook two different meals you'd need to do them separately probably negating the time saving aspect.

The meal kit is one aspect of the thing the gadget aspect is that you now have a programmable smart oven which can be used to cook dishes from it's app or just of your own devising you can setup programs of varying degrees and times of baking broiling steaming toasting etc. This is an aspect I've yet to test and it's a small oven so I doubt you'll fit any really large things inside. One of the reviews mentioned a spatchcocked chicken recipe that sounded good and at some point I'll probably try. It also has a set of programs for various brands of frozen foods (trader joes and others here in the US not sure about the UK) where you just scan the barcode and it will do the rest.

In terms of cost with tovala you need to buy the oven itself which normally is 300 bucks which is a bit of an impediment something they obviously realized as if you buy it and get their meal service they immediately knock 100 bucks off and then through coupons and referral codes I got that down to 150 bucks which seems ok for a steam capable oven which can be very expensive. The only catch there is you are locked in for 6 meal deliveries (or 6 weeks of them) or else they will require the 100 bucks doesn't seem an egregious requirement. I believe they also have some sort of money back guarantee if you don't like the oven/meals and want to cancel.

Meal kits are not a cheap way to get your meals in each meal is 12 dollars which is a little more than hello fresh at $9 and some of its competitors and going to the supermarket I expect you could get meals for cheaper but in these times where going to get food is a gamble it feels like the extra money to have to do that less is worth it. Also since I'm not in the supermarket when I'm hungry after work I don't end up buying a lot of junk so that's a bonus plus saving time on meal prep is nice. They also make for a lot of packaging it's all recyclable and carbon offset but still. American stuff in general comes in too much packing bread comes in at least two bags the normal outside bag and then a second inside that and biscuits often come in a box with a bag inside with a plastic tray inside the bag with the biscuits individually wrapped in the tray it's fucking ridiculous same thing with a lot of sweets I swear one of these days a bag of mm's will come with each one in its own bag.

I still like cooking and trying out recipe's and such so I don't know if I'll continue the meal kits when this pandemic is past us but even then with the number of meals you can get I still have to cook at least one day of the week so in that respect I can use the meal kits for my work days and then on the weekend when I have time do something a bit different that requires a lot of extra work or time if I feel like it.

I'm sure meal kits are not for everyone but I've been pretty happy with the two I've tried and getting a new gadget is always fun. As to whether I'll keep doing the meal kit thing if we ever get out of this pandemic I don't know. The quality is great I like the meals and convenience is good I don't like the supermarket at the best of times so less time there is good but the extra expense of them is a hurdle long term.


Due to the relentless advertising for Total Fresh on podcasts I was interested to read about your experience.

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