Meal kits are advertised as a convenient way to cook from scratch at home.
But are they healthy? It depends, say nutrition experts.
“I think every company will offer recipes to make at home that are very health-conscious, and very indulgent,” said registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom.
“They really run the gamut.”
In late March, Global News journalists tested meal kits from four different companies: GoodFood, Chef’s Plate, HelloFresh and Fresh City Farms. You can read our reviews of the recipes here, but for a look specifically at their nutrition content, we asked Rosenbloom to analyze their ingredients.
“There were recipes that were probably too low in calories to be considered a dinner. And there were recipes that had enough calories for two or three dinners,” she said. In some cases, she noted that nutrition facts provided by the company were hundreds of calories off from her calculations.
While her analysis was unscientific, and just based on ingredients and their amounts, she thought that some companies’ information wasn’t “remotely close,” she said. In some cases, she believed that added salt or oil wasn’t included in the company’s analysis, even though it was mentioned in the recipe.
HelloFresh, which also operates Chef’s Plate, said in a statement that their nutrition facts tables are based on ingredient-level nutritional information from their food suppliers. They also include two nutrition facts tables with each recipe: “The first displays the nutritional information for all the ingredients provided in the paper kit bags. The second displays the nutritional information for the final plated meal, which includes proteins and additional ingredients such as salt or oil added in the cooking process.”
So, one table included the chicken for the “Almond-crusted chicken” and one did not.
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Jenn Hay, chief marketing officer for Fresh City, said that they are making adjustments to the nutrition information for two of the recipes tested by Global News.
GoodFood did not respond to a request for comment.
But whether or not the meal kits are as advertised, they’re not always healthy, Rosenbloom said. “Sodium was all over the map, from low in sodium to enough sodium for three days’ worth.”
“Same with fat, same with protein. Some were too high, some were too low, and some were great.”
It depends on the precise recipe you choose, she said. But she also believes it’s important to note what kind of meals these kits are replacing for you.
“For someone who relies all of the time on takeout, ultra-processed food, like I’m thinking A&W, McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, these are definitely going to improve your eating habits because they have a more well-rounded variety of protein and there are more vegetables in them,” she said.
“If these are replacing a home cooked meal that uses fewer ingredients like really salty soy sauce or lots of butter and oil, or more vegetables, than that might not be as healthy as something you cook at home.”
“Generally speaking, meal kits are healthier than eating out,” said registered dietitian and owner of Dietetic Directions, Andrea D’Ambrosio. But, “They may be less healthy than cooking at home.”
“At home specifically you have the option to include more vegetables in your cooking, you can limit salt intake, you can choose high-fibre alternatives. You can do those healthy swaps when cooking at home,” she said.
She also worries about the loss of an important food skill: meal planning.
“One of the biggest disadvantages is that the skill of cooking involves grocery shopping and planning meals and also prioritizing nutrition. When we have meal kits it becomes harder because we’re not getting practice in these areas,” D’Ambrosio said.
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Rosenbloom sees these kits as a good stepping stone for people who are just getting started cooking for themselves. “I think that overall anything that’s going to get people in their kitchen cooking more meals and hopefully eating more meals with family or friends is a good thing.”
Most meal kit companies offer a few choices for your meal. So, D’Ambrosio said, you can pick recipes ahead of time that seem healthier, if that’s important to you. She suggests looking at the calories and the salt, as well as the amount of vegetables in a dish.
“They could even think about the new food guide as a composition for their meals. So even if they were looking at having half their plate filled with vegetables – does this chicken cacciatore have half a plate of vegetables?”
“And if the answer is no, perhaps they can supplement it with a salad on the side or maybe they can add a couple of handfuls of spinach to that dish to bump the veg higher.”
Overall, Rosenbloom thinks that convenience and taste, not nutrition, are the top draws of a meal kit. “I just would caution people to order it because the food tastes good and they want to try it and they want to enjoy it. Don’t order it because you think your meal is going to have 400 calories or whatever they’re claiming.”