As grocery bills soar, are meal kits worth it? Expert advice to trim food spending

Click to play video: 'Sticker Shock: As food inflation rises, do meal kits help save money?'
Sticker Shock: As food inflation rises, do meal kits help save money?
WATCH: As food inflation rises, do meal kits help save money? – May 21, 2022

Surging prices on food are pushing many Canadians to have a closer look at their grocery bills, with some reconsidering whether the sticker price of meal kits are worth the time saved in the kitchen.

For our Sticker Shock series on beating inflation in your household, Global News spoke to experts this week about when meal kits might be the right choice, and some other ways to save on your grocery bill.

The latest Consumer Price Index (CPI) figures from Statistics Canada on Wednesday show that food inflation is at its highest level in more than 40 years.

The surging price of food — Canadians paid 9.7 per cent more at the grocery store in April compared to last year — was cited as one of the biggest drivers of inflation nationwide.

Inflation hit items such as pasta (up 19.6 per cent) and coffee (up 13.7 per cent) particularly hard, with basics such as meat and fresh fruit up more than 10 per cent, StatCan said.

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“Food inflation is probably the biggest issue affecting households right now,” says Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

Canada is not alone in facing the soaring cost of living, with peer countries such as the United States facing inflation of 8.3 per cent and the United Kingdom pegging inflation at nine per cent — a 40-year high.

But prices at Canadian grocery stores are still surprising to Jainee Gandhi and her family in Toronto.

Having emigrated at the start of the year from Singapore, which is wholly reliant on importing food to stock shelves, she tells Global News she had expected Canadian food prices to be lower in comparison.

Click to play video: 'Food Box Subscription Slow Down'
Food Box Subscription Slow Down

But comparing the $5 she says she could spend for a handful of avocados in Singapore to the $6 or $7 she pays for the same amount in Canada, she admits to a bit of sticker shock in the Toronto grocery stores.

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“Since Canada grows things, we were quite surprised that our grocery cost is about 10 per cent or 15 per cent higher than it was in Singapore,” Gandhi says.

Jainee Ghandi with husband Vaibhav, son Aarav and daughter Chahel in Singapore (left) and Niagara Falls, Ont. Provided

Meal kit value called into question

Gandhi says she spends $400-$500 per week to feed her family of four, including kids aged 12 and seven. She says her household eats home-cooked meals for every lunch and dinner during the week, with occasional restaurant meals on weekends.

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Included in their weekly food budget is the occasional meal kit, which arrives to their doorstep with two-to-three recipes and pre-portioned ingredients every couple of weeks.

Gandhi estimates each recipe from a meal kit costs a total of $50 to feed her family of four, without leftovers to stretch.

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How much you pay for a meal kit depends on which service you subscribe to and how many portions you’re ordering on a given week.

In general, buying for a larger household — or buying more meals at a time for a smaller family — is more economical when it comes to meal kits.

Comparison of costs per meal kit serving broken down by the number of portions per recipe (four or two). Based on orders of four recipes per box, via publicly listed prices on each provider’s website.

Even buying for a family of four, Gandhi says she’s under no illusion that she’s saving any money by opting for meal kits, which tend to cost more per meal than just sourcing the same ingredients from the store.

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“They don’t come into the picture from a point of view of saving money. They definitely come in from the point of view of saving time,” she says, adding that replacing every meal with a recipe from a kit would break her budget in the long run.

Instead, she uses the meal kit option sparingly.

“If I know that my next two weeks are difficult and I won’t get time to chop the veggies, wash the veggies, then that’s when we prefer a meal kit.”

Research from the Agri-Food Analytics Lab shows the popularity of meal kits boomed during the pandemic as Canadians searched for new options to cook at home when restaurants were closed up.

But with inflation stretching grocery budgets thinner than ever, Charlebois believes we’re at a “crossroads” when it comes to meal kit adoption in Canada.

“People want to save money as much as possible instead of paying a premium for pre-cut … meals,” he says.

Estimates from the Agri-Food Analytic Lab show the meal kit market in Canada may have peaked in 2020 with 12.8 per cent of households subscribing to a service, falling today to around 8.4 per cent.

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As the economy re-opens, people are getting back to restaurants and out of their kitchens, Charlebois says, and are leaving their meal kit subscriptions behind. Though many were on-boarded via rebates and coupon codes in the early days, not all who tested services out stuck around to pay full price.

Of the more than one in five Canadians who gave meal kits a try and then cancelled, an overwhelming 78.1 per cent cited the high costs as the reason they ditched the services, according to the lab.

“People are starting to normalize their lives. And meal kits are becoming less of an attractive proposition,” Charlebois says.

Click to play video: 'Sticker Shock: Coping with the rising cost of inflation in Canada'
Sticker Shock: Coping with the rising cost of inflation in Canada

Upsides to the meal kit approach

Experts say there may be some reasons for a household to stick with meal kits or delve into the market today.

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Charlebois says that meal kits remain most popular with younger generations and can be a good way to ease someone who doesn’t feel comfortable in the kitchen into cooking more at home.

Certain types of households, such as a single-parent family where setting aside time to plan meals is scarce, might also get more value out of meal kits than others, he says.

Personal finance expert Rubina Ahmed-Haq says a meal kit recipe every night is likely not sustainable for the average family and suggests once or twice a week as a more affordable frequency.

She agrees, though, that for those looking to balance hectic family life with healthy and efficient eating, meal kits can be a smart, if costly, choice.

“If you are a really busy family and this is something that is going to efficiently get healthy food on the table and you’re going to eat it all, it may be a great option for you,” she tells Global News.

Click to play video: 'Will meal-kit providers survive post-pandemic?'
Will meal-kit providers survive post-pandemic?

One of the ways meal kits can cut down on costs is reducing food waste, a common source of pain on families’ grocery bills.

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The National Zero Waste Council said in February that 63 per cent of food thrown away by Canadians could have been eaten, costing the average household more than $1,300 per year.

“If you basically eat what you buy as much as possible, you will be saving money. And that’s what meal kits do. They have the ability to really measure portions very well,” Charlebois says.

The trade-off when it comes to meal kits is that while the food portions are largely used up, the packaging required to get the recipe to your front door adds to the carbon footprint of your meal.

“If that is your agenda, that you want to put less waste back into the landfill, you’re probably not achieving that goal by getting meal kits,” Ahmed-Haq notes.

Tips to cut down on food waste

There are some evergreen tips to reduce food waste without blowing the bank or racking up plastic packaging.

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A little forethought can go a long way, Ahmed-Haq says.

She encourages families to prepare a list before hitting the grocery store, which helps insulate you from impulse purchases.

Consulting a flier can also let you plan around that week’s sales.

Doing a quick inventory of your fridge and pantry before leaving the house can ensure you don’t double up on a particular item you already had, raising the odds that one of those purchases will go to waste.

“If you’re not making a list, you’re already kind of setting yourself up for failure,” Ahmed-Haq says.

“Even if you’re doing a quick trip, just take two minutes to do a little round of your kitchen to make sure you’re not buying things that you don’t need and that you’re actually buying something that’s going to serve you and your family when it comes to your meal plan.”

Ahmed-Haq acknowledges that the prevailing advice among finance experts might be to plan only a single trip to the grocery store per week, but she pushes back on that when it comes to reducing waste.

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Doing grocery trips every two to three days might not be feasible for every household based on situations like cars and gas prices, she notes.

But when it comes to perishable items, she says reducing the time between visits will help ensure you’re not pushing certain foods to the back of the fridge only to find fuzzy mold growing on them a week later.

“We forget about those zucchinis and we find them three weeks later and they’re soggy in a bag. And you think, ‘Wow, I just wasted three or $4 right there because I have to throw them out.’”

— with files from Global News’s Anne Gaviola

Click to play video: 'Gardening to save money'
Gardening to save money

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