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Make way for meal kits

Delivery of food--from groceries to meal kits to ready-to-eat entrees, has grown during the pandemic, and is likely here to stay.

Since COVID-19, consumers have largely been dining at home, but many have turned away from in-person grocery shopping to embrace other options. The pandemic is a big reason the meal kit market in Canada has exploded from an industry worth a few million dollars a decade ago to about $500 million today. While meal kit companies vie for our food dollars, senior-serving meal companies and grocery stores want in on the action too, offering foods for curbside pickup or online ordering and delivery. 

For those who want or need fully-prepared meals and 'heat-and-eat' convenience, well-established providers like Meals on Wheels and Heart to Home Meals are ready to serve, as are newcomers like Ethey, which delivers fresh meals (heat in the microwave) prepared in a zero-waste facility to customers across the country. Industry watchers agree the pandemic has changed how we cook and eat at home--likely for good-- so established grocery chains and meal kit companies are hoping to carve out a share of the growing e-commerce market.

Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, says Canada's meal kit market is maturing, with major players Goodfood, HelloFresh and Chef's Plate continuing to hold the greatest share of the market. Meal kits offer convenient, quick-to-prepare portion-controlled ingredients and recipes for singles, couples and families, at reasonable price points (most offer free shipping, new customer promotions and meat-based or vegetarian meals that range from $5-$10 per person).

Newcomers like B.C.-based Fresh Prep and Ethey also emphasize eco-consciousness and sustainability, which industry watchers say will continue to be a focus for all meal kit providers. Ethey (with around 100 keto, vegan, vegetarian and gluten free ready-to-zap meals) also highlights packaging that is reusable, compostable, and consumable At Fresh Prep, there's reusable, insulated cooler bags--even zero-waste meal kit containers. Fresh Prep estimates it will divert over 400,000 kg of single-use plastic from the landfill in 2022, thanks to its zero-waste program. 

"We want to provide a meal kit our customers can feel good about,” said Dhruv Sood, Fresh Prep co-founder, adding the company uses Alberta beef in its kits and supports local businesses with product add-ons. "Working within the community matters to us as a grassroots business."

Customer reviews for meal kits are largely positive, with users citing the wide variety of meat and non-meat options, ability to customize a delivery program (skip weeks as desired) and fun experimenting with new ingredients as benefits. In a random sampling of offerings from many of the country's meal kit companies, all were found to offer tasty, fairly easy to prepare entrees at a similar cost per serving. Some meals take longer to prepare than typical home recipes, so time savings may not be found at meal time, but rather in the time NOT spent at the grocery store.

Majory grocery chains like Loblaws, Sobeys and Safeway are also diving in to e-commerce, after 2020 saw consumers flock to their computers to order groceries online. While they've experimented with offering meal kits and prepared meals for curbside pickup, online ordering for pickup or delivery is faring better for grocery stores. Safeway's Voila has recently entered the delivery market, joining Loblaws and Save-On Foods in meeting consumer demand for getting groceries to the home in safe, convenient fashion. There are charges for grocery delivery, so consumers should consider that in the food budget.

Fully-prepared meals geared to seniors and home-bound Edmontonians, primarily from Meals on Wheels and Heart to Home Meals, cater to those who don't want to or are unable to spend time in the kitchen fussing with pots and pans at meal times.

Heart to Home Meals offers over 200 entrees, soups and desserts designed for seniors, including meals that are low in saturated fat, low sodium and high fibre. The chef and nutritionist-designed meals mean shopping and chopping can be a task for the back burner, and to-the-door delivery and online ordering makes it a seamless experience, according to the company. See hearttohomemeals.ca for more.

At Edmonton Meals on Wheels, the emphasis is on providing food security and social connections for thousands of clients. The long-time social agency knows saying hello to a volunteer driver and having at least one high-quality meal a day can be critical for clients of the service. Meals on Wheels reports over 90 per cent of clients report feeling more socially connected and independent, as meal delivery service allows them to remain at home. See mealsonwheelsedmonton.org to learn more.