By Paul Wynn
Imagine cooking a meal that not only tastes good, but also is easy to make. The food is already in your refrigerator, the ingredients are premeasured, simple directions are provided, and your nutritional needs are met without too many excess calories.
Welcome to the world of meal-delivery plans and meal-kit services — a popular new trend in eating and cooking that is sweeping the country and helping time-starved people get back in the kitchen. These services appeal to those who want to cook but don’t have the time to plan meals, buy ingredients, and cook dinner. It removes the anxiety many people experience trying to figure out “what’s for dinner.”
How do these plans work? You start by going online and choosing from a menu of meals, from basic to gourmet. Some services deliver frozen, precooked meals that need only reheating. But the majority of services deliver meal kits with all the fresh ingredients needed to prepare a homemade meal.
With rapid-delivery methods championed by Amazon, meals are shipped to your door in mini coolers containing your chosen entrees, along with premeasured and sometimes prechopped ingredients, including everything from creams and sauces to spices and garnishes.
There are a wide variety of meal options — meat, pasta, fish, vegetarian — to suit anyone’s tastes and preferences. More importantly, the nutritional ingredients often are spelled out with each meal. For people living with diabetes, it’s easy to choose ones with the right level of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, and fiber.
“These meal-delivery plans are a fantastic idea to get people back in the kitchen and get to know ingredients again,” said dietitian and diabetes educator Sarah Haveman with the Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, Iowa. “If you’re bored with the same old store-bought foods and ready meals, using a home-delivery meal plan is the way to get back to eating real food again.”
It can take about 20 to 40 minutes to cook a meal, but it might take longer for those who are not as comfortable in the kitchen. The kits come with detailed step-by-step instructions with photos to make it easier to follow. Prices vary from about $8 to $15 per meal, with shipping typically free. There are meal plans for individuals and for families, including kid-friendly options.
“Trying one of these plans is tempting because diabetes runs in my family and cooking healthy meals every night is not easy,” said marketing executive Shirley Johnson of Atlanta.
Within the past few years, a number of companies have entered the meal-delivery arena, serving millions of customers around the country. The largest by far is Blue Apron, named from the French cooking system, in which blue aprons are worn by the apprentices — those learning to cook. The New York–based company ships about eight million meals a month and appeals to gourmet-leaning consumers, with options that include quinoa patties, sautéed asparagus, and shiitake mushrooms.
Other companies serving the continental U.S. include Hello Fresh, Plated, and Chef’d. Many regional and local companies also have joined the space, most of which can be found through an online search. For example, MetabolicMeals serves most of Wisconsin, SunBasket reaches the West Coast, and Real Meal focuses on the Atlanta area. San Franciscans have a wide variety to choose from including Munchery, Forage, Platejoy, and Sprig. And the New York area has its own assortment of plans, including Manhattan Zone for the tristate area and Maple, which serves only lower Manhattan.
Specialized meal plans also exist for different food preferences and tastes. Vegans can choose meals from PurpleCarrot. If you prefer Southern cuisine, PeachDish’s chefs create Southern-inspired recipes. Gluten-free meals are available through several plans, including Freshly, Healthy Chef Creations, and 22 Days Nutrition.
While most meal plans do not offer specific options for people with diabetes, a few cater to the community. Newly launched service Anemone was developed by a neurologist specifically for people with diabetes. The plan claims to prevent Type 2 diabetes or put it into remission while helping customers lose weight. The program provides breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus two snacks. Currently, the program is available in the Washington, D.C., metro area, and there are plans to roll it out nationwide.
Chef’d recently signed an exclusive deal with the American Diabetes Association to create about 40 of its recipes.
Jenny Craig has developed a meal plan to help better manage diabetes. In an independent study, those participating in the “Jenny Craig for Type 2” program “lost three times more weight and achieved a lower HbA1C of 6.6% as compared to 7.5% than those receiving usual care,” according to the company. They also showed greater improvements in HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides. Available only online, Jenny Craig’s diabetes meal plan includes the option to speak with a consultant to help customers reach weight-loss and diabetes goals.
NutriSystem D offers frozen meals for those with diabetes to help promote weight loss and stabilize blood sugar. In clinical studies, participants lost weight, reduced HbA1c levels by an average of 0.7%, and lowered total cholesterol, according to the company.
Another plan, bistroMD, provides nutritional plans for those looking to lose weight. In addition, it offers meal plans for those with diabetes, those on gluten-free diets, and older Americans (Silver Cuisine). Founded by weight-loss expert Caroline Cederquist and her husband, a chef, meals are delivered frozen and fully prepared, so all you need to do is reheat them.
“We offer a few desserts, like a high-protein gelato and a low-calorie cheesecake, for those with a sweet tooth,” said Cederquist. “These are portion-controlled and a much better option than grabbing a bag of cookies.”
Todd Ferrell of San Francisco has been a bistroMD customer for several months and credits the plan for losing 27 pounds. Diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in October 2015, Ferrell was in the habit of eating at fast-food restaurants between client meetings. After taking a nutrition class through his health plan, Kaiser Permanente, he knew it was time to start eating better. But he also knew he had no time for or interest in cooking. He heard about meal-delivery plans and decided to try bistroMD’s prepared meals for those with diabetes.
“After only three months, my A1C and sugar levels had dropped, and my doctor was really pleased with my progress,” said Ferrell. “I haven’t started taking any medications and hope that I won’t have to if I stick with the meal plan.”
Having diabetes meals available is a nice option, but it doesn’t have to be your only option, said dietitian and diabetes educator Haveman. People living with diabetes shouldn’t limit themselves to meals labeled diabetes-friendly. “There’s a huge variety of diabetic foods in stores, but it really should be more about healthy eating,” she said.
Not all meal delivery services are the same in terms of nutritional content. Some are lower in protein and higher in carbohydrates and sugars. Double check the nutritional facts online when choosing your menu.
Blue Apron, for instance, provides a calorie count and list of ingredients but no other nutritional facts. In contrast, HelloFresh and bistroMD provide a breakdown of calories, cholesterol, protein, fats, saturated fats, carbohydrates, sodium, sugars, and fiber.
“We provide all the nutritional content up front, but customers still can reach out to us with specific questions or needs. We can reduce the portion size or opt out of an ingredient to reduce the carbohydrates,” said Rebecca Lewis, head dietitian and brand ambassador at Hello Fresh.
Lewis said meal-delivery plans help address the major barriers to cooking at home: time and convenience. “Self-confidence in the kitchen is also a major obstacle,” she said. “If you want to empower yourself as a person living with diabetes, you need to enable yourself to be comfortable in the kitchen.”
Talk to your doctor or dietitian to make sure the meals meet your dietary needs. “It’s important to know if the protein is high enough in the meals so it will help make you feel full and make sure you are getting the nutrients you need for a balanced diet, including protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats,” said Toby Smithson, a certified diabetes educator and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (www.eatright.org). “Meal-delivery plans are a good alternative if they help you to make healthier eating choices, but they are not good if your blood glucose levels are not in control.”
Meal-delivery plans have attracted attention from chefs and companies interested in joining the trend. Sara Moulton, a well-known food writer and author of Home Cooking 101, told The New York Times she might go into business with a meal-delivery company. Chef Jamie Oliver, known as the Naked Chef and the Food Revolutionary, has joined HelloFresh to develop meals people can cook on their own.
“His recipes typically are lower-calorie, lower-carb recipes, but sometimes there will be a pasta dish in there,” said Lewis.
Meal-delivery plans also have created opportunities for chefs and companies to lend their names and recipes. Chef’d has partnerships with 84 chefs and companies, among them The New York Times and Crown Publishing imprints Clarkson Potter and Ten Speed Press, which provide recipes the Chef’d culinary team packages into meal kits.
What most meal-delivery plans have in common is that they have an army of chefs working in test kitchens to create several recipes each week based on seasonal ingredients. Teams get their inspiration in many places — from family recipes, dinners out or trips to local farmers’ markets.
In 2015, HelloFresh’s culinary team created 365 recipes, with carbs ranging from 40 to 100 grams and an average carb count of 70 grams. This year, it plans to offer even more meal choices, said Lewis. “We will offer at least three meals a week that are less than 650 calories with a carb count under 60 grams. At the end of the day, we are trying to make cooking fun again and make our customers realize that cooking is not this intimidating chore.”
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