Meal kit’s nutrition: weighing up the pros & cons

Elena Vardanian
15.10.2021
4 min read

Meal kits have become synonymous with convenience, pre-cooked meals or something already pre-measured ready to be used right away. They keep your diet goals on track, and give you precious time back each week, but are they healthy enough? Is there any difference between “the Box” and restaurant delivery? You may say that everything starting from ingredients and ending with recipes is transparent, but all the nutritions are hiding somewhere in between, so all we can do is to lean on meal kits’ good intentions.

Australian scientific fruits

From the researchers’ perspective meal kits are “healthy” enough. However, all papers were based on Australian meal kits services and despite being so popular, there was little research into users and potential nutritional benefits of meal kits.

Australian nutrition and dietetics researchers – including one from the Caring Futures Institute – say “nine different ingredients were found in a typical recipe which required an average of three vegetables and three ingredients from the home pantry”. During the 12-month period the researchers reviewed 251 unique recipes. Per serve (median size 580g), meals contained a median of 2840 kJ (678 kcal) of energy, 58 g carbohydrate (14 g sugar), 44 g protein, 28 g total fat (8 g saturated fat) and 839 mg sodium. Median energy from macronutrients was total fat (38%), carbohydrates (34%), protein (25%) and saturated fat (11%) (1).

Another group of researchers from University of Sydney, analysed and compared five popular commercial meal kit subscription services available in Australia – Dinnerly, HelloFresh, MarleySpoon, Pepper Leaf, Thomas Farms Kitchen and found out that all meals were high in salt (with over 30% of the suggested dietary target for sodium) and fat. Fat contributed 40 to 60% of the average total energy content of the meal (with more than 30g on average per serve). Energy content and amount of whole grains differed,  fibre content met the suggested dietary fibre target for women but not men (2).

What to look for in a meal kit

Nutritionally tailored meal kit, according to nutritionists, should include “non-starchy veggies (about a half a plate), quality-sourced proteins (whether from plants or animals), and healthful fats (mainly from plant sources, like nuts, seeds, olives, avocados, or their butters or oils). Ideally, starchy carbs come from veggie sources, like sweet potatoes and butternut squash, or whole grains, like brown rice and quinoa” (3). Best option is a service that offers plant-based or Mediterranean options. Since most services are flexible in choosing recipes, look for one that tagged Mediterranean or vegetarian.

For most meal kits nutrition information is not hidden, but better check this before subscription to ensure your kit meets your needs and is a healthy option rather than a riff on an indulgent restaurant meal. Here are examples of meal kits’ recipes that are nutritionally unbalanced:

  • Sodium. Chicken recipe from Blue Apron, for example, contains 1,060 mg of sodium (4) (almost the half or recommended per day intake according to Dietary Guidelines for Americans). Japanese gnocchi from the Purple Carrot deliver 650 mg (5). Creamy feta and cucumber flatbreads from SunBasket contain 610 mg, but for the last one salt is kosher, not a pantry one) (6).  Add only half of the salt called for in the recipe. You can always add a little more at the table!
  • Fiber. Do not underestimate fiber daily intake and add extra fiber According to the American Heart Association, the daily value for fiber is 25 grams per day on a 2,000-calorie diet for adults (women under 50 — 21 to 25 grams per day for men under 50 — 30 to 38 grams per day) (7).
  • Fat and calories. Meal kit recipes can’t guarantee you low fat food by default. For instance, HelloFresh pasta casserole dish delivers a whopping 950 calories per serving and 44 grams of fat, of which more than one third is saturated! (8)

The bottom line

Meal kit seems like a popularly accepted transition from takeaway deliveries to made-from-scratch meals. It might be complicated when it comes to environmental issues, however, researchers say flat and plain that “meal kit recipes were found to have health promoting qualities, frequently including vegetable ingredients”, but companies can always do better improving the recipes.