Meal kits may be more sustainable than grocery shopping

Meal kits have been one of the leading trends in grocery delivery and at-home meal preparation in recent years, with consumers ordering pre-packaged kits of pre-selected meal ingredients or fully cooked meals that they can finish cooking or re-heating at home. Meal kits are intended to bridge the gap between consumers’ desire for convenience and consumers’ concerns about spending too much food on meals away from home; many meal kits also offer meals that are designed for nutritional concerns or intended for specific diets, such as the keto diet or Paleo diet.

However, although meal kits have been a category of significant sales growth for startups and larger food companies, and although consumers often love the experience of saving time on grocery shopping and getting inspired to try new recipes for home cooking, one concern about meal kits is the environmental impact of their packaging. Many consumers are reluctant to order meal kits because of the perception of excessive packaging for just a few portions of food. (In my own life as a consumer, I recently canceled my subscription to Freshly, a chef-prepared, pre-cooked meal service, because I was concerned about the volume of packaging and related waste being produced for each shipment.)

However, a new study from University of Michigan suggests that meal kits, despite the environmental impacts of their ample packaging and delivery, can actually be more sustainable than people might expect. When compared with the overall systemic sustainability challenges of the food system and the average consumer’s food wastage, meal kits might actually be a more sustainable choice than grocery shopping.

Researchers at the University of Michigan School of Environment and Sustainability evaluated the carbon footprint of meal kits from Blue Apron compared to the average grocery store meal, and found that, while meal kits “often do involve more packaging waste, the emissions for grocery store meals carried two kilograms more of carbon dioxide per meal than those of the meal-prep kits.”

The study examined the total “life” of five different Blue Apron meals, to evaluate the carbon footprint of the product; the study found that Blue Apron meals have a carbon footprint that is 33 percent lower than the average grocery store meal. (Blue Apron was not involved with the study, but its meals were chosen as a representative sample of the meal kit category’s packaging practices.)

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