"We're living in this time when if you ask people if they're happy with what they're eating, almost everyone says no," said Christina Bognet, founder of PlateJoy, a personalized, online nutrition service.
PlateJoy is just one of the many companies cashing in on Americans' hunger for fresh, fast, at-home food, and the movement toward "a healthy lifestyle" and away from "diets."
Some companies, like PlateJoy, provide meal-planning with healthful recipes and shopping lists (Relish!, Cook Smarts, eMeals, the Fresh 20, Real Living Nutrition Services). Others deliver meal kits complete with recipes and all the fresh ingredients you need to cook your meals (Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Plated). And for those who want to eat healthful food but don't want to cook at all, there are the fully prepared, heat-and-serve services of companies like Munchery, Fresh Diet, and Freshly.
Freshness is the trend here. But so is diversity. Blue Apron proudly publicizes: "Recipes never repeated in the same year."
Darren Seifer, food and beverage analyst for market research NPD Group, isn't surprised. "One of the things that consumers would like to do at dinner is try new and different things. When we look at dinner occasions, especially in millennials and Gen Xers, they like variety," he said.
PlateJoy, which recently announced its new partnership with the Instacart grocery delivery service in Philadelphia, offers a trove of healthy recipes, a service to deliver the ingredients to your door, and the ability to customize your meals according to your preferences, allergies, and medical needs.
But why is there a need for this service? There's no shortage of cookbooks, television shows, and online recipes available for inspiration. Your favorite celebrity chef, movie star foodie, or nutritional guru can personally guide you through the newest, tastiest, and trendiest flavors. But apparently just having recipes isn't enough for some.
Seifer of the NPD Group said his company had found that consumers say they have a difficult time figuring out what to eat, specifically what to make to eat.
"One of the things people want is to save time making food and beverages - there's a movement toward freshness, particularly in younger people, but we don't want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen," said Seifer. "We've seen more women go into the workplace - there are more dual earners, so they both come home and they're tired from their day, so there is time starvation."
And there may be too much information available to consumers. Too many options. Choosing a service takes the worry out of sorting through the barrage of blog posts and news articles about the "healthiest" options.
"We are bombarded with information," said Seifer. "If you use oil, what kind? Butter was bad, but now it's OK. So it gets confusing."
Confusing, and time-consuming.
Katie Lawrence, 33, of Ocean City, N.J., a sales executive for a tech start-up, said she and her husband could never decide what to have for dinner and would end up ordering something unhealthful. They started using Blue Apron three years ago, because dinner was such a hassle. "I really liked it," she said. "It's the prep that takes the longest. . . . They make cooking a fresh meal really easy."
On the downside, there's "not tons of variety," she said. "It's the same cod, the same chicken." She may try one of the other services for different dishes.
Lee Wacker, 26, of Center City, a fund-raiser at Bryn Mawr College, said she and her partner were trying to eat better and drink less, so they decided to give Hello Fresh a try: "It was so easy to use," she said. "There's so much novelty and fun in getting mail delivered."
She and her partner don't have children, and they work a lot, she said. "In the grand scheme of our time, I probably wouldn't cook at all if not for Hello Fresh." Though she feels no loyalty to Hello Fresh, she said she does appreciate the portion control and nutritional information.
Bognet said she started PlateJoy after having to design meal plans for herself. She was overweight, and after trying and failing with all the common services, apps, and programs, she spent hours each week finding healthful recipes and tweaking them to her schedule and nutritional needs. She lost more than 50 pounds, but she realized most people don't have time to do this.
Seifer still sees room for growth in this market. "Perhaps," he says, "if they sell themselves as time-savers - a key is to be time-savers. And freshness and variety - younger adults emphasize natural food - freshness is a key emphasis."
Of the meal-kit delivery services, which are still relatively new, he says only 3 percent of people are using them. He said they do best in major metro areas, where grocery shopping isn't easy. And for those areas, the average cost of these services is a bargain. However, "If you go outside these areas," he said "it's too expensive. If we ask consumers why they left, the biggest reason they canceled is because of cost. So maybe that's why PlateJoy is doing well, because it costs less."
After Philadelphia, PlateJoy's partnership with Instacart will slowly move into other cities across the country, according to Bognet. And as for the company's current impact, Bognet is proud.
"I'm not just providing people with a service that makes their life easier," said Bognet, "I'm also making them feel better because they're going from consuming takeout or foods that are convenient but not so healthy to really starting to eat a wider variety of fruits and vegetables and protein and fat that directly affect our health every day."
"I was raised in a household that didn't prioritize cooking," said Wacker, who said she would still try the services sporadically. "I'm learning the value in it."
Seared Steak Salad With Fresh Basil Pesto and Zucchini
Makes 2 servings
1/2 cup basil leaves
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/4 cup walnuts
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 6-ounce strip steaks
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon olive oil
1. Slice zucchini into long, thin strips with a vegetable peeler. Add to a bowl.
2. Finely chop basil, garlic, and walnuts together until a coarse paste forms. (Alternatively, blitz in a food processor.) Toss with zucchini; season with salt and drizzle with lemon juice. Set aside.
3. Season strip steaks with dried oregano, salt, and pepper on both sides. Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add strip steak and cook 3 minutes. Flip, add cherry tomatoes, and cook 2 minutes more, or until steak is done to your preference and tomatoes begin to soften.
4. Enjoy steak and cherry tomatoes over pesto salad.
Per serving: 465 calories, 41 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 32 grams fat, 152 milligrams cholesterol, 14 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber. EndText
Chicken and Caprese Quinoa Salad
Makes 2 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
11/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, divided
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
3 ounces mozzarella cheese, cut into cubes
1 cup cherry tomatoes, cut in half
12 ounces grilled chicken breast
11/3 cups cooked quinoa
1. In a large bowl, whisk together olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, and the Italian seasoning. Add mozzarella and cherry tomatoes. Toss to coat, then set aside to marinate.
Shred chicken into bite-size pieces. Add to the bowl, along with cooked quinoa. Toss to coat.
3. Drizzle with remaining ½ tablespoon balsamic vinegar. Tear basil leaves into small pieces and add to the bowl. Season with salt to taste.
– From PlateJoy
Per serving: 408 calories, 41 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 169 milligrams cholesterol, 572 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.EndText