Too busy to prepare meals everyday? Time to think inside the box
Recipe boxes - or meal kits - are big business in the US for busy families, and are growing in popularity here.
The first thing Karen Winslow did when her husband Matt announced that they were moving to Ireland for his work, was to search online for Irish recipe box services.
The American couple and their two teenagers moved to Ireland in late 2014 from a previous stint in Belgium.
"I had always been a working professional, and when we moved to Europe I was suddenly a travelling spouse," Karen says.
Adapting to her new role as a 'stay-at-home mom' had its challenges.
"The kids kept saying, 'what's for dinner?' So I'd go to the grocery store and I'm embarrassed to say I'd spend upwards of €200. I'd grab all these shiny sparkling things, and then I'd get home and find that I had maybe enough for one actual dinner."
And it wasn't just her money that Karen felt she was spending inefficiently, but her time - "I felt like I was living at the grocery store" - and her energy.
"I would realise halfway through a recipe that I didn't have all the ingredients. Or I'd be really organised and bring the list to the store and then I couldn't find the ingredients I needed there."
Karen didn't object to the cooking itself - it was all the faff required before picking up a chopping knife that was proving a drag, and an expensive one too. Signing up to a recipe box subscription was a game-changer.
"Our grocery bill went way down when we started using the service," she says.
Recipes boxes - or meal kits as they are known Stateside - are big business. In the US, there are hundreds of companies offering the service, from local start-ups to national giants such as Blue Apron who deliver eight million meals a month (up from just 500,000 a month in early 2014). Chicago-based food industry analysts Technomic predict that worldwide revenues from fresh food subscriptions will top $10 billion by 2020.
Like all revolutionary ideas, it's a simple one: they do the planning, shopping, measuring and delivering, you do the cooking - and claim the kudos at the dining table.
The offer varies but typically works on a weekly subscription basis, with fresh, quality, pre-measured ingredients delivered along with easy-to-follow, 30-minute recipes developed by chefs or nutritional therapists.
Many companies deal directly with local farmers to provide a fair price to them while ensuring optimum freshness for customers. Most customers choose three or more meals a week, from a weekly menu of six or more meal options, and most subscription plans are flexible, allowing customers to pause or cancel as needed.
Recipe boxes have gone mainstream in the UK too: Hello Fresh feature recipes from Jamie Oliver as part of their USP. Ireland has come late to the party but is busy playing catch up, with one well-established company and another on the way.
Launching in late May, The Wholefood Revolution will deliver whole-food based ingredients and corresponding recipes to a Co Meath customer base. Founded by nutritional therapist David Wallace and his wife Michelle, their focus is making healthy eating easy for everyone, regardless of skill level.
DropChef was established in late 2014 - just in time to ensure that Karen Winslow and her family have been eating well since they moved to south county Dublin.
Its founders Roman Grogan (24) and Ryan Scott (25) had been struggling to balance the desire to eat well with busy social and sporting lives and nine-to-five jobs. They had a hunch that they weren't the only ones.
"We printed and laminated a menu, went to Dublin's IFSC and talked to people," says Roman. "We signed up 25 people in the first day." It was time to go build themselves a business.
Fast forward to 2016 and the pair, now joined by co-director Sam O'Byrne (24), have built a loyal following with hundreds of customers in the Dublin area subscribed to the weekly service.
Trainee actuary Cillian Dickson (23) wouldn't have seen himself as a prospective DropChef customer, at least not in the long-term. A keen sailor, he's conscious of the need to eat well.
"I've always tried to cook from scratch and generally wouldn't have eaten ready meals or take outs," he says. But those good habits were harder to sustain as his pace of life picked up.
"I was working and studying and doing a lot of sailing at weekends and in the evenings, so something was going to have to give. There'd be nights where I'd end up eating cereal for dinner.
"I didn't want to fall into bad eating habits and end up not feeling great."
Cillian subscribed to DropChef as a short-term solution for a particularly busy period in work. He was impressed with the quality and variety of the meals but, at €30 for three meals a week, he considered it a luxury that he would cut out once work calmed down.
"I figured I had learnt lots of new skills so I picked three DropChef recipes and tried to replicate them," he says. "I went to Aldi and Tesco and ended up spending twice as much."
Some of that expense was on long-life products like soy sauce that he would re-use, but Cillian was struck by the food waste incurred by having to buy, for example, a five-pack of citrus when he only wanted half a lime.
Rather than being an expensive luxury, he now sees DropChef as a great value solution to the expense of cooking for one.
David Kirwan (23) lives with his partner and so can share both the time and expense of preparing meals at home. Relying on one big weekly shop, they were eating less fresh food than they would like, and their reliable recipes were becoming repetitive.
When DropChef ran a Black Friday half-price promo, they gave it a go. They've since become regular customers, with five calorie-portioned meals worth of food delivered every Sunday to their door. David loves that they can expand their repertoire while tailoring recipes to their personal taste - maybe holding back on chilli - and that they're both getting to share the learning experience.
Nearly half of all DropChef customers are on the two-person meal plan but over a third are families like the Winslows cooking for four or more. For Karen, preparing family meals has become a pleasure rather than a stress.
"Now I like the chopping," she says. "It's 'my time'."
And crucially, she's not only acquiring but also practicing new skills.
"I've done all the cooking classes but I never come home and do the recipes. This is like having a cooking class in my own kitchen," she says. "I now look at my pantry and know how the spices work."
She sees a change in her teenagers' palates too. "They're open-minded to trying things and I'd attribute that to DropChef. There's everything there: from Italian, Chinese and Thai to traditional Irish recipes. They'll try it all."
Ciara Troy is a mother of two younger children, Genevieve (2) and Luke (5), who was curious to try out DropChef for the purposes of our research.
As the managing director and founder of Oishii Sushi, which supplies food-to-go to retail outlets and delicatessens, Ciara is a busy working mum. For her, shopping for food is an enjoyable part of the cooking experience, but she was extremely impressed with the freshness and quality of both the produce and the overall service.
"It'd be really handy if I were going away and needed to do a bit of planning for the family," she says, "and it's not exorbitant." She feels that perhaps there's scope to grow their family friendly offering to suit younger palates.
"I would wonder if maybe your typical family mightn't want the Asian-style baked haddock with broccoli and coconut rice," she suggests.
With plans to go nationwide this summer, DropChef is still very much in early development, and quick to respond to feedback. They recently added a weekly fish dish based on customer requests; likewise their recycling system for the cool packs and delivery boxes, whereby they pick up last week's box when delivering this week's.
Given the global growth rate of this trend and of food culture in general, Irish food entrepreneurs could be set to get a tasty slice of that $10 billion pie.