meal kit recipe box delivery

It’s December, and the news is hot off the press. Unilever is launching meal kits, sold from an outlet at Waterloo station. Options include beef stroganoff and Thai chicken. It’s £6 for one person, £11 for two. The year? It’s 2000.

Ever since, companies have piled into this space. In ambient, for example, we have The Spice Tailor. Or there are fresh full solutions such as Grubby, or the plant-based kit in Tesco.

But many solutions have come and gone. There are reasons companies keep trying to get this right. “What shall we have tonight/this week?” is a question that dispirits many consumers. They’re bored of the same old meals but lack the energy, inspiration or skill to do something different. Retailers observe the success of HelloFresh and others, which still have significant sales, even after the inevitable dip from the peaks of Covid.

So Sainsbury’s is trying again with kits, in partnership with SimplyCook. In some stores this means fully boxed solutions with fresh meat and vegetables plus pastes, oils and sauces. I’ve been trying some. They’re pretty good. What can we learn from them?

First, make kits different – but not too different. Consumers know how to do their spaghetti bolognese and are often happy with that. So the kit has to be interesting, but if you let your food developers get too excited, it can be too different and become niche. The Sainsbury’s kits include meals like South Asian Inspired Chicken Noodles and Wild Mushroom Penne. Probably about right.

Second, make kits completely idiot-proof. The subscription companies have mastered this. Choosing meals and writing instructions that simply cannot go wrong is harder than it might sound. We humans can be morons. It’s amazing the ways we find to misunderstand.

I thought the Sainsbury’s kits were good at this, but they’re not quite as good as the subscription boxes. If you’re going to tell me to separate the white from the green parts of the spring onion, it’s best to tell me when I chop it, not further down the text.

Third, get the price right. Kits are primarily used as weeknight meal solutions, so they need to be affordable in that context. Sainsbury’s is charging £7 for two or £9.50 for four. Again, probably about right.

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Making full-solution kits work in store is hard. Location is a big question – if you are next to ready meals in the flow and after fresh meat and vegetables, you may have missed your moment. Product life and wastage are difficult to manage. Some of the shops where the shopper need is greatest have the least space – think convenience stores near railway stations.

But there’s a reason retailers and food companies keep trying. We are a consumer-focused industry and there is a clear, widespread consumer need. So we will keep trying, even though the road to success is full of challenges.