Boxing Clever

21st April 2017

What do you do when you run out of culinary imagination? Heather Harris solves the problem by…

According to a recent survey the ‘average mother’ relies on a mere nine recipes to feed her family. Now, according to my three teenagers, I fall well below average in so many areas of the motherhood table, but I always thought cooking wasn’t one of them.

Until, that is, food production company Merchant Gourmet proved otherwise. In a study of 4,000 British people they found that ‘nine in ten mothers polled admitted cooking the same meals over and over again while one in four make the same meals on the same day of the week’.

Only nine in ten; only one in four? I want to know who these people are who don’t always cook left-over roast on a Monday, Spaghetti Bolognaise on a Tuesday, Shepherd’s Pie on a Wednesday, Pesto Pasta on a Thursday etc, etc… until they reach the end of their repertoire – in my case – a below average eight dishes.

It’s not that I don’t like cooking. On the contrary – mention a dinner party and, before you can say ‘beef wellington’, I’ve happily spent seven hours preparing a four-course meal from scratch (apart from the puff pastry, of course, but who makes that? Not even Mary Berry…).

But the novelty of cooking a family meal for five every single day – and twice a day at weekends – wore off somewhere around the millennium: coincidentally, about the time all three children began to voice their opposition to my culinary creativity.

Add to this a husband who worked in the Motorways Service Station industry (and not only liked their food but thought it was excellent value, and who still insists that airline food is ‘actually pretty tasty’) – and you can see why the mere thought of what to cook every night leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

Moreover, all of my family now lead independent lives. No sooner have I decided what to cook and bought the ingredients (involving an hour-long trip to a supermarket where parking is harder than making your own custard) than someone announces, “Oh, I won’t be in for tea tonight!” It’s invariably the child for whom I have specifically chosen the only non-mushroom recipe from my eight-dish repertoire.

Or, even worse, I receive the sort of text dreaded by every mother who has just decided that a bacon sandwich is an acceptable main course for once… “I’ve invited X round for tea” – where X = a] a starving seven-foot rugby player; b] the child whose mother is a fantastic cook; or c] a vegan girlfriend.

Things finally came to a head when I went back to work full-time. Now, I do realise that there are millions of working mums and dads who have no problem at all in shopping at the weekend for a positive smorgasbord of delicacies, and producing freshly cooked fare every night to a table of enthusiastic recipients.

Sadly, I am not one of them. And at 52 years of age I accept my many deficiencies and adapt my life accordingly. Welcome to the world of the ‘fresh food box’.

I don’t mean the weekly delivery of an organic fruit and vegetable box. I’ve been there. Inevitably, once I’d taken out the ones I recognised, the remainder became an expensive garden compost. No. I mean a batch of pre-measured ingredients and recipes for entire meals, delivered to your door.

There are several different business models. Some you buy as a one-off kit, but most are part of a subscription service – you choose how many meals you want each week and for how many people.

Luckily I was given a voucher to try one. I say ‘luckily’, because accepting we’re not all domestic goddesses (or gods, of course) is often the hardest thing to swallow.

But as Patrick Drake, co-founder and head chef of HelloFresh, explains, consumers really shouldn’t feel guilty: “What our boxes do is actually encourage more people to cook from scratch – recipes that they might otherwise not have the confidence to try.”

And he’s right. In a typical week, there’s usually something spicy and Mediterranean involving herbs I’ve never heard of, a fish dish which doesn’t include the word finger or pie, chicken combined with a sauce other than gravy, and pork cooked in ways that disguise the basic fact that it’s pork.

The accompaniments are a revelation too. Who knew that broccoli scorched with garlic could taste so different from boiled… that carrots in honey and seeds weren’t just for Christmas… that bulgar wheat was much healthier than white rice and tastes better… and that potatoes could be bright purple? In fairness, the pie finished off with this luminous topping from the latest British potato variety did look like something from a Halloween event – but, once tried, was universally accepted.

Each recipe comes with a step by step guide complete with pictures so you can easily channel Delia, Nigella, Jamie… but with a definite ‘cooking by numbers’ vibe.

“Every month we analyse comments from over 20,000 people to see what dishes and ingredients do and don’t work and feed this back to our recipe development team, “ Patrick says, adding that they also carried out a huge amount of research into the optimum number of recipe steps and utensils customers will tolerate.

Since their launch five years ago, when ex-lawyer-turned-chef Patrick and his team started making food boxes for a few friends, the company has grown (dare I say ‘mushroomed’?), now delivering 8.5 million meals a month to over 850,000 homes in eight different countries. The range has grown to include a Classic box – aimed at a more adult palate than my Family box – and a Vegetarian Box.

“The idea taps into the fact that people do want to eat more healthily and also see the social benefit of sitting down for family meals rather than having a quick microwave meal in front of the TV,” adds Patrick.

And it’s not expensive. Prices start at £36 per week; my Family Box for four people for four nights costs £64.

Ah, I hear you cry – you can feed a family of 17 on that from Aldi. But that’s like comparing apples with pears. The fact is that all the ingredients are of the highest quality, locally sourced where possible. ‘Ordering in’ also cuts out my petrol and parking costs, and, most importantly, there’s the waste factor to consider.

Put me in a supermarket and all my intentions to buy only what’s on my list go out of the window and into my trolley. Suddenly the suggestion that I need three packets of bacon for the price of one seems entirely reasonable – and who can resist a box of satsumas with leaves on or the latest Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

According to the latest research, in the UK we waste a third of the food we buy. With a food box you are delivered only what you need for each meal – right down to a teaspoon of honey or single garlic clove.

It does mean that we never have any bread or milk in the house (or any puddings) and regularly run out of toilet roll – but this is a small price to pay for the lack of fridge shelves full of ‘past their sell by date’ unwanted extras.
“We are very conscious of our environmental credentials, so we source locally, and also packaging is minimal and recyclable,” said Patrick

Not surprisingly, while HelloFresh remains the market leader, others have jumped on the delivery bandwagon. In a survey of the competition, The Independent newspaper was also impressed by Gousto, where costs start at £30 per week for recipes and ingredients for three healthy meals. There’s about ten options to choose from per week and a wide variety of different cuisines.

The original vegetable delivery company, Abel and Cole, is also boxing clever by introducing ‘Delightfully Light,’ which focuses on supplying recipes and ingredients for meals under 400 calories, while The Spicery sends you all the spices you need to make one really impressive three course meal a month; you just add all the fresh ingredients. They now have 25,000 monthly subscribers…

…so clearly, there are a lot of other ‘below average’ parents out there for whom this modern day ‘home delivery’ service really has been a revelation.

For the first time in three decades, “What can I cook for dinner tonight?” is not my waking thought.

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