Convenience, Health Fuel Growth in Boxed-Food Delivery Industry

Story by Greg McClure, photo by Charles Jischke

Above: Christine Ladisch, dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences, prepares a meal with her husband, Michael Ladisch, Distinguished Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering with a joint appointment in the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering​.

Meal delivery services are very popular these days. The desire for convenient, fresh meals has made boxed food deliveries a $1.5 billion industry in just a few years, according to market research firm Packaged Facts.

“People with less time and more disposable income are the key driver of this industry,” says Richard Feinberg, professor of consumer science at Purdue University. “They also want to eat healthier, which is hard to do when you go to the supermarket. Much of our buying behavior is influenced by the stimuli around us. Even when consumers intend to buy healthy, once they see the cupcakes and ice cream, a response activates that makes their hands move toward those products. There are dozens of products like this in the supermarket.”

Those are among the reasons Christine Ladisch enjoys her meal service.

“Number one, I don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about ‘what are we going to have for dinner tonight,’” says Ladisch, the dean of Purdue’s College of Health and Human Sciences. “You don’t have to spend time at the grocery store looking for what you need, and then going back to the store to get what you forgot.”

“I like the menus. They have introduced me to foods that I have never eaten before. Honestly, if I had looked at some of these recipes before, I would probably not have cooked them. We have liked 95 percent of the meals that have come to us. There’s very little waste, and it’s just the right amount of food.”

"Number one, I don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about ‘what are we going to have for dinner tonight?’ You don’t have to spend time at the grocery store looking for what you need, and then going back to the store to get what you forgot.”
— Christine Ladisch, Dean of Purdue's College of Health and Human Sciences

Most of the meals also feature fresh ingredients, which provide better nutrition.

“Purchasing foods this way, instead of prepackaged, reduces the processing of food that can include addition of sodium and other preservatives,” says Regan Bailey, associate professor of nutrition science at Purdue.

“The recipes provide an opportunity to try new herbs and spices with which consumers may not be familiar. Using herbs and spices in place of fats and oils is a healthier way to add flavor, and many herbs and spices have bioactive compounds that can be beneficial for health.”

Most of the services require subscribers to prepare meals.

“They are tailored to foodies who like to cook, but suffer from decisional fatigue on what meals to make or do not have the time to shop or plan ahead for meals,” Bailey says. “They offer a healthy alternative to takeout or restaurant foods that tend to be higher in calories, fat and energy and have larger portion sizes than home-prepared meals.”

Ladisch likes to prepare the meals.

“It’s enjoyable cooking,” she says.

But these services are probably not for everybody, particularly those on tight budgets.

“It’s very expensive — $9 to $10, or even more — a meal. That’s too expensive for me, long-term!” says Lalatendu Acharya, assistant professor of consumer science at Purdue. “Cooking Simplified is a boxed food service for the budget conscious. It’s $2 to $4.50 a meal, and it’s the only company I know of that’s targeting the low-budget market.”

Acharya also worries about the effects of food delivery services on the culture of food.

“A lot of memories about Thanksgiving, Christmas and other occasions are built around food,” he says. “It’s the same way in India where I grew up. It will be fascinating to see if boxed meals create new family traditions. We don’t have many food memories anymore. Kids are very busy with activities, and adults are busy with work and parenting.”
Feinberg and Acharya say food delivery services have an interesting future.

“They will teach people how to cook,” Acharya says. “And after a while, many people may say, ‘I don’t want to pay $10 for this box of food. I want to go buy the food myself and cook it.’ That’s a positive effect over time.”
Feinberg sees a more crowded playing field.

“Millennials will continue to have little time and more disposable income, so it will continue to grow, but so will the number of companies serving that market,” he says. “Amazon and Walmart are getting ready to get into it and expanding the market.

“My opinion is many of the companies are not making money. The challenge is to stay around long enough to make money. The key will be getting the grocery store business, which has been struggling, involved. It’s something that supermarkets can do to help consumers, and it can help their profit margins.”

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