Meal Kits Are Convenient, but What About the Wasteful Packaging?

All the ingredients needed to prep and cook three meals from the Sun Basket meal kit service. (Photo: Sun Basket)

I never considered having meal kit delivery for my family. I'm fine with the idea of these services, and I completely understand why someone would want all the ingredients for a meal, in perfect portions, delivered right to the door. One of the reasons I had no interest in these oh-so-convenient services was the amount of packaging that gets thrown away when each ingredient comes in an individual toss-able container.

Many of these services have been changing their packaging and making it more sustainable. When Sun Basket, a meal kit delivery service that focuses on organic foods, offered to send me a kit with their new completely recyclable and compostable packaging, I decided to give it a try. My boys and I picked out three meals that appealed to us, and the next week the meal kits that each contained enough food to make three meals for two people (the company thoughtfully sent me two kits so I'd have enough to feed my two teenage sons and me) showed up at our front door.

Sun Basket's packaging

The individually packaged ingredients from one of Sun Basket's meals. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

When I opened the box I found a lot of packaging inside. The box was lined with removable insulation and packed with two ice packs. The food inside was all individually packaged. The meats were in plastic and separate from other ingredients. A paper bag for each individual meal contained the rest of the ingredients for that meal, and most ingredients that were individually proportioned were in their own plastic bags or plastic containers. I compared the packaging to the description of the new compostable and recyclable packaging information I was sent and realized about half of it was the new packaging; half was the old.

The company seems to be transitioning out some of the old packaging, and there is something to say for making sure that the old packaging doesn't go to waste. It could have been trashed completely unused, the resources used to create it truly being wasted. However, since my interest was in the sustainable packaging, the company sent us another week's worth of meal kits so I could experience the new packaging.

This time, most of what I received was the new packaging, but their backyard compostable ingredients bags were not in my kit. I was told the the packing machine for our compostable film went down, and they are working on getting it up and running as soon as they can. Rather than have them send me out another week's worth of meals once the issue is fixed, I'm choosing to trust that the company will transition to the compostable bags when the technological problems are fixed.

Here are the details about the packaging.

Insulation from my Sun Basket box, rolled up and put in my recycling bin for curbside recycling. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

The insulation inside the box is made from recycled water bottles and is fully recyclable. Even the stickers used to roll up the liners for easy recycling are approved to be 100 percent recyclable. The photo at the right is my home recycling container with the liners rolled up, waiting for Thursday curbside recycling.

  • The eco-friendly gel ice packs are made from non-toxic, food grade materials: 98 percent water and 2 percent non-GMO cotton (versus the industry standard which contains petroleum). The inside of the gel packs can be put in the compost or shown in the garbage to evaporate, and the outside plastic can be recycled.
  • The backyard compostable ingredients bags can be composted at home or placed in a curbside compost bin. The bags are also suitable for anaerobic breakdown, meaning they will decompose in a landfill if they end up there.
  • The smaller clear containers in the kit are made from Greenware, a fully compostable material that is best disposed of through industrial composting methods offered in many communities.
  • The larger plastic containers with the screw-on lids (like the artichoke hearts container in the above photo) can be put in the recycling bin or washed and reused again. I received ingredients in two sizes of these containers; the largest holds three ounces. It occurred to me that these would be perfect containers for liquids when you have to pass through a TSA check point while traveling.
  • The cardboard box that the whole kit comes in is recyclable or reusable (it's actually a great box with a lid that could be used for storage), and the paper bags that hold each meal's ingredients are also recyclable or reusable.

    Aside from the Greenware containers, there is nothing in a Sun Basket meal kit that's fully stocked with the new packaging that I would be unable to dispose of sustainably. My community does not offer industrial composting.

    Preparing the meals

    After spending several evenings preparing Sun Kits meals, I realized I really enjoy the ease of the meal kits. Although ingredients are portioned so you receive only the exact amount you need for each recipe (helping to curb food waste), they aren't fully prepped, as you can see in the photo above. Vegetables and herbs, for example, need to be chopped. One of the meals I received that was a vegetarian meal with loads of summer vegetables was topped with soft boiled eggs, but the eggs had to be boiled.

    I would not recommend these kits for someone with little cooking ability unless they are willing to use these kits to improve their skills. Skills like soft boiling eggs, chopping vegetables using various methods, zesting lemons and the sometimes-tricky skill of timing a meal are all needed. Your kitchen must be stocked with basic cooking tools — pots and pans, cutting boards, knives and a zester were all necessary for many of the meals I prepared.

    Most meals take about a half hour to prepare, and the majority of that half hour is completely hands-on. There isn't an opportunity to walk away from the prepping or cooking to take care of another task if you're putting the meals together by yourself, which I did. I could definitely see these kits being a great way to spend time in the kitchen with your partner, a child or a friend, prepping and cooking side-by-side while chatting about the day.

    The food

    The food included in the meal kits are all organic or sourced responsibly. Meats are grass-fed and antibiotic-free, and seafood is from sustainable fishermen the company trusts. The foods we received were fresh and each meal was generously portioned for two people. The meals are veggie heavy, even the ones where meat was the main course.

    Recipes that are arranged to help with the timing of the meal are included with each meal. I would suggest reading the recipe in its entirety before starting because often it calls for working on two things simultaneously, and you need to know that before starting.

    This Zucchini, Onion, Ricotta Torta from Sun Basket was my favorite meal from the subscription service. Absolutely delicious. (Photo: Sun Basket)

    Everything was delicious. My favorite meal was a zucchini torta with an accompanying mixed-greens salad. The torta was flavorful and savory. I would make this any time for a simple, summer vegetarian meal.

    If my circumstances were different, if I didn't have the time to shop and cook that working from home affords me, my experience with Sun Basket might have me considering a meal kit delivery service. I think the whole concept really works for someone who doesn't have a lot of time to plan and shop but wants the experience of cooking several times a week.

    The weekly subscription cost for Sun Basket is $11.49 per person per meal with an additional shipping cost of $5.99 per week (first week's shipping is free). Each subscription includes three meals a week. A two-person plan with shipping is $74.93 a week; a four-person plan is $143.87 a week.

    Other options

    Sun Basket is not the only delivery service stepping up its sustainability game. I looked at the websites of some other meal kit delivery services and found some that are also impressive.

    Terra's Kitchen uses sustainable ingredients, too, and sends them in a vessel that is returned, sterilized and reused. Any packaging that is kept by the home cook is recyclable. And, this company sends all its ingredients pre-prepped and all scraps and rinds are sent back to farms to be used as animal feed.

    One Potato is a meal kit delivery service that is especially geared toward families with kids (brilliant idea), and it looks like their packaging is mostly recyclable and compostable, too.