The Growth Of Plant-Based Meal Kits Is Win For Us All

Originally printed in the October 2019 issue of Produce Business.

We are all familiar with the boom in meal kits — whether direct-to-consumer subscriptions or retail in-store. The meal kit trend is quickly becoming the plant-based meal kit trend as more providers (such as Blue Apron) are embracing meatless menus and others (such as Sakara Life and Hungryroot) are specializing in vegetarian and vegan dishes.

This is great news for national growers and the produce industry as it builds new converts to a plant-based lifestyle and a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables. Since most of these home-delivered meal kits involve sophisticated, proven recipes, users are exposed to fresh fruits and vegetables in their most attractive light: ideally prepared and presented, and ultimately delicious.

This is great for consumers and our general population. As an industry committed to healthy living through produce, we should all applaud the fact fruits and vegetables are being delivered to the doorsteps of more Americans than ever before. For the first time in recent memory, the growth of plant-based eating is dominating the headlines — encouraging healthier eating and reversing poor diets. It is also seen as a marketing advantage and a significant opportunity for increased sales.

We’ve come a long way, indeed.

The momentum behind the plant-based meal kit trend is significant. Of the 14 top meal kit delivery services sampled by Allure magazine earlier this year, at least 10 are either exclusively committed to vegan or vegetarian customers or prominently feature a plant-based or flexitarian menu option. These range from those kit services that specialize in veganism to those that are supplementing traditional meat-based recipes with menus catering to vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diners.

Astute produce marketers can focus on the consumer motivations behind the growth of home-delivered meal kits — namely the desire for healthy, increasingly plant-based meals that are tasty and legitimately easy to prepare.

And the trend is not confined to North America. Selected by Allure as the best meal kit for vegans, Purple Carrot was acquired in May by Tokyo-based Oisix ra daichi Inc., while Germany’s giant HelloFresh has found success with its plant-based menu alternative.

At the other end of the spectrum, Blue Apron, which helped create the meal kit delivery trend in 2012, announced in July it would add Beyond Meat products to its meal kits. The addition of Beyond products follows similar moves by chains such as Carl’s Jr., KFC and T.G.I. Friday’s and is part of a trend that will push the global market for plant-based meat substitutes to $18.7 billion by 2023.

So, just what can fresh fruit and vegetable marketers learn from this trend?

First, acknowledge and be thankful that home-delivered meal kits are ultimately exposing more families and kids — our industry’s future consumers — to new and different fruits and vegetables in their tastiest, most attractive and communal light. This has both significant future sales and health implications since the family that cooks together, stays together and is more likely to eat healthier.

The growing trend is also likely creating trial of more uncommon produce varieties included in many of the new meal kit offerings such as figs, bok choi and edamame.

Second, with some encouragement, the trend can inspire new plant-based products, recipes and initiatives. We’re seeing this at my own company. Motivated in part by the growth of the ready-to-eat (RTE) movement and home-delivered meals, we launched a line of completely plant-based RTE salad kits made with all-fresh ingredients in 2018. Key to the kits’ early success has been the denser combination of plant-based protein that results in a more satiating salad that eats like a meal. In fact, some of the very same plant-based proteins featured on the ingredient lists of the most popular home-delivered meal kits — edamame, beans, lentils, bell peppers, rice, corn, quinoa and chickpeas — can be found in the best-selling meal kits.

Astute produce marketers can focus on the consumer motivations behind the growth of home-delivered meal kits — namely the desire for healthy, increasingly plant-based meals that are tasty and legitimately easy to prepare. As much as we all want to believe that consumers are singularly motivated by health and nutrition, we can’t forget that convenience still rules the day for most produce consumers, especially parents with children living at home.

One of the ways we address this is through our significant focus on recipe development. As part of Dole’s healthy-living collaboration with Disney’s Frozen 2 (and in keeping with the “frozen” theme), we created a new line of plant-based, family-style breakfast, lunch and dinner recipes designed to be prepared in advance and frozen. These original recipes check the same plant-based nutrition and easy-preparation boxes as today’s home-delivered meal kits. We supplement these family-style recipes with tips to help parents make healthy eating feel more fun, such as proclaiming Sundays as family meal-prep days, making food shopping a family affair and encouraging kids to prepare and pack their own school lunches.

At the end of the day, if we as an industry can get mom, dad and the kids to prepare, serve and enjoy a plant-based meal together, we’ve all won. Clearly, this is the ultimate reward for those of us who have dedicated the better part of our professional lives to getting Americans to eat their fruit and veggies — and to love doing it.

Bil Goldfield is director of corporate communications at Dole Food Company in Westlake Village, CA.