Having three children, a job and a husband who also works, Cindy Boyd often found herself facing a common dilemma of busy families — she didn't always have enough time to do the shopping, planning and work needed to make a nourishing, home-cooked meal for dinner.
As she began searching for time-saving shortcuts that could provide that, she discovered Hello Fresh, a Germany-based company with outlets in nine countries that delivers to a client's home the prepared ingredients and a recipe necessary to prepare a home-cooked meal. Boyd now orders up to three meals a week online from Hello Fresh.
A home-cooked meal is key to healthful eating, said Carrie McFadden, an instructor in nutrition in Towson University's Department of Health Sciences.
"There's no way to get healthy without coming back into the kitchen," she said.
Hello Fresh's menus are designed to be easy to prepare and cook in about 30 minutes, according to Ed Boyes, the company's U.S. CEO. The company, which delivers meals in the 48 contiguous states and nine other countries, sources its produce and proteins from farms around the country, including some as close as southeastern Pennsylvania, according to its website.
Other home-delivery services exist to serve busy families, while, for those who don't want to cook at all, at least one company specializes in delivering meals prepared from the menus of sit-down restaurants.
In addition, grocery stores offer options designed to make it easier for customers to get dinner on the table, according to the representatives of several chains that operate stores in the Towson area. Those options include ready-made or ready-to-cook meals that are prepared with nutrition in mind.
"Clearly, health and wellness is a big priority" of the grocery chains, said Jeff Metzger, publisher of the Columbia-based supermarket trade journals, Food Word and Food Trade World. "It's more than a trend; it's a lifestyle now."
Supermarkets are focused on 17-39-year-old shoppers who can choose to buy food from many different sources, Metzger said, adding that the stores have added more organic, gluten-free and prepared foods to their offerings.
"It's a changing game," Metzger said. "Consumers have adapted."
Like Boyd, teacher Shannon Montague was attracted by what she described as the convenience and fresh ingredients of the home-delivery services. She has tried Hello Fresh and the Manhattan-based Blue Apron, which also delivers food kits to a customer's door.
As a single person, Montague was looking for a way to "get out of my food and cooking rut," she said, adding that she orders the ingredients for such dishes as risotto, meatloaf and a rustic Tuscan stew.
Both delivery services allow customers to order online a variety of options that can feed from two to four people. Both charge $60 for three meals for two people.
"In theory [the delivery services] can help people eat healthier, more locally grown, seasonally available food," Towson University's McFadden said, adding that she suggests that consumers ask questions before they buy from the services. Are the foods local? Are they grown using sustainable agriculture? Are recipes nutritionally sound?
The delivered food kits have a down side in that they are inefficient, expensive and create a lot of waste, said Phil Lempert, who has studied grocery marketing and consumer trends for 25 years and publishes the web-based newsletter, Supermarket Guru, which tracks supermarket trends.
"It's pretty much a fad more than a long term trend," Lempert said.
Louise Ward, a spokesperson for Blue Apron, disputes Lempert's claim.
"Our model actually enables us to reduce food waste in the U.S," she said. "Since recipes are planned weeks before they are featured in our boxes and our home chefs schedule deliveries a week or more in advance, our subscription model allows us to predict demand for our products and the need for ingredients in advance."
Supermarkets also are responding to a growing number of customers who want to combine convenience with nutrition.
At Towson-area Giant Food and SuperRite stores, nutritionists are available for one-on-one consultations designed to help customers choose healthier foods. While SuperRite's service is free, Giant charges $25 for an hour visit, though after the consultation customers receive a $25 gift card to use in the store.
"We want to be your go-to for all things wellness," said Mandy Katz, a registered dietitian who works at the Timonium Giant and is a Rodgers Forge resident. "It's not about just filling your cart. We want to fill it right."
At ShopRite of Timonium, registered dietitian Molly Stryker runs a six-week weight management group and is planning a diabetes management group. She recently spoke about wellness to parents at Pot Spring Elementary School, in Timonium, and consults with customers about dietary issues.
She and Katz both said that they conduct store tours to show customers nutritious foods and shortcuts to healthier eating.
Wegmans in Hunt Valley has a large ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat department which offers "EZ Meals" for four to six people and "power meals" that pack a nutritional punch for 600 calories or less, said Krystal Register, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the store.
Fresh Market's Dulaney Valley Road store features weekly "Little Big Meals," that are designed for convenience and healthy eating, said Roz Cheatham, a store manager. The store sets aside the ingredients for the meals in a special case and posts the menus on the store's website. A meal for four costs about $20.
ShopRite also offers a weekly meal designed to take about 30 minutes to prepare, Stryker said, adding, "We have a lot of people who are trying to cook more at home."
From the menu
For those who don't want to cook, Orderup, a Baltimore-based service, delivers ready-made meals from more than 100 Towson area restaurants, and 600 restaurants in the Baltimore area.
Customers are limited to choosing meals from restaurants that are within 12 minutes driving time from their homes or offices so that the food is delivered fresh, said Matthew Alexander, OrderUp's general manager.
"We do everything from mom-and-pop restaurants and delis to fine dining and five-star restaurants," he added.
Customers order and pay for their meals on OrderUp's website, paying the same price they'd pay in the restaurant plus a $3.99 delivery fee. Orders can made for immediate delivery or for a specific time later in the day, Alexander said.
Kathmandu Kitchen, on Allegheny Avenue, in Towson gets a lot of business thanks to Order Up, said Kiran Pantha, co-owner of restaurant. "It's more convenient for the customer," he said. "Everything is there."
Alexander said OrderUp customers range from parents with small children hungry for a special entree to college students to an office manager ordering lunch for a meeting of 40.
"We try to cater to everybody and anybody," he said.