Maybe you're finally an empty-nester. Or widowed or divorced. Or maybe you're just plain tired of planning and shopping for dinner, after doing so every night since you came home from your honeymoon 40 years ago. Whatever the situation, thanks to technology we finally have some new answers to that worn-out question, "What's for dinner?"
Today over 100 companies make it easy for you to go online and order something to eat, including cook-at-home fresh food meal kits. Using a website, your credit card and a delivery service like FedEx, a climate-controlled box appears magically at your doorstep with all the pre-portioned ingredients and instructions needed to fix those meals. And you will have become part of what is already a $400 million market.
Over the years, cooking may have felt like a pleasure or a chore. Friends may have sought out invitations to gourmet Thanksgiving dinners at our houses, or instead suggested strongly that Applebee's or Boston Market might be a nice change this year.
In either case, all too often we have stood in front of an open refrigerator wondering what we can pull together into a meal. We never made it to the grocery store, and we are missing the main ingredients.
We also seem to be throwing away a lot more unused food, either because we're eating out more often or because there are fewer people at meals. The steamed broccoli turns brown, and the mixed Spring salad greens get mushy before they get eaten. Mystery leftovers take over several shelves in the fridge until they are tossed.
Instead of that, we could receive the exact amount of pre-measured ingredients, typically for a meal for two (or for one, plus a second serving later), ready to assemble and cook. Food selections are vast and different companies specialize in different concepts or cuisines.
Seniors can have fresh meals, even tailored to their dietary restrictions, at a cost that is lower than going to the nearby chain restaurant where they don't know what ingredients are being added to their food.
This alternative can be convenient, healthy and fresh. It may work for us or it may not, but it is certainly worth a try.
Getting a senior to continue to eat well can be a challenge. Especially if living alone, the motivation to cook appetizing, healthy meals-for-one takes tremendous discipline. We tend to fall into a rut of easy solutions, such as eating out or batch-cooking and freezing. Even if that last solution can be pretty healthy, it is boring and not fresh.
Finding a meal delivery service that works for us means:
- Having fresh-cooked meals made with fresh ingredients;
- Enjoying the cook-at-home experience;
- Doing just as much prep work as we want to do, and doing less and less as we age;
- Controlling the sodium, for example, that goes in our food as we can simply not add it;
- Keeping mealtime interesting as we experiment with new foods and flavors; and
- Sticking to a budget because the entire cost of the meal is covered by the kit.
Some meal delivery services are national, and some are local. One is not better than the other; what counts is that you can identify a company or individual behind the offering who can be held accountable for quality, service and access to your credit card.
As you compare services, you want to know that their delivered pricing fits within your budget. You want to know what recourse you have if you are dissatisfied, plus the ease or difficulty of preparing the meals. Also consider the ease of canceling the service if you no longer want weekly shipments, as well as the ease of reaching customer support when you need it.
Determining exactly how much you spend for lunches and dinners now is a good place to start. (Breakfasts are available through delivery services, too, but are less likely to be part of your order.) That calculation should not consider just the cost of the ingredients of meals you fixed, but also everything you bought that went into the trash or garbage disposal instead.
The figure you come up with will tell you what you are replacing, although you may also decide that the time saved by not having to plan and shop has a dollar value. What cannot be measured is the value of good health if you find yourself eating healthier -- or within the guidelines for some medical condition you tend to ignore.
Once you know what you can (or want to) afford to pay per serving with a delivery service, you next want to realistically assess how many times per week you are going to prepare a purchased meal.
Different companies do different amounts of the prep work for you: some chop up everything and put all pre-measured ingredients for each meal in a separate container. Others send you all the needed vegetables mixed up, and you need to segregate what belongs to each meal before you store everything away. Some brag that their meals can be fixed in 15 minutes; others are complex and can take 45-60 minutes, or more.
Many services offer their meals based on plans, meaning you receive multiple meals in one delivery for a flat fee. Some require a weekly or monthly commitment and renew automatically. Others let you order when you want and only charge when you place an order.
These things may not seem important, but they will determine the amount of resistance you will face, and whether you will use -- and enjoy -- the service.
Next come your preferences: vegan, meat eater, gluten-free, organic, paleo, traditional cooking, gourmet and so on. Meal delivery companies emphasize their specialty clearly in their marketing. While most will offer a token number of meals that meet other preferences as well, you will find it easier to order on an ongoing basis if the company's philosophy and taste align with yours.
At this point, you have the basics needed to filter through the various meal delivery services that are available to you online.
Two areas differentiate what seniors prioritize from what younger people do: age friendliness and health-related value.
Regarding age friendliness, your interaction with the service will be the same regardless of your age. If the company's representatives are easy to deal with, the online selection/ordering/billing process should not be an obstacle as long as you are comfortable going online. At some point, however, you might decide to transfer that responsibility to a caretaker.
The ease of meal preparation itself will possibly become an issue with advancing age. As long as you continue to take joy in the act of preparing the meal itself, with time those companies that do more of the cutting/chopping/measuring will appear friendlier.
As the senior population grows, the number of 'feeding' solutions grows as well. Meal delivery is just one solution. For example, local companies deliver ready-to-eat meals on demand or by subscription. In some areas, chefs will come into your home once a week to cook and freeze a series of individual meals, offering you direct input in the process as well as companionship. In short, the friendliness of a solution depends entirely on what works for you.
As for the health-related value of meal delivery services, it is not negligible. Malnutrition is a serious issue among seniors in the U.S., and it is not necessarily related only to finances. Disinterest and boredom play a role, especially for seniors living alone. The inability to get to a grocery store easily, for whatever reason, is a barrier as well.
As chronic illnesses progress, our coping ability is helped or hindered by how well we eat. Even in the early stages of the aging process, good nutrition is critical as a way of preventing certain health conditions from developing. Eventually, once diseases become debilitating, a senior's involvement in the actual preparation of meals may decline, and the work required to bring meal delivery services to the plate may no longer be possible.
Most people have their first experience with meal delivery services as a result of trial offers they find online, often through social media. These offers may be for a percentage off a one-week trial package. Such a trial gives the senior a low-cost opportunity to experience the process of receiving the insulated package, storing the ingredients, preparing the meals and assessing if this is something they might integrate into their lives.
While these trials are a very effective marketing tool for the meal delivery companies, it is important to know exactly what will happen at the end of that trial period. In some cases, the fine print can make canceling the service more time critical and difficult than imagined, and you will end up paying for additional deliveries until you figure it out.
The fees involved with meal delivery services are pretty clear-cut: a cost for the meal, or grouping of meals, and a cost for shipping and handling. For orders above a specific dollar amount, shipping and handling are usually free. The price per serving for the major companies tends to run between $9 and $14, delivered.
In many companies, meals are offered in multiples. For example, two different meals for two people each, or three different meals for two people each. For a single person, this usually means preparing the meal once and eating it fresh, then having it again as a leftover. However, for a senior with a caretaker or companion, it works out well.
The initial evaluation criteria for selecting a meal delivery service include the price (the basic cost for one serving, delivered), the warranty, the ease of enrolling (and then canceling if you so choose) and the accessibility of the company's customer support.
Price: The cost of ingredients can drive pricing, but a company's ability to buy in bulk keeps the cost of one serving, delivered, somewhere in the $9-14 range. While you could buy the ingredients yourself for less, often the question is whether or not you would. These services could be very competitive with eating out at restaurants or buying carry-out food.
Warranty: Most companies will say that their meals are all backed by a 100-percent satisfaction guarantee. They will indicate the timeframe within which you have to contact them to get a replacement meal at their expense or a credit towards future purchases. One company reserves the right to require that you return the ingredient or send a photo of it before any partial or full credit or refund. It is worth reading the warranty part of a company's "Terms of Service" as that will give you an indication of how responsive the company will be to your needs.
Ease: How easy it is to work with a company determines how long your relationship will last. A company's website should be easy to navigate, and its meal programs should be easy to understand. Ordering and billing should be trouble free. Deliveries should be made on schedule, especially since food can deteriorate if delivered when you are not home to receive and correctly store the ingredients. Lastly, recipes should be detailed and easy-to-follow.
Cancellation: At some point, you will have to cancel a scheduled delivery if you plan to be away, or you will want to cancel the service. You want to know how simple and transparent that process is, so you avoid unwanted and unexpected additional billings that then require phone calls and emails to reverse.
Customer support: The more ways a company gives you to reach them, for whatever reason, the better. Easy access should not end once they have captured you as a customer. Once you have a delivery subscription with a company, the least you would expect is 24/7 access through its website, email access with a prompt response, and phone access during long daytime hours, seven days a week.
When selecting a meal delivery service, you will want to know how much variety the company offers, that is, how many recipes can you choose from each week if you sign up for a regular subscription. If that number is limited, you may find yourself repeating the same meals too often, or ordering something you do not like. Some companies offer customization options that give you more flexibility and control. Decide how important that is to you.
Meals have to be tasty, too. We all have different tastes and preferences, which makes that judgment very personal. You do have the option of making minor changes as you are preparing the meal, say dropping or adding a spice, but if you find the basic recipes are not what you are used to eating, find another company. (Just be sure to read the exact cancellation procedure, if you do that.)
Since one of the key values of a meal delivery service for seniors is that it is helping them eat healthily, you want to know the nutritional value of each meal. Many companies will add that information to the recipe card included in the shipment; others will have it easily located on their website where you chose the dish. The selection and quality of the ingredients are also important. A meal does not have to be organic to be healthy; however, following good standards of nutrition is a minimum.
Many companies have separate food plans that deal with dietary restrictions. Foods might be heart-healthy, diabetes-friendly or gluten-free, for example. Whatever dietary restriction you might have, you need full information if you are controlling calories, fats, carbohydrates, sugars, sodium or something else. (Of those, sodium is probably the easiest to alter, as you can salt less frequently than the recipe recommends.)
Here is the most important point: if you decide that a meal delivery service meets your need for nutritious food, matches your food-prep skills and time constraints, can be customized to your dietary restrictions, is affordable and tasty, give it a try. Your commitment can be as short as a week, just as long as you read the fine print before ordering.
Once you find a company that supplies you with healthy food, plus the joy of easy preparation and the ability to evolve as your needs do, all that is left to say is 'bon appétit!'