The joylessness of meal subscription boxes

Meg Walters 8 September 2021

After ditching cooking for what seemed like an easier option, Meg missed the joy of whipping up a meal from scratch

We often glamourise the act of cooking. In my mind's eye, I can visualise my ideal cooking experience. I see myself swanning through the kitchen with smooth, flowing hair and perfect no makeup-makeup sipping on a glass of red wine as I dreamily stir a pot of spaghetti in slow motion. 

In practice, of course, there is rarely anything glamorous about cooking. It's messy, it's tiring, and, most of the time, it's downright annoying. As the appointed chef of my household, cooking a nightly meal has become a daunting chore. After all, how many times can I grumble my way to the kitchen after a long day in front of a screen to make one of the same five meals that we've eaten in rotation for a year and a half, before I expire from boredom? 

So, when we got a coupon for a meal delivery service, I jumped at the chance. Imagine the luxury, I thought, of receiving brand new, untried recipes along with perfectly portioned out fresh ingredients each and every week. It felt like my chance to fall in love with cooking again. 

"It felt like my chance to fall in love with cooking again"

Pre-prepared healthy lunchboxes

We signed up for the service. We selected our meals for the week from the tantalisingly colourful images on the website. Finally, Monday came, and with it, our box of ingredients for the week. 

Each meal's ingredients came wrapped up in a separate brown paper bag. Each bag was labelled with a numbered sticker, which corresponded to a recipe card. So far, so easy. 

The actual cooking was easy, too. I was delighted by the bags of pre-measured, pre-cleaned, pre-chopped vegetables, the cute little sachets of vinegars, spices, and herbs, and the easy-tear packets of grated cheese. Hunting for recipes, trekking to the shop, knocking over the salt container—these, I thought, were all things of the past.

A few weeks into our subscription, however, I realised that something was missing. While the frustration of cooking had vanished, so too had the joy.

While cooking the “normal” way can often feel like a chore, there’s something uplifting and even self-affirming about choosing your own ingredients from a supermarket shelf or dealing with the fiddly skin of an onion or a garlic clove. I realised that our meal subscription box, with its tidy little packets, sachets, and tubes, had sapped the life and soul out of our food. 

"I realised that our meal subscription box, with its tidy little packets, sachets, and tubes, had sapped the life and soul out of our food"

A row of lunch boxes

In his book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, author and journalist Michael Pollan wrote, "Cooking is all about connection, I've learned, between us and other species, other times, other cultures (human and microbial both), but, most important, other people.

Cooking is one of the more beautiful forms that human generosity takes; that much I sort of knew. But the very best cooking, I discovered, is also a form of intimacy." 

Yes, cooking can be painstaking and time-consuming work, however, it leaves you with no choice but to get up close and personal with your food. You choose ingredients from the supermarket shelves. You wash them or peel them or chop them or season them or combine them. You see them transform from one thing into another over the course of the evening. 

Remove the process and what are you left with? Ingredients so sanitised and processed, they no longer look or feel like food.

It's impossible to feel a connection to the place where a dish originated or the person who grew your vegetables when every meal comes out of the same brown bag and identical tiny plastic packets. Remove the process and you sever the ingredients from their history and your cooking from any sense of connection.

A couple cooking in the kitchen

To get the most out of cooking, we must learn that the entire process, while decidedly annoying, is what makes it worth doing. Our lives are becoming further and further removed from what makes us human. We've swapped our dusty bookshelves for squeaky-clean Kindles.

We've traded in the chaos of blind dating for tidy dating apps, which sort out the good from the bad with one swipe. We can now get through our days without getting our hands dirty. Without feeling too much or too little. Without encountering the innate messiness of life.

Of course, I do realise that meal subscription boxes have their practical advantages; there are plenty of busy families who couldn't care less about capturing a sense of connection or history as they peel their potatoes. For them, these boxes are a godsend that offer fresh, healthy, waste-free meals that require minimal effort and time.

"I've learned that all of the things that I once dreaded about cooking are what made it an inherently human experience—and ultimately, a joyful one"

Romanticising the act of cooking is a luxury. But if and when I have the time and energy to indulge in that luxury, I think it's worth doing.

Having experienced the soullessness of cooking from a box, I've learned to savour the mess; the small cuts, the burnt fingers, the painful walk back from the shop with the bulging bag of groceries, the spilled bottle of olive oil on the kitchen counter, the unevenly chopped courgettes, and the pile of dirty pots and pans at the end of it all.

I've learned that all of the things that I once dreaded about cooking are what made it an inherently human experience—and ultimately, a joyful one.

Read more: The history of the tracksuit

Read more: Women's Prize for Fiction: the contenders

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter