Cook-at-home food delivery services are expanding as middle-class households look for healthy meals in a hurry. Consumer affairs reporter Susan Strongman checks out the options.

Call it the television celebrity chef effect or the steady rise of online food shopping - or maybe both. Whatever the reason, cook-at-home food delivery services are booming as time-poor Kiwis try to save themselves a trip to the supermarket or time planning what to cook for dinner each night.

The market has jumped from almost nothing a few years ago to 70,000 households who last month ordered gourmet meals, recipes and ingredients for home delivery, according to Nielsen's Consumer Media Index Survey. That's about 4 per cent of all households, and the figure is expected to grow.

But are the meals easy to cook, good to eat and affordable for the average shopper on a budget?

The Herald trialled three services from Farro Foodkits, My Food Bag and FoodBox - asking a family of four to judge meals based on affordability, time, easiness and flavour - before talking to experts about why the services are on the increase, and whether they're a healthy option for busy families.

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The first, Farro Foodkits, is a spin-off of its parent company, upmarket supermarket Farro Fresh. Ingredients to cook individual meals - like "northern Chinese roasted spiced lamb with coriander tomato salsa, pita bread and greens" - are ordered online and delivered on the customer's day of choice.

My Food Bag enables the consumers to order four or five days' worth of food. Ingredients are delivered weekly with recipes to cook dinner meals, like "pan-fried fish with pea and lemon risotto".

Both businesses launched in the last two years, and are affiliated with celebrity chefs. My Food Bag - which has grown to more than 18,000 subscribers in two years and is worth an estimated $15 million (the other two would not give out customer numbers) - is fronted by former MasterChef winner and nutritionist Nadia Lim. Farro Foodkits provides new recipes designed by MasterChef judge Ray McVinnie, who now works as a food consultant for the Herald's Bite magazine.

Another, slightly different service - Foodbox.co.nz - was established in 2009. The company allows users to order boxes of food like fruit and vegetables, meats and other goods, online, and tailor them to their tastes. Meals are not set and still need to be planned, but Foodbox allows consumers to avoid much of their grocery shopping.

Professor of nutrition at the AUT University Elaine Rush, said all of the options were fairly well priced, healthy, and took a lot of the thinking out of preparing meals.

"If you can afford it, and it means you have more time to spend with your family, then do it. If you're stuck in traffic and you get home and you've got a healthy meal organised, what a stress relief," she said.

It was also positive that the meals taught people to cook. "These meals are certainly creative recipes that are taking people out of their comfort zones. And unlike takeaways, you know what's in them."

Though the Farro Food Kits and My Food Bag services trialled only provided dinner meals, she said they could be stretched - and sometimes leftovers could be eaten for lunch the following day.

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The downside, said Rush, was that home food services like these were not affordable for many Kiwi families.

She said at the other end of the scale, organisations like Pacific Heartbeat helped families buy groceries to feed a family of six with three meals a day for $25 a day - something they were finding more difficult every time, because of rising costs.

"It's the reality of the amount of money that many families do have to spend on food."

Home food delivery services can look expensive when compared to regular meal budgets. Based on Otago University nutrition department's annual food basket survey for last year, the weekly cost of feeding the Weekend Herald's trial family - two adult women, and two children - would be $191 for all meals in the "basic" category (most commonly eaten fruits and vegetables; meat, fish and poultry; and dairy and cereals).

The cost rises to $254 in the "moderate" category (a variety of meats, fish, fruits and vegetables and some convenience foods) and $305 in the "liberal" category (convenience and imported foods, out of season fruits and vegetables, higher priced cuts of meat and some specialty foods).

In comparison, for five dinner meals only, Farro Food Kits cost $262 and My Food Bag $162.50. Foodbox was $146 for a week's supply of meat, fruit and vegetables (though our trial family felt they should have bought more fruit and vegetables).

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The family were able to eat left-overs from some of the meals for lunch the next day and snacked on fruit from the Foodbox during the day.

New Zealand is following a trend well established in other countries, where cook-at-home food delivery services have become almost commonplace in recent years. Company Hello Fresh, which launched in Britain in 2012, is now available in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Australia and the United States.

Hello Fresh's founder, English lawyer-turned-cook Patrick Drake, told The Guardian the rise of the celebrity chef had opened up the opportunity for companies like his.

Dr Vicki Little, who began her career in advertising and corporate marketing but now teaches marketing at the University of Auckland, said the companies took on the "running around and thinking" part of organising a meal, and seemed to have done well for that reason.

Having recently returned to New Zealand after four years in Asia, she said she was astonished by how much Kiwis had embraced cook-at-home food delivery services that were ordered online. "When I left New Zealand it was just online shopping and a desultory nod to convenience through the likes of [Grey Lynn delicatessen] Ripe, however now it seems we feel we're up against it time-wise, and must produce gourmet quality meals from our designer kitchens."

She said for that reason, the companies seemed to have done well.

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She said different services would appeal to different people depending on their food skills, propensity to cook and the size of the meals and, most importantly, their cost. "Social equity has worsened big time in the past four years. Putting it bluntly, at one end we have people having posh food delivered to their door, and at the other end we have hungry, malnourished children. It's just not right."

My Food Bag's chief executive, Cecilia Robinson, said the popularity of these services was due to a number of factors.

"Consumers are time-poor, but conscious about wanting to feed themselves and their families a healthy and delicious diet. In conjunction with this, the online food segment is only in its infancy and therefore growth in the category is natural."

Farro Fresh spokeswoman Bridget Munn said the services reflected a "360-degree turn" to a focus on "caring about what we put into our bodies and wanting our families to eat really great quality, healthy meals free of nasty and hidden ingredients".

Foodbox's Peter Smith said the increase in his business' patronage since it started in 2009 was partly to do with a changing attitude to shopping online. When the the business was established, online payment platforms were new to New Zealand, and iPads didn't exist. "The idea of buying something online was a bit scary back then - but we've seen a fundamental shift in people's behaviour."

He said customers also liked the convenience of having fresh food and other groceries delivered to their doors, and they liked the surprise of getting different things each week. "If you go into the supermarket you tend to buy the same things over and over."

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Family puts food kits to the test

The Morunga-Edwards family live at their home in Mt Wellington. Hannah Edwards, 41, works as a librarian in Otahuhu and Petrina Morunga, 40, is a full-time mother. They have two boys - Paul, 7, who goes to Sylvia Park School and John, 3, who goes to Te Arapeta Kohanga Reo in Panmure. Petrina cooks dinner and the family have a healthy and varied diet - making meals from scratch and avoiding processed foods.

Although they've always eaten a lot of fruit and vegetables, many which are grown in their garden, they started eating even more when Petrina was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2013.

Hannah said the family typically spent $200 to $300 a week on groceries - most of which was food. She also often did an extra shop at the weekend.

The Weekend Herald organised for the Morunga-Edwards family to test out three cook-at-home food delivery services over three weeks, during which time Petrina kept a diary, noting how they rated by taste, portion size, time to cook and easiness. The family also noted whether they'd use the service again, and whether it was affordable for them.

How the three home food delivery services compared

My Food Bag Meals:

Pan fried fish with pea and lemon risotto

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Time:

4/5.10 minutes preparation, 35 minutes cooking time

Easiness:

4/5. The instructions were clear and easy to follow, but it's over to the cook to judge the cooking of the risotto.

Taste:

5/5. Rich, creamy risotto with a nice lemon hit - very moreish.

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Portion sizes:

4/5. Some risotto left over.

Overall rating:

17/20

Beef rump with paprika wedges and green beans
Time: 4/5. 15 minutes preparation, 25 minutes cooking time
Easiness: 4/5. The instructions were clear and easy to follow
Taste: 3/5. Sauce was quite sweet so I didn't add the sugar indicated in the recipe.
Portion sizes: 3/5. Would have liked more meat.
Overall rating: 14/20

Pumpkin and carrot butter chicken with yellow-green rice
Time: 4/5. 15 minutes preparation, 20 minutes cooking time
Easiness: 4/5. The instructions were clear and easy to follow. Excellent instructions for cooking perfect rice.
Taste: 3/5. Too sweet for our family. This seemed like one of those recipes where adults try to sneak in more vegetables, as the recipe calls for carrots and pumpkin to be grated into the sauce, we weren't keen on the texture of the grated vegetables.
Portion sizes: 3/5
Overall rating: 14/20

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Baked sweetcorn and pinto flautas, with pineapple guacamole
Time: 5/5. 20 minutes preparation, 25 minutes cooking time
Easiness: 4/5. The instructions were clear and easy to follow
Taste: 2/5. Least favourite dish of the week. Recipe includes a pineapple guacamole which we couldn't make because the avocado had already spoiled. We adults weren't keen on the idea of it anyway. Pineapple salsa - yes, yum! Pineapple guacamole? Not sure.
Portion sizes: 3/5. I should probably have increased the amount of filling for each tortilla.
Overall rating: 14/20

Cauliflower cheese fettuccine with bacon, peas and garlic crumbs
Time: 5/5. 10 minutes preparation, 15 minutes cooking time
Easiness: 4/5. The instructions were clear and easy to follow
Taste: 5/5. Creamy, tasty sauce with good quality pasta.
Portion sizes: 4/5
Overall rating: 18/

Farro Food Kits meals:

Ray's baked fish with rice and tomatoes

Cost:

$33

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Delivery:

7pm, Tuesday April 28

What you get:

Jasmine rice, saffron, onions, garlic, almonds, cherry tomatoes, olives, tarakihi fillets, harissa, parsley

Time:

4/5. 20 minutes preparation, 45 minutes cooking.

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Easiness:

3/5. Very easy but I overcooked the rice. Fish is cooked in the rice in the oven, which resulted in tasty moist fish.

Taste:

4/5. Great taste when all combined especially with harissa.

Portion sizes: 3/5 Too much rice, not enough fish.

Overall rating:

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14/20

Spiced chicken enchiladas with creme fraiche and avocado
Cost: $52
Delivery: 6pm, Wednesday April 29
What you get: Onions, garlic, chicken thighs, Tio Pablo spice mix, wraps, baby spinach, capsicum, organic pasta sauce, grated cheese, Zany Zeus creme fraiche, avocado, coriander
Time: 4/5. 10 minutes preparation, 35 minutes cook
Easiness: 4/5
Taste: 5/5. Delicious. Spice Mix delicious, avocado perfect
Portion sizes: 4/5 could do with more chicken because the 3-year-old steals all the chicken.
Overall rating: 17/20

Ray's Thai style beef salad
Cost: $34
Delivery: 7:30pm Thursday April 30.
What you get: Recipe in plastic sleeve, red onion, lime juice, fish sauce, sesame oil, green beans, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, sirloin steak, peanuts, mint, coriander
Time: 5/5. 10 minutes preparation, 15 minutes cooking
Easiness: 5/5. If you can cook a steak this is an easy and delicious meal.
Taste: 5/5. Yum!
Portion sizes: 5/5
Overall rating: 20/20

Ray's chicken piccata with date and herb slaw
Delivery: 6pm Friday May 1.
Cost: $42
What you get: Red onion, lemons, savoy cabbage, celery, mayonnaise, tahini, yoghurt, mint, coriander, fresh dates, chicken thighs, seasoned flour, ground cumin and chilli spice mix.
Time: 4/5. 30 minutes preparation, 10 minutes cooking.
Easiness: 3/5
Taste: 4/5
Portion sizes: 3/5
Overall rating: 14/20

Northern chinese roasted spiced lamb with coriander tomato salsa, pita bread and greens
Cost: $51
Delivery: 12pm Saturday May 2.
What you get: Butterflied leg of lamb, mix of soy sauce, mirin, mix of chilli flakes, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, roasted sesame seeds, cos lettuce, cucumber, pita bread, cherry tomatoes, coriander, Chinese black vinegar
Time: 4/5. 10 minutes preparation, 45 minutes cooking
Easiness: 5/5
Taste: 5/5. Delicious
Portion sizes: 5/5 We had an extra child sleeping over, and there was still plenty.
Overall rating: 19/

Roast chicken meal with fresh vegetables ready to be roasted from foodbox.co.nz. Photo / Nick Reed
Roast chicken meal with fresh vegetables ready to be roasted from foodbox.co.nz. Photo / Nick Reed

We used the Food Box ingredients to make:

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Fish pie, corned beef and vegetables (I love corned beef and this was a good corned beef, but there were not enough vegetables in the box for this dish.) Coq au vin, steak and oven roasted potatoes, stir fried beef and vegetables.

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The Herald trialled three services from Farro Foodkits, My Food Bag and FoodBox - asking a family of four to judge meals...

Posted by Herald Life on Friday, 12 June 2015