Always cooking the same thing? Try a weekly food box
In the days when Abel & Cole was the only game in town, I blew very hot and cold on vegetable boxes. It was a lot like wearing a Fitbit: you’re filled with this round-the-clock reminder of your own virtue. You’re roasting beetroot while you wash up in the morning, your fridge is brimming with fennel à la grecque, you’re taking baked potatoes to work, the best bit of which is how many people you can tell about your thrift and wholesome living. Then wham, you have one week of compromised domestic engagement – which is US militaryspeak for being out on the razzle every night – and your vegetables are piling up like an accusation. Your heart turns against them. Is it in any way reasonable to send you a carrot in May, when you have been eating them all winter? (The Fitbit equivalent, by the way, is when it runs out of battery and you remember how livable life still is even when you have no idea how many steps you’ve done and may not have done any.)
I went through this love-hate cycle a few times in the 00s, and in the meantime the world moved on. Complete meal subscription services took off, though in the beginning they were mainly for weight loss. This is a disaster, even if you’re doing it for research purposes and you have no intention of losing weight. You have a quinoa mountain in no time. You end up eating lentils for breakfast, but that’s so unholy that you have another breakfast on top of that. I tried the Balance Box for a month, once, for an article, and I think I ate it all as well as my regular food.
The services have moved on again to include full-meal solutions for the time-poor, and fruit-and-vegetable solutions for those who hate the idea of food waste. I have just tried Hello Fresh for the first and Oddbox for the second and, broadly, everything that was wrong with either was really something wrong with me.
Hello Fresh always seems to have an offer running, which brought the cost down by half to £2.50 per person per meal. A three-meal-a-week box for £15, for a couple, is completely reasonable. Yet the thrifty wartime homemaker in me was constantly complaining – maybe if I’d got the chicken from a market, at five in the morning, off the floor, it would have been cheaper. If anything, not having anything to complain about made it worse.
But I just don’t think other people’s portions are big enough. There was plenty of nutrition in them; more than plenty – over 1,400 calories a person in the cumin roast-pork recipe. But if I’d been making it myself, there would have been more on the plate. This put me in a scarcity mindset, which is a disaster for family harmony. I was being ridiculous.
The recipes are simple but quite bold in flavour, the ingredients are good, the instructions are very clear, especially if you don’t mind being addressed like someone who has never handled meat before (I am way too old to be told to wash my hands), and the repertoire is good. There’s always a cute touch, an aubergine you weren’t expecting, some blue cheese sauce. Unless you specify “quick”, they don’t try to keep everything down to half an hour. I really admire this service, in almost every particular; I just don’t like being told what to do, and always like to have too much on the table.
With Oddbox, I could overcater like wild. It was £13.50 for a vegetable-only box for a large family, which isn’t us, because the children eat only peas. With a tiny adjustment to regular life – eating kale by choice – this makes it cheaper than buying veg in a shop. It’s explicitly thrifty in a broader, social sense, on food miles and – sorry, the main point – it’s food that would otherwise have been thrown away because the producers couldn’t sell it. There was either too much of it for the supermarkets or it supposedly looked funny, though, in fact, none of it did.
This is a radical leap forward from the old days. I have never had baby courgettes by subscription before, and only very rarely seen chicory. Sure, there were onions, potatoes and carrots, lettuce, broccoli, fennel, spinach – these are not endangered species – but I have nothing against staples as long as there is fancy stuff. I made algarve carrots, the ones they give you in bars to make you drink more, and creamed spinach, like ordering a stroke in a classic French bistro. I shaved fennel and put chilli on broccoli and made hasselback potatoes for the hell of it. The only thing I had left was the lettuce, and I gave that to a rabbit. My fridge looked like a delicatessen, I smelled constantly of garlic, I finished a load of kippers I had in the freezer because I’m not, when it really comes down to it, a vegetarian, and, once again, I felt high all week on my own virtue.
I would recommend either service for a person who is hungry, and doesn’t want to surrender to the unchanging menus of their own conformity. But for the self-righteous, there is nothing like a box of invisibly deformed vegetables.
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