Citizen Chef: Healthy Meals on Training Wheels
Citizen Chef launched last week in Whole Foods and Mollie Stones with a line of pre-arranged, ready to cook, healthy meals for about $10. The meals come boxed with pre-cut veggies, a grain and a sauce, and recipes for preparation in 15 minutes or less, with or without the addition of the protein of your choice.
These healthy meals on training wheels are the creation of two San Franciscans: Drew Taylor, great grandson of a lettuce grower, and Adam DeVito, an executive chef. The simplistic pre-packs are meant to take the time, fear, and planning out of getting a healthy meal on the table out of the equation, and get more people eating better.
"We want to make it easy to cook delicious meals at home," says Drew. "In our generation people just don't cook any more." Fifty percent less than in 1977 anyway, according to Drew's stats. The "reality is, people don't have enough time, and or enough confidence, in the kitchen."
I tried a meals and, since I do cook, and my tastes run toward a bit less vegetarian than the base meal provides, so I enlisted Michael Weiler, a friend and vegan from Berkeley, to try a meal as well and report back. Here's what we found:
I made the Tuscan Limone Garlic Saute for my kids and found myself wondering who the target market is. The instructions were very clear and easy, with pre-cut veggies, instant cous-cous, and a separate sauce, which included the garlic, lemon, and spices I'd normally expect to cook with. Flavors, though a little on the bland side (kids liked it,) weren't overdone and were more aligned with a freshly prepared meal than anything prepackaged. However, it really wasn't that much less work than had I started from scratch and made the dish exactly to my liking.
I realized afterwards that the convenience wasn't as much in the preparation, but more in that they didn't expect the "chef" to have any know-how or even comfort level with cooking; my kids should be the target audience. These are less for the person who doesn't have time to cook, and more for the person who doesn't know how to cook a healthy meal. And in that regard, they're very well done. If used frequently enough, I think people could comfortably graduate to cooking on their own....
I tried the Thai Sesame Stir Fry, with my own chicken breast chunks added. Everything was indeed done in fifteen minutes. My time savings was greater than Michael's' but that's because the package came with parboiled brown rice which cooks up in ten minutes compared to the half an hour plus for normal brown rice.
The flavor was good, a bit heavy on the ginger from the sauce, even after I reduced the amount I used to half what was provided. I liked the intensity of the ginger, but some of the other family members were less enthused. The vegetables were fresh and crisp and the overall flavor was good.
I'd agree with Michael's take that as someone who cooks there was not a meaningful savings for me (as long as I were willing to buy parboiled brown rice), but I see the grab-and-go ease and convenience as something very suitable for less-seasoned cooks, my wife included as she needs a recipe and all the ingredients before embarking on any dinner prep. I also see the packaging in two full meal sizes as a useful way to deal with families with split eating habits. If you have a vegetarian or two at home this is a good fall back to give them something they can eat irrespective of what you make for yourself -- and at a reasonable price.
Overall, these are perfect healthy meals on training wheels. If you want to get started making stir fries, want to take a step toward cooking independence, or just don't know what to make tonight and don't want to think too long about it, the Citizen Chef preparations are worth your time, until you outgrow them.
Intially Citizen Chef will be available at all Mollie Stone's locations and Whole Foods in: Mill Valley, Pacific Heights, Potrero Hill, Noe Valley, San Mateo, Palo Alto, and Cupertino