We can’t cook – and food brands love it

First published in Fairfax NZ Business 7 October 2014

According to recent research that will surprise no one, we’re all getting lazier when it comes to creating nutritious meals from scratch.

When you add together all the pieces of research on our food habits, what you get is an ugly and contradictory picture.

On one hand, we’re obsessed with food and weight. Just look at the popularity of cooking shows, as we Australians and New Zealanders spawn evermore so-called ‘foodies’. We grow own organic vegetables in our little urban plots. We constantly on a new diet du jour – Paleo, Atkins or whatever this month’s breakthrough is.

Yet on the other hand, obesity, diabetes and heart disease continue to rise. We buy more ready-made and partially made meals than ever before. And a lot of us, according to profound (and worrying) research from practically every respectable source, quite simply have no idea how to cook.

In Australia, the prepared meals category is worth $940m and has grown 3.4 per cent in the last five years.

Australian market leaders McCain Foods and Simplot hold 25.5 per cent and 8.7 per cent share respectively. The category is on a growth trajectory, with its own sub categories including ‘healthy’ low fat options, ‘premium’ options and the ubiquitous home brand variety. A perpetual evolution of pre-marinated, snap frozen, dehydrated and semi-cooked. Available across all stages of preparedness, depending on our own personal level of laziness. Oops, I mean convenience.

Every day, the category produces something that tastes better, costs less and is even easier to prepare. I never buy the fully ready, pre-cooked meals found in supermarket freezers (frozen lasagnes, shepherd pies of dubious origins and so on). Instead, I feel smug satisfaction from the false premise that because I turned on a stove and not a microwave, I cook proper, like.

Turns out more of us are revising our definition of “home cooked”, with the boundaries becoming more blurred. I noticed recently that New Zealand’s My Food Bag launched in Australia. No doubt they’re hoping their concept – delivering all the pre-measured ingredients that help you cook a meal from one of their recipe cards – will resonate with Australians.

They join a number of other rather glamorously branded Australian delivery food services. (Not to be confused with the humble local take away which, although also delivered, does not require any personal culinary intervention.) These include Hello Fresh, Eat Fit Food, Gourmet Dinner Service and dish’d.

Just a few nights ago I got swept up in the full-page magazine ad for dish’d and decided to experiment. I assumed that if Australia’s beloved French chef Jacques Reymond was on the team, it must be credible. I was intrigued and ordered online, eager to experience “innovative and delicious food from around the world.”

The photographs looked delicious and the price ($42) seemed reasonable on a gourmet-spread-for-two that included six prawn baguettes, Thai vegetable green curry and two Tartufo Nero ice creams.

It was only after I placed my order and glanced the word ‘Simplot’ on the About Us page, that I had a slight feeling of apprehension. I should have known better. I fell for the oldest trick in the book. Simplot are not Australia’s number two in this category by accident, they know their market and they found me just where they knew I’d be. The category may be expanding, but my experiment with dish’d has confirmed that I’m not quite ready to admit defeat on this personal cooking shtick. At the end of the day, when I opened my fancy dish’d chillybin steaming with dry ice, what I got was three packets of frozen food. Marketed in a new way, through a new channel and with a nice piece of storytelling. But it was still frozen precooked food.