A study recently published in Resources, Conservation and Recycling journal provides evidence that meal kits have a smaller carbon footprint than grocery shopping.
From the study "Comparison of Life Cycle Environmental Impacts from Meal Kits and Grocery Store Meals":
on average, grocery meal greenhouse gas emissions are 33% higher than meal kits (8.1 kg CO2e/meal compared with 6.1 kg CO2e/meal kit).
The study looked at
Life cycle environmental impacts associated with climate change, acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use [...] for five dinner recipes sourced as meal kits and through grocery store retailing.
The five meals studied were salmon, cheeseburger, chicken, pasta, and salad.
As I expected, meal kits involve an increase in packaging compared to meals using ingredients purchased at a grocery store -- the measured impact is 0.17 kg CO2e/meal for a meal kit compared to a grocery store meal.
However, this increase for meal kits is quickly offset by reduced emissions in four key areas when compared to grocery store meals:
- meal kits’ streamlined and direct-to-consumer supply chains (-1.05 kg CO2e/meal)
- reduced food waste (-0.86 kg CO2e/meal)
- lower last-mile transportation emissions (-0.45 kg CO2e/meal)
- meal kit refrigeration packs present an average emissions decrease compared with retail refrigeration (-0.37 kg CO2e/meal)
How to flip the result
For those of us interested in Sustainable LivingTM, comments from the authors provide clues about how to reduce the impacts of our grocery store bought meals to beat the meal kits:
Don't let any food go to waste:
“Even though it may seem like that pile of cardboard generated from a Blue Apron or Hello Fresh subscription is incredibly bad for the environment, that extra chicken breast bought from the grocery store that gets freezer-burned and finally gets thrown out is much worse, because of all the energy and materials that had to go into producing that chicken breast in the first place.”
There are several tips on this site about how to reduce food waste:
Don't drive long distances alone in a gas-burning car to buy only enough food for a single meal:
Meal kits rely on delivery trucks. Since each meal kit is just one of many packages delivered on a truck route, it is associated with a small fraction of the total vehicle emissions. Grocery store meals, in contrast, typically require a personal vehicle trip to the store and back.
There are a plethora of questions and answers related to reducing environmental impacts from transportation, but the easiest strategies are likely carpooling, buying in bulk, walking, and/or biking.
Alternatively, eat different foods
While all of the above compares the same meal prepared two different ways, the research confirms that the choice of meal itself also makes a big impact. Simply stated:
Meals with the largest environmental impact [...] contain red meat.
Thus, to reduce total impacts, choose poultry, fish, or vegetarian meals.