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by Kate McMahon

"Kate's Take" is brought to you by Wholesome Sweeteners, Making The World a Sweeter Place.

The newest competitors for a share of the home cook’s heart and wallet are offering a twist on thinking outside the box.

It’s inside the box – as in a refrigerated box delivered weekly with up to three ready-to-cook “gourmet” meals, featuring pre-measured ingredients, fresh produce, meat and fish and detailed cooking instructions.

Companies such as Blue Apron, Plated and HelloFresh are three of the leaders in this fast-growing e-commerce sector, which caters to folks (think young urban professionals) who enjoy cooking but don’t have time to grocery shop. Typically, menus are posted online a week ahead, and subscribers can choose which meals they want delivered, at a cost of about $10-$15 per person per meal. There are membership fees, vegetarian choices, and in some cases, “four-plate minimums” per order.

The meals are creative, flavorful, utilize fresh ingredients and spices, and take about 30-45 minutes to prepare. There are no leftovers, but also no waste. I’ve seen some packaging of meal ingredients at supermarkets, but nothing this complete or exacting.

A twenty-something friend and aspiring cook sent me fan Facebook posts about Blue Apron, a Brooklyn-based firm that launched in 2012 and recently expanded its deliveries to the West Coast. It now reaches more than 80% of the nation and is delivering about 100,000 meals a month.

When I called to research the company, Blue Apron offered to send a complimentary kit. I accepted, and was quite impressed with quality of the ingredients, the presentation/packaging, and the attention to detail, down to the last sprig of tarragon. I originally was hesitant about cooking fish that arrived in my garage in a box (was the refrigeration really cold enough?), but the Seared Salmon with Preserved Lemon and Quinoa Salad with Pea Tendrils was fresh and delicious, and at $9.99 per meal. And I learned how to preserve a lemon, too.

Clearly, these upscale meal ingredient-delivery services are targeted to a more affluent, sophisticated demographic and would not be practical for a family of six from a price (or a palate) perspective.

But their newfound success is predicated on a premise that applies to any demographic or socio-economic group -- the idea that home cooking should be a more rewarding experience.

For Matt Salzberg, CEO and co-founder of Blue Apron, it’s all about intelligently designing each meal to make best use of seasonal ingredients and encourage lifelong learning in cooking. Whether it’s posting witty instructional videos on basic cooking techniques or sharing real-time customer feedback on each dish, Blue Apron is establishing a relationship that lasts beyond the delivery date.

Plated prides itself on compiling recipes from acclaimed chefs and is priced slightly higher than Blue Apron. HelloFresh works with local farms and offers more menu flexibility.

But all three share a passion for food, a commitment to quality and an enthusiastic two-way dialogue with customers on social networking channels. A recipe for success, inside the box – or the store.

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