PhotoWe read with interest Jennifer Abel's story about "dinner kits" a few days ago. A dinner kit, it turns out, is sort of like a paint-by-numbers set for those whose mothers never taught them to open a can.

It's a prefabricated dinner that is delivered to your home in a box. Sort of like Meals on Wheels except that you still have to cook it. 

The sales pitch for this latest supposed innovation is that it makes it possible for busy professionals to eat dinner without going out to a restaurant. Quite an accomplishment, you must admit.

But after marveling at this latest triumph of marketing, the smoke cleared and we were unable to resist shouting a rude epithet at the computer screen. 

"There's something wrong with the world when people think they're so busy they can't open a box of rice and carve up a chicken breast," we exclaimed. It takes about 15 minutes for even the klutziest of us to prepare an edible dinner, not counting cooking time and it certainly doesn't take much in the way of brainpower. Talk to any short-order cook if you don't believe it.

But let's assume for a minute that these urban professionals truly are so busy that by the time they rush home to their loft-style Hoboken digs they are so stressed out from a day of dreaming up advertising slogans and analyzing all the marketing, business and development plans that occupy what would otherwise be idle hands, they could not possibly be troubled to throw a pot of water on the stove and empty a box of pasta into it. 

Retroactive analysis

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Our new slow cooker at work

Turning to anthropology for an answer to this dilemma, we conducted a retroactive analysis of cooking patterns in pre-Millennial times and found that previous generations of Americans had used slow-cookers, a/k/a Crockpots, to prepare hearty and healthy meals that simmered away during the workday and were ready to be devoured by famished urban professionals upon their return to their domiciles.

We assumed that these had passed into extinction but mounted an expedition to Walmart just to be sure, assuming that if the species survived anywhere on Earth, it would be at Walmart

Sure enough, there on Aisle 3,241 we found a Hamilton-Beach slow-cooker for $14. We made a quick detour through the canned goods section on the way out, grabbing a couple of cans of Bush's Vegetarian Baked Beans and two cans of creamed corn, as called for in a soup recipe we had found earlier at About.com. 

The beans cost about $6 and the corn about $2. We already had everything else the recipe called for. As habitual cooks will tell you, this is one big advantage of cooking on a regular basis: you build up a selection of dill, garlic, pepper and other commodities, so you don't need to have someone send you a single day's supply every time you feel like eating.

Upon returning home, we unpacked the cooker, opened a few cans, diced up some celery and threw everything into the cooker. Then we turned it on. All of this activity was concluded by about 10:30 this morning and took about an hour from start to finish, most of that time taken up by the trip to Walmart.

A few hours later, expending no further energy, we had a large vat full of very tasty corn chowder. We wolfed down a bowl with some rice crackers and judged it a reasonably satisfying lunch. Still in the cooker was enough soup for five or six more lunches or dinners. Later today, we'll freeze a bunch of individual portions and that will be, as they say, that.

Incredible savings vs. incredible recipes

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Don't know how to cook? Put your laptop in the kitchen. It will guide you.

For comparison's sake, we checked Blue Apron, one of the boxed-meal purveyors featured in Jennifer's piece. While Blue Apron modestly describes its recipes as "incredible," we'd have to say that description also applies to their prices: $9.99 per person per meal, according to their website.

This sounds pretty reasonable but consider your typical dual-wage-earning duo of busy professionals. Assuming each of them eats, Blue Apron is into them for $20 a day or $140 per week -- just for dinner. The USDA reports that most consumers spend less than that for a full week's worth of food -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- for their families. OK, maybe they don't have frisee and farro salads (whatever they may be) but they may have a few bucks left over at the end of the week.

Let's look a little more closely at this: the beans and creamed corn cost us $8. If we assign a value to the pepper, celery and other stuff we had lying around, maybe it was worth 50 cents. Assuming we get eight bowls of soup, that's a little over $1 each. Add some rice crackers or -- hey, let's go wild for a minute -- a few slices of bread and the total cost per meal might be $1.20.

That's a lot less than $9.99 and if you want to be health-conscious, cooking at home lets you control sodium, fat and all that kind of stuff. You can go vegan, be lactose-free and banish gluten forever with very little extra trouble and expense.  

Who cares?

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Survey of Income and Program Participation 2004 and 2008 Panels

Why does all this matter? Who cares about a few hundred bucks? Well, not to preach but the Census Bureau reports that median household net worth in the U.S. decreased 35% from 2005 to 2010, when it hit $66,740 (and the 35-to-44-year age group has seen the biggest decline, down 58%). That's the median, mind you, not the average. The average is hovering somewhere in the single digits.

Families and individuals with no net worth to speak of are the ones who suffer most when they lose their job or, attention federal workers, are furloughed for a few weeks. They're also the ones who arrive at old age with nothing to live on except meager government "entitlements," possibly explaining the alarming rise in the suicide rate among aging Baby Boomers the last few years. 

Gee, all this fuss over a boxed dinner. Just saying -- part of being a wise consumer is controlling spending and building net worth. In the long run, it's a lot more important than having the latest smartphone, tablet computer, safari tickets or dinner box collection. 


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