Maybe you’ve noticed a new refrigerator case at your neighborhood Hen House or Price Chopper stocked with mysterious cardboard boxes.
Or maybe you’ve recently searched for a quick, but not greasy, way to feed your family and been directed to the Dietitian’s section at Hy-Vee.
At 23 Balls Food Stores around the area — Hen Houses and Price Choppers — the new coolers hold meal kits by an Olathe service called Happy Food Co.
The meal kits contain everything a cook needs to produce a balanced meal, including chopped local vegetables, portioned seasoning, and locally sourced meat, dairy and grain products.
And, since Hy-Vee stores are autonomous but often borrow successful ideas from one another, individual store’s dietitians are creating meal kits as well. They call their kits Dietitian Choice Meals to Go.
Hy-Vee’s Meals to Go are typically packaged with clear plastic lids and contain items straight from the store’s shelves — whole vegetables, portioned seasoning, packages of name-brand rice and butcher-wrapped meats.
This alternative to both fast food and traditional cooking is part of a worldwide trend of the past five years meant to encourage consumption of fresh, nutritious ingredients. And the meals involve little to no planning.
Hello Fresh, a German company, delivers kits to 48 states and eight countries. Blue Apron ships nationwide from New York. Plated is also out of New York and delivers to all states but Alaska and Hawaii.
The local kits, as well as those from the bigger companies that ship the food to customers, all tout fresh ingredients, short cooking times — between 25 and 40 minutes — and an ease of planning and cooking that works for a regular worknight or a special date night.
Founder of Happy Food Co. Jeff Glasco, of Overland Park, says he was “possessed” with the idea a few years ago.
Glasco, whose background is in software development, said, “The idea was making it easy to cook great food at home.
“I started taking some of the software methodology — software takes processes and makes them easier — and rearranged the processes that it usually takes to make a meal at home.”
But he knew nothing about sourcing food or writing recipes.
He met Kiersten Firquain, owner of the catering service InHome Bistro and original owner of Treat America’s Bistro Kids program, through a mutual friend. The two became 50-50 partners of Happy Food Co. two years ago.
They agreed that they wanted to serve a large segment of the population in America. “By 4 p.m. each day, 80 percent of Americans don’t know what they’re having for dinner that night,” Glasco said.
Last year, they installed cooler cases in five area businesses with the idea that employees could order kits 24 hours ahead that would be waiting for them as they left the office. Glasco’s statistic reared its head — only 20 percent of people who wanted to buy from them after work had actually placed an order the previous day.
For now, Glasco and Firquain have tabled the idea of selling to workers in order to focus on in-store sales.
Sarah and Michael Billigmeier, who live in Shawnee, purchased their first Happy Food Co. kit to cook together on Valentine’s Day. They are pretty sure they’ve tried all 22 meals, which Glasco rotates to keep people interested.
The Billigmeiers are among the 80 percent who don’t know much about cooking and enjoy the convenience. But, even better, they say they learn something from each kit; Firquain’s instructions are like mini cooking lessons.
Michael Billigmeier said, “It taught me how to wrap (cod) in parchment paper and cook it in that instead of cooking it flat in the pan. You put the veggies in the parchment with it and cook it together.”
And Sarah Billigmeier, whose favorite kit is the bison cheeseburger quesadilla, added, “I didn’t know you could mix apples in with guacamole.”
The Happy Food Co. boxes range in price from $14 to $20 for two servings, and $32 to $36 for four.
Current meals include jade rice soup with rosemary ciabattina; herd and curd burgers with cauliflower crumble salad; soba noodle bowl with hot sesame chicken; and butter-basted salmon with citrus salsa and multigrain rice.
In September, dietitian Ashton Ibarra of Platte City started the Hy-Vee meal kits in her store near Zona Rosa for National Family Meals Month. They’ve since spread to most area Hy-Vees.
She began at the Northland Hy-Vee four years ago after completing a post-bachelor’s dietetic internship through Iowa State.
“We came up with meal kits to help families enjoy one more meal around the table since we know that we have lost a lot of that,” Ibarra explained.
“They’re pretty easy recipes. Even a beginner in the kitchen would feel pretty confident with preparing a lot of the recipes we have out,” Ibarra said.
She emphasized that parents should get their “kiddos involved in the kitchen, teaching them those kitchen skills and letting them have fun with dinner and feeling like they’ve owned that dinner by making it themselves.”
Ibarra’s meals are $12.99 for two people or $24.99 for four people, unless otherwise noted.
Current offerings include teriyaki chicken kabobs and wild rice; grilled chicken with peach, red onion and basil relish; grilled steak with fresh green beans and garlic roasted potatoes; and spinach and barley salad with grilled pork.
Amanda Bartholomew and her mother-in-law, Therese Chilicas, were recently wandering through Ibarra’s store discussing what they could cook for Bartholomew’s four children that evening.
They said they had just been discussing the children’s eating habits over lunch and looking up recipes online.
Chilicas said they kept finding suggestions “like tater tot nachos and really unhealthy things.”
Neither woman had noticed the Meals to Go on other shopping trips. The two debated their options and ultimately decided on the grilled pork chops.
“I think this would be delicious for all of us. Twenty-four dollars for a meal isn’t bad,” Bartholomew said as she added the meals to her cart.
All boxes from each service are labeled for allergens. As for child-diners? Firquain says she’s worked with kids’ palettes for decades and doesn’t dumb down her recipes.
In fact, many of Happy Food Co.’s kits were first developed as school lunches.
“My background is cooking for kids, so I have a feel for what’s going to work and what doesn’t work.”
Firquain echoes Ibarra’s comment about the importance of parents cooking with their kids — cooking the food makes it more likely they’ll try it.
Maybe the same can be said of the adult customers. The Billigmeiers say the kits “scratch the itch” that they normally eat out to satisfy.
And as Bartholomew hustled toward the checkout, she said to Chilicas, “These kind of sound like fancy meals.”
She seemed relieved and excited to go home and cook.
Contact Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @annekniggendorf.