The Convenient, Healthy, and High-Tech Future of Food for the Whole Family
The kitchen is awash in innovations that are just beginning to change the way we shop, cook, and interact with food. Here's how to prepare your family for it.
The following was produced in partnership with our friends at New York Life, who are committed to helping families be happy, successful, and good at life.
Picture your kids as parents (they grow up so fast, don’t they?). Now imagine their typical evening: They arrive home from work, relieve the nanny, then step into kitchen and hit the meal-ordering button on the counter. “Animal-free steak, rosemary roasted potatoes, and crispy Brussels sprouts,” they tell the computer. The ingredients will arrive at the door in 15 minutes, they’re told by a speaker embedded in the fridge, while a flat screen by the kitchen sink plays short videos depicting the farms where the produce was harvested and the lab where the steaks were scientifically grown (no cows harmed). The food arrives right on time, allowing them to pop the ingredients into the various compartments of the smart oven, which scan, verify, and cook each part of the meal to perfection.
This vision might seem like something straight out of the Jetsons (minus the nanny robot), but, more than being plausible, it’s likely to become a common reality within our lifetimes. There’s a revolution happening in the kitchen today with new food-delivery services, smart-home kitchen gadgets, and futuristic meat substitutes aiming to disrupt the way we shop for, prepare, and consume our meals. At the same time, growing concerns about the environmental, cultural, and nutritional repercussions of our food choices are changing our relationship with grocers for good.
The rapidly shifting food landscape will impact the way a family eats in the years to come, both in terms of how much we spend on food and what exactly we spend money on. Getting a handle on food finances, therefore, is an essential step for setting your family up to be good at life. We spoke to a handful of experts, including food journalist Mark Bittman, on how the relative costs of family expenditures will change in the coming years — and how to have the best kitchen habits money can buy.
A More Convenient Kitchen
There has been a recent shift in the food spending habits of Americans, who are turning to more expensive options. In 2014, for the first time ever, U.S. consumers spent more on dining out than eating at home. Why? It’s simply more convenient. The food industry has heard the cry and has been aggressively innovating new ways to take the hassle — and time — out of cooking. Services like UberEATS and GrubHub are making restaurant deliveries more widespread and user friendly. Grocery stores, eager to win back customers, are transforming into “grocerants,” devoting an ever larger portion of their operations to prepared meals. Even those who still cook for themselves aren’t bothering with meandering down grocery aisles anymore, thanks to a growing number of services that deliver groceries right to your door.
Such advancements hint at a future where grocery shopping and cooking will become ever more personalized and expedient. “I do see increasing opportunities for people to customize the way they shop,” Mark Bittman, food journalist and author of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian tells Fatherly. “Supermarkets will offer more ways to get food to you: You’ll be able to order in advance and pick up or get delivery, and this will include not only prepared meals but pre-prepped ingredients for cooking,” says Bittman. “I don’t see any reason you couldn’t upload a recipe with a checklist of the ingredients you need, and even specify their quality level, and pick up those ingredients, prepped if you want, an hour or two later.”
Such conveniences can be a boon. A study that looked at spending habits of citizen of the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands concluded that in general “working adults report greater happiness after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase.” Saving time in the kitchen — through grocery delivery or takeout, for example — could by extension lead to a happier family. But such new conveniences are generally more expensive than the standard home-cooked meal — and therefore require smart financial planning.
It’s why Jeff Rose, founder of the financial planning blog Good Financial Cents, recommends getting a firm grip on your current food expenditures. Use a budgeting app to track your spending and automatically determine how much you’re paying each month on groceries and restaurants. If one or both of those values appear wildly exorbitant, find ways to cut back on expensive food options while minimizing inconveniences.
The Rising Cost of Food in America
Between 1960 and 2007, the percent of disposable personal income Americans spent on food dropped significantly, from 17.5 to 9.6 percent. But lately, the share of Americans’ income devoted to food has been flattening. That means soon enough, the trend could shift upwards, as consumers begin to spend ever larger amounts of their incomes on what they eat. The change is in part due to the stagnation of U.S. incomes, plus the fact that food price inflation has been outpacing all consumer spending categories save housing and medical costs, thanks to disruptions in the global food markets. In 2014, for the first time ever, U.S. consumers spent more on dining out than eating at home.
Technologies that turn households away from takeout and back to home cooking can be both good for the wallet and free up time. Prepared meal delivery services that are custom-built to keep its customers in the kitchen is one example. The services are not usually cheap (you can find the ingredients within most boxes for less at most grocery stores), but if it keeps you in the kitchen and away from the increasing allure of the easy-takeout apps, it should save you money.
Rose also encourages everyone to think hard about whether the extra time these options provide justifies the cost. “You just have to ask yourself, is this convenience freeing you up for your business or your family, or are you just being lazy and vegging out on the couch?” he says. “If you are not doing something proactive with that extra time, maybe it’s not worth it.”
The Quest for Quality
People aren’t just interested in how their foods are prepared — they’re also increasingly concerned with how their foods are produced. Demand for healthy, sustainable foods is booming, with U.S. organic sales hitting a record $47 billion last year. As populations rise, the climate continues to change, and water shortage persist, the focus on sustainable food is likely to only grow. But that organic label comes at a premium — a recent survey found organic products are on average 47 percent more expensive than their conventional counterparts. The price of wholesome, eco-friendly eating is likely going to increase, too, thanks to new food-tech concepts like lab-grown, meat-free “beef,” that’s far more expensive than the old-fashioned, animal-derived alternative.
Given the complex future of agriculture families should look to simplify the connection between the grower and their plate. One way to do this is by connecting directly with the farmer through community supported agriculture (CSA) — paying a flat fee for seasonal produce that’s grown in your region is healthy, sustainable, and often cheaper than similar quality produce from the grocery store.
Will Allen, founder and CEO of the influential Milwaukee-based urban farming project Growing Power also suggests families get to gardening. Whether this is on your window-sill, part of a neighborhood urban farm, or in your backyard, growing vegetables can help connect your kids to their food, and save you money in the meantime (a 600-square foot vegetable garden yields $600 worth of produce annually). Besides, it’s a great lesson for the kids. “If we don’t grow farmers,” says Allen, “we won’t be able to grow good food.”
Food and the Rest of Life
While it makes sense to start budgeting and planning for the added costs of the future of food, Bittman, for one, doesn’t think people should be scared away from spending more to eat better. Otherwise, the money you save from skimping on quality food could be offset by other costs down the road. “Most Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than people who live elsewhere; I think that’s a mistake,” says Bittman. “If you look at a graph of healthcare costs versus food costs, it’s a big ‘X.’ That is, the more we spend on food, the less we spend on healthcare; the less we spend on food, the more we spend on healthcare. I don’t want to get into ‘food as medicine,’ but if you eat well, you tend to be healthier.” And of course being healthier means you are free to do what you love and spend more time with your loved ones.
In short, with a little financial preparation now, your kids will be ready for your not-too-far-off smart kitchen, with its meal-ordering buttons, information-dispensing smart screens, and steak and potatoes automatically cooked to your liking. Now as for a smart sink to robotically wash all the resulting dishes? Don’t get your hopes up.
Fatherly’s 4 Lessons for a Healthy, Happy, Food-Savvy Family
1. Budget for Time: Make sure your food-buying decisions take prep time into account. If grocery store delivery raises your shopping bill 10% but saves you hours, for example, it is likely worth the cost.
2. Try Out New Tech: From prepared meal services to grocery delivery companies, give a bunch of the latest food tech offerings a try. This is the best way to find out what’s the perfect fit for your family’s time, taste, and budget.
3. Know Your Grower: If you have the plot for a garden, start growing. If your yard is a fire escape, however, connect with your farmer through Community Supported Agriculture, which will bring you fresh, local produce for less.
4. Make Nutrition a Priority: Americans spend roughly twice as much on healthcare as they do on food. Think about budgeting more for healthier food purchases. Eating well every day may cost you more in the short term and take more time to prepare, but it can pay off when it comes to your family’s health.
This article was produced in partnership with our friends at New York Life, who are committed to helping families be happy, successful, and good at life. Learn more at newyorklife.com.