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Don't have time (or will) to pack lunch for your kids? There's a subscription for that

Rebekah Tuchscherer

Cooking is the absolute last thing Amanda Hengesbach wants to do when she gets home after work.

A 31-year-old single mom, Hengesbach works 40 hours each week at a senior living home. She says the days are long, and she’d rather spend quality time with her 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter than 45 minutes making dinner.

That’s why she subscribed to Yumble, a subscription meal service that delivers pre-made, kid-friendly meals to her doorstep once a week. A quick zap in the microwave, and the mom of two has a meal ready for her children in minutes.

“It was a self-care thing,” Hengesbach said of subscribing to Yumble three months ago. “After working all day, I don’t want to work more. I just want to spend time with my kids.”

Subscription meal delivery services for kids are ramping up for the back-to-school season as parents like Hengesbach search for kid-friendly lunches and dinners that don’t require time in front of a hot stove or scrambling to find a substitute for peanut butter sandwiches at nut-free schools.

Online subscriptions have sky-rocketed

The online subscription market grew from $57 million to $2.6 billion from 2011 to 2016, according to a 2018 study by McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm.

The month-by-month model has attracted a large breadth of companies, including Nike recently with its subscription service for kids' shoes. Some offer meal kits, while others have capitalized on beauty products, dog treats, books and even shaving products. However, more than one-third of shoppers who sign up for subscription services cancel within three months, and over half cancel within six months.

Companies like Yumble and Nurture Life differentiate themselves from the subscription meal kit industry by offering foods specifically for children, rather than young adults hoping to avoid grocery store lines or simplify meal prep.

“Most meal kits are a hobby or a fun-to-do for young couples or parents – but it’s still an activity,” Joanna Parker, co-founder of Yumble said. “Yumble is fully prepared, and it’s solving a pain that parents have day after day. Children have to eat every single day, and it can be a huge time suck for parents to get the ideas, concepts and all the ingredients in the house.”

Turkey Cheddar Pinwheels is one of the most popular Yumble meals for lunchtime, according to company co-founder Joanna Parker. The kit also includes green apple slices and a protein popper made of rolled oats, flax seeds, coconut and sunbutter.

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Laura Maulton’s youngest daughter has autism, which can make finding healthy foods with the right textures difficult for the 37-year-old mom from St. Simons, Georgia.

“One week, she’ll eat nothing but chicken nuggets,” Maulton said. “And the next week, she won’t touch them.”

Maulton ordered her first box back in June, and plans to resubscribe as she returns to 40- to 60-hour weeks in her kindergarten classroom in August. While she’s tried meal kits from HelloFresh, she said they’re just not as kid-friendly or easy to use.

Yumble and Nurture Life work similarly to other popular meal kit services, like HelloFresh, Blue Apron or Plated. Both companies choose how many and what kind of meals they’d like to order each week, which are then shipped to the buyer’s address.

But instead of a cardboard box of raw ingredients with a recipe card, Yumble sends a box filled with TV dinner-like containers, sticker sheets and activity books for children. The prepared meals have kid-friendly portions sizes and foods like turkey cheddar pinwheels and “chicken pops” made of ground chicken rolled in panko crumbs. The subscription cost between $48 and $168 each week, depending on the number of meals.

Since launching in July 2017, Yumble has served over 1 million meals, and has plans to open a second kitchen and launch a line of cold pasta salad meals as the school year approaches, Parker said.

Nurture Life, a company that launched in 2016, has a similar model but offers more daring foods like cheesy zucchini pomodoro and Thai coconut chicken. It also offers products for babies, toddlers and children up to 18 years old, changing food types and increasing portion sizes as children get older. The plans range in price from about $45  to $119 per week.

“We try to really provide a fresh, nutritionally-balanced and wholesome meal for families,” Jennifer Chow, co-founder of Nurture Life said. “But we also try to help children develop a great love of food and expand their palates.”

Nurture Life offers meal kits that increase portion size based on a child's age. One of the dishes includes chicken meatballs, pasta and vegetables.

Prepackaged trade-off

A balance of different food groups is important for a child’s dietary needs, but prepackaged meals come at the cost of high sodium levels, according to Julie Stefanski, a nutritionist with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Children’s sodium needs are much lower than adults, and Stefanski said that parents should ensure that the rest of the day’s snacks and meals are low sodium options if they use these meals.

"The size and appetite of children vary significantly," Stefanski said in an email. Parents "should be careful about making a child eat an entire meal or denying more food if the child has already finished their meal option." 

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As the portion sizes are determined by company standards rather than parents and children, the meals might not be the right size for every kid, Stefanski said.

Georgia's Multon has found this true, as she'll often add a side of fruit or something extra if for her 8-year-old daughter. She said they're the perfect size for her youngest on the nights when there isn't time to cook.

"There are some nights where my husband and I will eat a bowl of cereal," Multon said. "This is something easy and healthy that I can pull out of the fridge and fix for the girls."

What are your hacks for easy, healthy, kid-friendly meals? Tell Rebekah Tuchscherer on Twitter @r2sure.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kid-friendly subscription meals can make school lunchtime easier