We Test-drove a Microwave Meal-Delivery Service

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Chicken salad with dried cranberries and quinoa pilaf. Photo: Courtesy of Fuel

Here’s something nobody ever tells you about working from home: It makes you fat. At least that was my experience. It comes down to moving less and making bad choices. Like ordering $25 worth of Indian food at lunch to meet the restaurant’s minimum delivery charge. Even when I ate the right things, I couldn’t stop eating them. (Shout out to Trader Joe’s organic Turkish apricots!) Moving to Los Angeles didn’t exactly help. Like everyone out here, I was regularly Uber-ing to dinner. You know, so I could really enjoy that seventh glass of wine. This is a pretty gnarly segue, but the thing is, I suddenly understood why Britney Spears needed a conservatorship to handle her finances. Because homegirl couldn’t be trusted to make her own decisions. That was me with food! I needed a food conservatorship. I’d put on a quick ten pounds, and it was time to (gulp) hack my diet.

I never imagined the way forward might include frozen food. Or, more specifically, a delivery service shipping flash-frozen, nutritionist-designed meals (a.k.a. real food) that heats in the microwave in three minutes. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d even used my microwave. I’d come to think of it as some oversize, Soviet-era digital clock. But here I was scrubbing the thing out and logging on to TryFuel to order next week’s lunch.

Chicken satay with roasted root vegetables. Photo: Courtesy of Fuel

Fuel was founded in January 2016 by Dr. Chandra Duggirala, who had designs on— you guessed it — disrupting the health-conscious food-delivery space. And the site’s pretty easy to use. After inputing some information about myself (age, height, weight) and my goals (to see my junk again), I was taken to a menu offering low-carb, low-calorie meals like Paleo polpette di carne with broccoli and Paleo chicken tandoori with cauliflower rice. (Fuel currently has 21 different meals on its menu, but only a dozen fit my particular needs.) I was also encouraged to download the Fuel app, which would sync with my Fitbit or iPhone to track my activity. If I spent too much time on the couch instead of at the gym, the app would suggest tweaks to my order. If Uber once called itself “Everyone’s Private Driver,” Fuel aims to be “Everyone’s Private Chef.” While it’s not cheap — six meals will run you $69.99 — it’s a lot cheaper than hiring a chef. Or treating diabetes.

Frozen meals certainly aren’t new. Swanson basically invented the frozen-dinner craze after World War II. And the frozen-food category on the whole has only grown since. According to a company called Transparency Market Research, the demand for frozen food is expected to reach almost $294 billion by 2019. And there are competitors at every price point. Luvo (founded by two expats from Whole Foods and Starbucks) trades in low-calorie, non-GMO, antibiotic-free meals like red-wine-braised beef and polenta that are sold in the supermarket freezer and cost under $10. (Derek Jeter is one of the company’s brand ambassadors.) Veestro is a frozen-food-delivery service that operates more like Fuel, though its offerings are strictly plant-based. Which is to say nothing of upstarts like Blue Apron (which deliver fresh ingredients for you to assemble at home yourself). Even Uber has experimented with its own on-demand meal-delivery program, UberEats.

Bulgogi beef with egg, spring broccoli, and bok choy. Photo: Courtesy of Fuel

The market is crowded. But perhaps not yet saturated. Fuel raised $180,000 from a friends-and-family seed round before receiving backing from 500 Startups, a venture-capital fund in Mountain View, California, whose portfolio includes the Dollar Beard Club (a subscription service catering to bearded bros). Fuel’s tech bona fides are legit. The company’s CTO, Manoj Duggirala, comes from InvenSense, where he helped design fitness-tracker software development kits for Fitbit. (He’s also the Fuel founder’s brother.)

While my knowledge of tech start-ups is limited to what I’ve learned from watching HBO’s Silicon Valley, I do know about taste. So let’s talk turkey. Or fall harvest turkey with Paleo stuffing. Fuel meals arrive on dry ice, with each dish individually plated and vacuum-sealed. If you’re wondering how the meals look in real life, well, in that way it’s kind of like the men on Grindr. If you squint hard enough, it’s basically like what you ordered.

More surprising? The food tastes pretty great. The peanut sauce on the satay has a real kick to it. And the texture of the chicken (Mary’s Free-Range, by the way) was pretty tender. Like you might find on a transatlantic business-class flight. Except it was assembled at a 500,000-square-foot facility in West Sacramento, California, and shipped to 48 states under the direction of chef Lorenzo Wimmer, who’d trained at the L’Ecôle Gastronomie Française in Villefranche, France.

Pan-seared salmon with honey-roasted root vegetables. Photo: Courtesy of Fuel

I rang up Dr. Duggirala (India-born, U.S.-trained) to talk about his inspiration for Fuel, and I’m relieved to say he had sympathy for my gluttonous tendencies. He also had compassion for my ignorance about, say, the role genetics should play in my diet, or my belief that Paleo was a Hollywood trend inspired by a live-action Flintstones movie.

“Even if you know everything that you need to know about your body and what you need to eat based on the latest science,” Dr. Duggirala said, “it’s practically impossible to keep up with the amount of work and time that is needed to do the right things. Fuel is an attempt to take all of that information, everything that we know about what people should be doing, and remove all of the steps where people fall off and make unhealthy choices.”

Is that polite doctor-speak for “people are lazy”? I asked.

“I wouldn’t say lazy … ” he said. But he understands obesity is both an epidemic and a business opportunity. He’d previously spent four years developing a medical device to treat diabetes and obesity without surgery through his company Novobionics. His mission then and now is essentially the same: making people healthy through diet. He’s just treating the problem with food instead of hardware.

Curried chicken salad with kale avocado salad. Photo: Courtesy of Fuel

Dr. Duggirala wasn’t reinventing the wheel. He was just building a better mousetrap. Or maybe building a better NutriSystem for Men — a weight-loss product I’ve actually tasted once before. I used to date a guy who’d periodically use NutriSystem to shed pounds. And the program definitely worked. Though I don’t think he felt good about it. I still remember how a month’s supply of prepackaged, no-refrigeration-needed food would arrive on our doorstep with a thud. We’d stack the meals in our cupboard like we were preparing for the end of the world. (Hmmm … time to reorder?) I don’t know if those NutriSystem meals even came with an expiration date. Though, while we’re on the topic, you know what never expires? The unintentional comedy of this 2007 commercial for NutriSystem for Men, which features a bunch of retired pro athletes talking about their waistlines.

I know what you’re thinking: Did I lose weight with Fuel? To which I respond: How dare you ask a man about his weight?

I’m kidding. It’s too soon to tell. But I feel good about what I’m putting in my body. And most important, I don’t have to think about it. At lunchtime, I pull a meal from the freezer and pop it in the digital clock.

We Test-drove a Microwave Meal-Delivery Service