Modern community: three levels being re-shaped by social distancing

Well before COVID-19 struck, the U.S. faced a loneliness epidemic: 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely prior to the pandemic. Compare this with a November 2020 study, where 80% of participants reported significant depressive symptoms. People have felt isolated because, well, they have been. Self-isolation and social distancing are our best prevention methods for mitigating COVID-19’s spread. While we protect our psychical health, people have also needed to find way to bolster mental health.

More than three in five Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feeling like they are left out, poorly understood and lacking companionship.

Elena Renken, NPR

In a testament to human resilience and ingenuity, with each social door that has closed, people have tested and tried a dozen alternative doors to open. I’ve seen social connection re-imagined at three levels: one-on-one, affinity groups, and the workplace. Below I share the trends that have warmed my heart to see, and my favorite examples within each.

Three levels of community

One-on-one

With space in our calendars, our collective memories have been stirred, to think of loved ones and old friends far and wide. We’ve felt the urge to connect with them using tools we almost forgot existed: telephones and pen and paper. Paper Source Inc.’s greeting-card sales jumped 1,200% following social distancing orders in March. And phone call volume surged more than internet use in the weeks following lock-down, as people wanted to hear the sound of each other’s voices.

Favorite for one-on-one: Lovepop cards are the notes I have both enjoyed sending the most and gotten the warmest responses for. In a world that feels mostly 2D right now because of excessive screen time, it’s revitalizing to inject some 3D into it.

Lovepop cards range from the lovely to the nerdy.

Affinity groups

Lockdowns across the globe have re-shaped and consolidated our social networks. People have focused on connecting with those they have the most in common with over people that are geographically near. This includes revived interest in hobbies and affinity groups. In Ireland, over 250,000 people joined Facebook hobby groups following lock-down orders, with 30,000 people joining Irish Gardening alone.

When social interactions moved online, only certain kinds of relationships seemed to survive.

Dr Marlee Bower, loneliness researcher, University of Sydney

While incumbent social media has done well, new platforms for online social interaction have proliferated. Clubhouse has enjoyed huge engagement. I’ve been invited to many Sims-esque social spaces, from Gather to Kumospace.

Favorite for affinity groups: Toucan wins for small (less than 15 people) social e-events. It’s essentially a virtual cocktail room where you can move between different social circles. Among the ‘organic’ platforms that permit free movement, it has been the easiest to interact with. However, the organic movement of participants starts to feel chaotic if the event gets too big.

Toucan lets you mix and mingle across different audio circles in the same event.

The workplace

Remote work has changed much of how we communicate with coworkers. For many, social distance has also created emotional distance. In a study by Sharehold, mental health was the top-reported factor that impacted employees after New York’s March 2020 stay-at-home orders (due to COVID-19). Another international survey showed 40% of employers felt concern for how remote work might impact workers’ mental health.

Many employers have tried to address our yearning for informal chats and ‘micro-interactions’ with new tools (Slack, Zoom) and new norms. My company started including personal checkins at the beginning of Monday stand-ups. And working sessions quickly transitioned from ‘business-first’ to ‘catch-up first’.

Favorite for the workplace: My company instituted quarterly ‘cafes’ with trivia pulled from our personal Readmes and Slack. It gamifies getting to know each other and is full of laughs.

Community in the long run

Loneliness experts hypothesize that people will recover from the lock-down-induced loneliness spike and return to their previous baseline over the long-term. So while we’ve explored new ways to engage in community virtually, nothing can supplant the human need to be with one another in person.

We are creatures of habit. . . I think we will revert back to our social groups [in the long run].

Michelle Lim, loneliness expert

Out with the old: How to make resolutions you’ll keep

We’ve all heard that the journey is more important than the destination. And the most important part of the journey is the next step. But how does this apply to New Year’s resolutions? Below is a simple guide to nixing the lofty end-goals and re-centering around continuous improvement.

Your brain on resolutions

Run a marathon. Learn beginner guitar. A classic resolution names exactly the outcome you want. It gives you a mountain to climb, literally or metaphorically. While it’s nice to have a vision to work towards, these kinds of goals can often have negative psychological effects.

First, lofty goals can dampen your self-esteem. When you set a goal, you place yourself in an immediate state of failure, by definition. And since most resolutions relate to self-improvement, this may provoke feelings of inadequacy. Second, we are particularly susceptible to “false hope syndrome” when making resolutions. A variant of the planning fallacy, we can assume that achieving a goal will be easier or faster to achieve than is realistic. When reality sets in, we give up or experience de-motivation.

False hope syndrome is characterized by a person’s unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, ease and consequences of changing their behavior.”

Mark Griffiths, Psychology Professor, Nottingham Trent University

Third, a narrowly-defined goal may lead to de-motivation once we achieve the goal. We can mentally disconnect the goal from its underlying aspiration or principle. That’s why most dieters quickly regain all their lost weight, and then some. People who decide to adopt a healthy lifestyle, by contrast, often sustain success.

But how do you hold yourself accountable for self-improvement without a resolution? By changing your mindset to focus on the journey. That means prioritizing continuous improvement over specific milestones.

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Tim Harford, Author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

From resolutions to themes

For the last few years I have swapped out resolutions for annual themes. C.G.P. Grey describes themes as something you want more of in your life, a principle that you will use to make decisions. For me, last year was the “Year of Intentionality.” I wanted to do fewer things better. I wanted to avoid weaker interests that might crowd more important areas of my life. This theme gave me the grace to “Marie Kondo” my life. I said “thank you and goodbye” to the things that I like doing but didn’t have space for. And pandemic not withstanding, this was my most successful New Year’s resolution yet.

C.G.P. Grey explains how to make an annual theme that supports your growth.

From planner to navigator

It’s an unpredictable world out there. Having detailed life plans that you regularly scrap or revise can feel like a waste. Of course an initial plan can provide a valuable starting place. Plans can help you test assumptions and approaches. And the goal you are mapping towards can give you an inspiring vision and a sense of urgency. But the scale of the plan directly relates to the probability of success. A plan to get from your couch to the front door is more likely to succeed than a plan to get from your couch to Times Square, which depends on whether your E train became an F or your Q became a 2 train.

“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower

If resolutions are truly meant to help improve your life, themes are much better suited to the job. They provide clear decision-making principles that enable you to plan your next step, no matter what life throws at you. And because the locus of control is with you, in a year’s time, you will look back and see visible growth.

Winter is coming: 10 must-haves for quarantine survival

This summer, as we broke out of our quarantine cocoons, we all became nature enthusiasts as we sought out wide-open spaces. The air was sweet and social distancing was easy. But as the leaves are changing, so is the COVID case count trend line — and not for the better. Seeing the Wall in the north signals the worst, and we must be ready for it. Like any epic sequel, we have learned a thing or two since facing the last big bad. Consider last winter’s self-isolation a practice round. This time, you’re going to be ready. With this survival kit, you can stay healthy all winter long, body, mind, and soul.

Body

Your physiological well-being is tier one on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Here are three things beyond sheltering in place that will keep you healthy this winter.

1. Roborock

If the pandemic has showed us nothing else, hygiene and health go hand-in-hand. The Roborock S6 MaxV robot vacuum and mop literally does all the dirty work for you by keeping your floors gleaming. With the bad germs gone, you can fully enjoy the Great Indoors.

2. Fitbod

Whether you love working out or hate it, Fitbod really does fit any user. It generates custom workouts based on (1) how often you want to workout, (2) your available equipment, and (3) your freshest muscle groups. You can also adjust the suggest workout modules as you go, so it can truly fit the time you have available and your fitness level. Because of Fitbod, I exercise more than I ever have before: three times a week for 20 minutes. My mother would be proud.

3. Baldor

Baldor is a New York restaurant supplier that started delivering direct-to-consumer at the start of the pandemic. It’s higher quality than Whole Foods, yet less expensive. You can buy European, preservative-free canned tuna and Hudson Valley farm CSA boxes. Their “peak season” and “local” buttons point you to the freshest food available and help you support local businesses. The minimum order size is $200, which isn’t hard to meet if you freeze some of your order. Watch out for item sizes — some SKUs are definitely intended for high-volume restaurants!

Now that you’ve got a plan for your physical health, it’s time think about your mind. (So meta.)

Mind

Boredom ranks as the most common quarantine complaint. But your livingroom doesn’t need to be where creativity goes to die. Below are sources of stimulation and tools that provide some of the interactive flexibility that you had when working in-person.

4. An Ipad + Apple Pencil

When you’re trying to map out an idea or ideate with a team, sometimes you just need a whiteboard. Using tools like Microsoft OneNote or Google Jamboard can enable visual collaboration in real time. And if you want to draw things other people will recognize, mouse scribbles just don’t cut it. An Apple Pencil instantly gives you the same articulation as a whiteboard.

5. Zoom virtual backgrounds

This may seem like a small one, but I think I’ve been around the world and back with all the creative backgrounds I’ve seen and employed. It keeps viewers stimulated in a time of screen fatigue.

6. Books

Remember those? They are what people read before online news and Netflix. Take the opportunity this winter to rediscover what’s on your book shelf, join a book club, or renew your library card. And if you’re not afraid of endless screen time, the New York Public library has an extensive e-book collection.

Now that your body and mind are feeling like well-oiled machines, it’s time to think about the things that make life worth living, the things that feed your soul.

Soul

As I’m sure you learned in the first quarantine, operating at your best takes more than just a healthy body and engaged mind. Below are three things that nourish the soul.

7. WakingUp app

Bestselling author Sam Harris created a guided meditation platform called Waking Up. Through it, you can both practice meditation, and learn the theory behind the practice. It offers a 30-day free trial beginners course that introduces many types of mindfulness meditation, along with access to other mindfulness content. If there’s anything we all need after the crazy year of 2020, it’s help clearing our minds and centering ourselves.

Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others. 

– Sam Harris, best-selling author and neuroscientist

8. Pod buddies

Introvert or extrovert, relationships are rejuvenating. I almost forgot people came in three dimensions until I started meeting a pod body every other week. And now, the world feels a bit more human.

9. A furry pet

If you haven’t yet joined the animal adoption bandwagon, it’s not too late! Even the CDC recommends pet ownership for its physical, emotional, and interpersonal benefits.

The trifecta

There’s one product that offers physical engagement, mental stimulation, and soul-stirring joy rolled all into one.

10. Oculus Quest

The Oculus Quest‘s Beat Saber offers immersive entertainment, that gets you moving and brings the inexplicable soul highs of electronic music. With the Quest’s new wireless capabilities, it’s a huge upgrade from the Oculus Rift.

Ready Player One was closer than we thought, and with the state of the world in 2020, it’s perfect timing.

Ready for Round 2

Tie a bandana around your head and put on some boxing wraps, because you are ready for the next round of lock down. God speed.

Rising like the phoenix: The rebirth of NYC restaurants

“We had to keep reinventing the business every week to two weeks.”

Caitlyn Morrissey, store manager. Source: The New York Times

New York small businesses have seen the full financial force of the pandemic, and restaurants have born the brunt of it. Roughly 7,000 NYC small businesses have shut down permanently since the start of the pandemic. The New York Times reported that a third of these small business closures are restaurants. So when I see a tattooed old man out with his DeWalt circular saw and 2x4s procured from the Flatiron Home Depot two blocks away, building outdoor seating as structurally sound as any residential building, my hat goes off to him. This post is a homage to those who have recreated the restaurant.

Reinvention: Not just by restaurant owners

We’ve heard various narratives about the “multiplier effect” of a job. Once one person is employed, they have money to spend that helps employ someone else. The same is true of restaurants setting up outdoor seating. From local contractors to florists to set designers looking for very off-Broadway work, skilled builders have redeployed expertise for the local restaurant. Design firms like Rockwell Group and Pink Sparrow have mocked up modular, prefabricated platforms, barriers, and parklets — which they may make available as DIY kits. And of course, most scrappy New York restaurateurs literally scrapped something together.

Best of NYC outdoor seating

In celebration of NYC creativity, we’ve identified a few outdoor dining “winners” who categorically stood out.

Most creative social distancing: Cafe du Soleil, French cafe, Upper West Side

The Covid bubble is real.

Best outdoor indoor seating: Kyuramen, ramen house, Flushing

Am I on the outside looking in, or on the inside looking out?

Best use of public infrastructure: Hudson Clearwater, American restaurant, West Village

Public seating upgrade or restaurant oeuvre, you decide.

Most European-inspired: Le Zie, Italian restaurant, Chelsea

The closest thing to a vacation you’ll get this year.

Most authentic: Smithfield Hall, sports bar, Flatiron

Sometimes, all you need is a nice, cool pint.

Mo’ seating, mo’ permanent

It’s not just restaurants that are allowed to apply for street seating —it’s anyone with a ground-floor store front. And it’s not just a pandemic “perk” now to dine outside. Our mayor wants to embrace our new sidewalk cafe seating year-round. While our city is evolving out of necessity, some of it will be for the better. Especially for all the new puppy owners who can bring their four-legged family members out for lunch and dinner.

On a personal note, it’s great to see the Keynsian multiplier in full effect, increasing the velocity of money and driving trickle-out economics. As in we’re trickling out into the streets.

The Quarantini: A recipe for the times

Source: New York Post

Since being locked away, we’ve all had to spent a little more time in the kitchen. With a bit of experimentation, I’ve captured the quarantine experience in a recipe that redefines mocktail: The Quarantini.

Ingredients

Heavy amount social distancing
5 new face masks
4 electronic devices
3 Netflix series
2 new app downloads
1 new hobby
1 new subscription service
1 adopted pet
1 bicycle
A dash of social isolation
Sourdough starter
A gallon of hand sanitizer
Unlimited social unrest

Optional:
1 bucket of coronas
1 new escape plan

Directions

To gather all your ingredients, first walk outside. Realize you are in a real-life I am Legend scene. Walk back inside. Embrace the “Spaceship you” and decide to become a better version of yourself. Download one fitness and one mindfulness app. Adopt a puppy. Reignite your love of puzzles with a 1000-piece monthly subscription box. Read blogs about whether your sourdough baby is normal. Add a dash of social isolation that sinks you deeper into your four devices. Binge your favorite three Netflix series. Decide you’re ready to go outside, with a heavy dose of social distancing. Realize that spring fashion is all about mask fashion now. Give the evil eye to anyone not wearing a mask, making loud comments about how some people don’t know what “six feet” means until people sheepishly back off or become enraged. Stir in increasing amounts of social unrest, until the street protests are daily, and hand sanitizer flows freely as city budgets dry up.

Realize that this is bigger than you and requires systems change. Break out your optional buck of coronas on the rocks, best enjoyed in makeshift outdoor seating. Mix a dash of homelessness as shelters become less safe and the eviction moratorium ends. Hatch your emergency escape plan in case the city loses its je-ne-sais-quoi. And finally, watch a man in a beret cycle by, playing gentle french music from his speakers, and remember why you love New York. Pop open one more corona and pour one for your hommies.

Tricked into mindfulness by Twitter

Source: The Week

A flurry of urgency

It goes without saying that there is a lot going on these days that feels both urgent and important. In the times of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, time feels more scarce, yet there is more to absorb, digest, and take action on.

As I increased my news and Twitter intake, I realized the social media siren was calling me not just to engage, but to be mindful of how I engage. I needed to reinstate my mindfulness practice. This raised a question of seeming contradictions: Could Twitter train my mindfulness muscle?

The original engagement engine

Your brain is the original engagement engines. It hunts for things to keep your interest, presenting thoughts until it hits the jackpot of something you’re willing to latch onto. Just like a Twitter feed.

Unfortunately, our brains seem to think engagement is an end unto itself. Optimizing only for engagement crowds out so many other important mental qualities and states, like peace, self-control, and clarity. Yet this seems to be the center of gravity for our brains. If left unchecked, our brains can habituate negative engagement like anxiety, anger, or other counter-productive emotions.

What Twitter has in common with mindfulness

If you have ever tried mindfulness, you may have had the experience of thoughts passing you by without you feeling attached to them. Without you *engaging* with them. Scrolling through, without clicking anything, does not count as engagement in the Twitter algorithm. You need to click, like, retweet to register engagement.

But what about when you read a toxic comment thread? Is there a way to engage mindfully even when it sets you off?

Mindful engagement

A strong mindfulness practice does not mean you will be shielded from things you consider unpleasant. The important thing in Twitter and mindfulness is that you actively choose when and how to engage. Developing a mindfulness habit means even when you engage, you do not latch on indefinitely to a thought. You can release the thought when you choose, before your brain escalates into a grappling match. You can keep scrolling for the next idea, thoughtfully integrate the good ones, and move on at will.

Embracing new possibilities

There is a way to be proactive without being over-reactive. Sometimes you can let go of the struggle. Letting go will help you, whether you want to observe what is useful and move on, or take notes and artfully act.

In this moment we can’t let the world pass us by. Neither can we let it consume us. We can and must carve a path forward on our terms. Because a mind is a terrible thing to waste — especially on negative engagement.

The face of fashion: How face masks became a brand marketing tool

Face masks are now a part of high fashion. Source: Vogue

Every brand knew that spring fashion would look different this year. With most urban centers passing stay-at-home orders to stem coronavirus’ spread, hundreds of thousands of storefronts have closed indefinitely. Disrupted supply chains have limited what brands can produce, and a strong focus on essential shopping has dampened consumer appetite. But even with all of these adversities, the fashion industry has pivoted quickly to offer something people are buying: face masks.

We’ve now seen two waves of high face-mask fashion: the early-responders and the marketing-minded. Early-responders were fast acting in response to our crisis. Many early-mover brands that retooled for face mask-making, like La Ligne and Clare V., prioritized relief efforts by donating to coronavirus charities. Others simply channeled their creative energies, adapted their couture style to make face masks beautiful accessories.

The freshest wave of fashion-mask makers took a little more time to think, and have figured out different “masks as marketing” strategies. High-end designers have introduced matching outfits, with spring patterns and luxurious materials. “Free mask with purchase” has become a hook to drive sales. And branded masks, both for sale and as give-aways, are providing free advertising for masstige and boutique brands alike.

Victoria’s Secret masks provide the PINK brand free advertising. Source: Victoria’s Secret

This industry pivot feels uniquely American. In countries like Korea, where mask wearing was more of a prior norm and more quickly adopted, fashionistas have focused more on eye-makeup than the actual mask aesthetic. America, it seems, is more masterful at driving spending. And looking at our annual ad spend, it’s no wonder: American companies spend 2.7x more on advertising compared to the next biggest spender, China. As they say, it takes money to make money.

The United States leads global marketing spend my a wide margin. Source: Statista

American companies are also exceptionally creative at inventing new market niches. I would have expected Victoria’s Secrets to come up with the provocative mask that looks like lingerie. But Katie May beat them to it.

If lace seems orthogonal to safe face coverage, Katie May begs to differ.

All in all, I tip my protective visor to the fashion industry for getting creative. One of the joys of living in New York is witnessing everyone’s self expression, and right now, the most universal way to do that is through face masks. I’ve collected a few now, with different fabrics, cuts, and patterns. It started out as a search for more comfort, and now, it’s become a statement.

The Zoom serenity prayer

In the new normal of remote work, we are still adapting to the intense amount of screen time that has replaced our in-person interactions. Perhaps you don’t feel like happy hours are as happy when you’re sitting an extra hour at your computer. Or you miss the simple phone calls that have suddenly turned video. For those who empathize, I offer the Zoom serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the Zoom calls I cannot change;
courage to cancel the video calls I do not need;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Boundaries are harder than ever to set in these crazy times, but also more important than ever for our mental health and productivity. Take CGP Grey’s word for it.

Have your own remote work serenity prayer? Please share on Twitter @mbainthecity!

Shaping community in the age of Facebook: three success stories

 Source: Sagepub.com
Source: Sagepub.com

As American society is increasingly moving from towns to cities, and from meeting face-to-face to meeting on Facetime, we have had to re-imagine community. We are figuring out how to navigate the “iPhone Effect” on our social connections. And our choices about how we engage with others with technology have huge implications. Will our social capital die down as we withdraw from traditional community, as Robert Putnam feared, or will community simply take on a new form? What does it look like to create and maintain a network of reliable peers, to make meaningful connections in new ways that suit our modern context?

Three principles from three places

I have been a part of a few different communities – work, home, and church – and have observed a few features that have made each a place of belonging. I’ll share a story about each, and then explore why these features of community feel increasingly rare.

De-anonymize

It’s wonderful to be loved, but it’s profound to be understood.

— Ellen Degeneres

In hustle-bustle cities like New York, there’s a sense of anonymity as you walk the streets and peruse the shops. You may be having a bad hair day, but you’ll never see those people giving you side-eye again! It can be liberating. And isolating. And so when I walked into Abyssinian Baptist Church, I noticed the immediate difference in the environment. Famous for their role in the Civil Rights Movement, ABC‘s activist roots run deep and were laced through the sermon. But that is not what gave the church a palpable feeling of connection. Rather, it was their ability to lift their community members up and make them known to each other. The head pastor invested a quarter of the service in spotlighting congregation members, asking them to stand and share their two way relationship with the church. The children reading passages from the bible were introduced. A woman who leads a black women on Broadway group was announced and lauded for her contributions. With so many names and faces getting celebrated and supported, it de-anonymized everyone, made me proud of people I didn’t actually know. In other words, I didn’t just connect with the general experience of the church service. I felt I understood some of the people in it, and cared about their well-being.

But this sort of success in fostering connection doesn’t happen on its own. It needs to be deliberately structured into the cadence of community interactions. The next principle and example share a great success story of building relationships in a group whose members were simultaneously complete strangers and close peers.

Build a support system

Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.

— Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Gathering a bunch of people who don’t know each other well in a room, even if they have a lot in common, can often lead to short, somewhat transactional exchanges. Yet that same room of people, with deliberate facilitation, can come alive together and seed the beginnings of lifelong friendships. I saw this arc in my company as we facilitated educator user groups, brought together virtually to develop free math resources online. At the end of the first user group, educators noted that, even with virtual summits and chat room discussions, they felt they’d missed an opportunity to connect more meaningfully with their peers. And so we designed more structured interactions into the next group’s architecture. We created peer pairings for ongoing support. We gave each educator two peer reviewers to provide feedback on the resources they designed. And we scheduled weekly discussion prompts for the chat rooms, giving educators a predictable rhythm of convening to exchange information and ideas. Engagement skyrocketed, and lasting friendships developed.

Providing structure to interactions led to shared expectations about engagement. This organically led educators to invest time into knowledge sharing above and beyond what the program required. Creating availability, it seemed, had been the key ingredient to relationship building. This has proven out in other communities, as I explore in the next example.

Be available

The more we can be in a relationship with those who might seem strange to us, the more we can feel like we’re neighbors and all members of the human family.

— Mr. Rogers

In many buildings I have lived in in New York, I never met my neighbors. My latest apartment is different. There are a number of retired folks who have lived in the building for many years, and they use their free time to be, well, neighborly. They have time to chat in the hallways. They knock on my door if they notice I have a package in the lobby. They offer to dog-sit. In short, they have time for me. And I, of course, have time for them. I offer to plant sit and pick up their mail when they travel. I have their phone numbers and know who their friends are in the building. We’ve inserted a bit of dependability into our network, by taking every small opportunity to be supportive of each other.

Where technology fits in

You may be wondering, why isn’t all of this obvious? Why is it so rare to know and support the people in your social circles in a reliable way? Why do we fail to consistently invest in relationship building?

Many would argue that today’s lower levels of community connection are a continuation of a multi-decade trend. Robert Putnam famously published a macro analysis in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, that identified a 58% decline in club meeting attendance, a 43% decline in family dinners, and 35% drop in having friends over between 1975 and 2000. Putnam identified changes in work, family structure, suburban life, and screen time, among other factors, as contributing to this decline in meaningful group relationships.

The solution to help buck this structural trend, according to the tech giants of the 2000s, was technology. Technology was supposed to bring us closer together. Facebook famously claimed that it could expanding the Dunbar number, the number of meaningful relationships a human can maintain. However, it turned out that the Dunbar number didn’t change. What social media has done is bring your outer circle of acquaintances in, rather than strengthening or growing your inner circle. Simultaneously, technology has increased our culture of distraction, competing for attention that could otherwise be focused on our close friends and communities.

If we rule our technology, and don’t let our technology rule us, it can still be a tool that builds community rather than undermines it. Use technology to make yourself available. Use the structure of a WhatsApp group to organize regular meetings. Carve out time in your group gatherings on and offline to hear more about the individuals that make your members. Abandon the convenience of liking a post, and actually speak directly to your friends, be it in-person or on Skype. Reject the loneliness of optionality and anonymity that big cities and infinite online interactions offer. Make your circles smaller and your world more personal.

Meal kit cook off: a side-by-side comparison

As a youngish professional spending most of my time in Manhattan, I find myself in food deserts from time to time, or move to move as it were. Each new move can spur a renewed exploration of meal kits, which have proliferated as a consumer offering in the last 5-10 years. A lot of listicles like Reviewed.com rate the mail-and-cook kit options, without factoring in the changing face of grocery. Thinking outside the FedEx box means recognizing that Whole Foods is in on the game now, and it’s not just Weight Watchers selling ready healthy meals anymore. Below is a side-by-side comparison sampling one of each of the three mealkit styles:

  • Blue Apron representing mail-and-cook

  • Amazon Meal Kits debuting pick-up-and-cook

  • Freshly repping mail, heat and eat

Amazon Meal Kits: I’m impressed

Amazon always does everything a little differently. In this instance, they’ve priced each meal kit differently, ranging from $15.99 to $19.99. This makes sense when the ingredients range from chicken to shrimp, and departs from the typical meal kit practice of flat pricing.

Also distinctive is the short, simple instructions and minimal number of ingredients. This meant that the 30 minute cooking time was a true 30 minutes! I tried the pork dish, and appreciated the fresh crunch and flavors, likely aided by the fact that I cooked it the same day that I bought it.

Freshly: full of flavor

Freshly caught my eye with a promotion, and now they have me sold. Six single meals for $60 gets you imaginative dishes like “Aloha Chicken” and wild-caught mahi. I had my doubts about microwave dishes, but the spices and the fresh ingredients mean there is only a little added softness from the microwave steaming. It’s all a huge upgrade from the panini and chicken salad sandwiches of downtown delis.

Blue Apron: light on flavor, long on time

I gave up on Blue Apron last year. The long recipe descriptions and amount of chopping for a knife-skills novice meant that the “30 minute” prep times were usually more like 60 minutes – that’s 100% overage! Also, they seemed to think salt, pepper, and olive oil were all you need to make a dish pop. It got a bit boring after a short while. And even with all the cooking time, I didn’t become a significantly better cook. Hence my back-tracking to the simpler options above.

The final evaluation: price, time and flavor

So who wins the a battle of price, time, and flavor? I’ve conveniently plotted price vs. time performance of these three options below, and plotted flavor against prep time in a 2×2 below.

 Price vs. prep time for 3 types of meal kits

Price vs. prep time for 3 types of meal kits

When evaluating flavor against prep time, we see Amazon and Freshly are in the lead.

 Plotting each meal kit on the amount of flavor and the amount of prep time each offers.

Plotting each meal kit on the amount of flavor and the amount of prep time each offers.

Using the Net Promoter Score scale for each of the three, rating how likely I am to recommend each kit on a scale of 0 to 10, here’s where I personally land on ratings for Amazon, Freshly, and Blue Apron.

Bon appetit!