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From convenience to conservation—talking modern meals at SIAL

At a conference session in Toronto, panellists discussed the services and issues that are drastically shaping the food industry

From meal kits and home meal replacements to online food and delivery systems, the battle for share of stomach has intensified as food businesses try to answer that nagging, age-old question: What's for dinner?

"The way we solve the 'what's for dinner' question is offering a ton of variety," said Christy McMullen, co-owner of Summerhill Market in Toronto, during a panel discussion at SIAL in Toronto on Tuesday morning. McMullen was joined by Faye Pang, head of restaurant operations at Uber Eats Canada, and Jenny Boudreau, VP strategic sourcing at Chefs Plate.

Summerhill Market offers heat-and-eat options for customers on the go and pre-cut, washed veggies and marinated meats for customers who may not have time to do a full dinner preparation. In addition to "North American comfort food," it offers a selection of ethnic cuisines including Thai, Indian and Italian. "You can come in and what you're craving, we hope we have for you," she said.

Selection is equally as important to a service such as Uber Eats. It's a huge selling point, in fact, and helps reframe people's perception of what food can be delivered, said Pang. "A few years ago it was pizza and Chinese food and now there's 10,000 restaurants across Canada on the platform," she said.

The panel tackled a variety of issues plaguing the food industry including transparency and sustainability. Asked about the criticism surrounding meal kits and packaging waste (ingredients are often individually wrapped within the cardboard box the kit arrives in), Boudreau said Chefs Plate had eliminated unnecessary packaging and redeveloped its recipe bags to be compostable and biodegradable. "We're continuously looking to iterate the meal-kit industry has been moving faster than the packaging is changing," she said.

To help reduce waste on its end, Uber Eats is piloting a feature on its app in Toronto and Vancouver that allows diners to opt in for cutlery, which is a small but important step, said Pang. It also partnered with Leaf--a national, non-profit environmental foodservice certification program--to help restaurants "think about reducing their carbon footprint."

McMullen said adopting sustainable packaging options while adhering to food safety guidelines and keeping costs down can be difficult. It's all a bit of a balancing act. Summerhill, however, changed its food packaging from food-safe black plastic to white plastic made of recycled water bottles that can continue to be recycled, she said.

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