Business & Real Estate

Fit-food fast: New outlets meet consumer demand for healthy food on the go

Customers look over healthy, on-the-go meals in a cooler case at Fit Eats on Wednesday in Sacramento. The midtown restaurant began as a Sacramento-based home delivery service for fresh-made single-serving meals.
Customers look over healthy, on-the-go meals in a cooler case at Fit Eats on Wednesday in Sacramento. The midtown restaurant began as a Sacramento-based home delivery service for fresh-made single-serving meals.

The kitchen has long been at the heart of the American household – a place where families scrub, slice and saute the contents of their pantries to put a hearty meal on the table. But harried consumers often don’t or can’t take the time to cook a meal, much less a healthy one.

Enter Fit Eats, a one-stop shop that sells freshly prepared, conveniently packaged, precisely portioned “health-conscious” foods to go. No shopping, no dishes, no hassle. And best of all, said owner Don Arnold, no mystery ingredients.

“We want to show people that this is all your body needs,” he said of the compact plastic bowls and boxes neatly stacked in Fit Eats’ walk-up refrigerator case. “It’s healthy meal prep, essentially. We’re saving you time, saving you money, saving you energy.”

Fit Eats is part of the growing interest in so-called “functional foods,” particularly those that are easy to grab and go.

According to the Mayo Clinic, functional foods are those that have a potentially positive effect beyond nutrition. Many are engineered to enhance health with added nutrients. Fit Eats, for instance, adds whey protein to some of its meals.

Functional foods are gaining favor among a range of Americans, including “health-conscious millennials, aging baby boomers, exercise enthusiasts and large numbers of everyday consumers who want to avoid chronic illness (and) need help losing and managing weight,” according to a February report by Packaged Facts, a Rockville, Md., company that does market research on the food, beverage and consumer goods markets.

Although about 33 percent of adults say they are watching their diet to lose weight, the report said, “consumers continue to shun brands and foods focused on weight loss in favor of those promoted as healthy.”

But consumers shouldn’t put too much faith in the functional food market, said Elizabeth Applegate, director of sports nutrition at UC Davis. Some of these items, though popular, have not been scientifically proven to improve any health condition, she said. For example, she cited Cheerios Protein cereal and many protein bars as products that market themselves as healthier, but may not be.

The best bet, she said, is sticking to the basics.

“(Functional food) is not going to make a poor diet magically into a health-promoting diet,” she said. “What has been shown to work is eating whole foods, foods that are not adulterated – fruits, vegetables – though it doesn’t sound very sexy.”

Growth in the $26 billion fresh-prepared foods market is outpacing that of grocery food items and food service, according to a 2013 report co-authored by research firms A.T. Kearney and Technomic. Urban consumers in particular want healthy, fresh products but may lack the cooking skills or kitchen space necessary for food preparation, the report said.

Whether fortified or not, health-focused foods – particularly those that are quick and convenient – are having a moment in the Sacramento food scene, evidenced by the proliferation of cold-pressed juice shops in recent years.

Local entrepreneur Genevieve Ross made a splash in the market last July, when she launched MeatUp, her Sacramento-based delivery service for boxed meals that are 100 percent suited for those following the high-protein, low-carb paleo diet, which emphasizes meats, fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

Like Arnold, Ross prepares the meals fresh and delivers to customers at home or work from Marysville to Folsom and Elk Grove, filling about 200 orders per week. Customers also have the option of picking up their orders at one of 15 local gyms where Ross has arranged for freezer space.

Ross initially grew the business through the CrossFit workout community, known for adhering to the high-protein paleo diet, but is now seeing more mainstream clientele just looking for healthy options. Her meals contain no dairy, grains, sugar or soy.

The diet is hard to accommodate at restaurants, leaving some paleo eaters stressed about food prep, she said.

“It’s a lot of work, especially when you’re first starting out (on the diet),” she said. “A lot of people spend their Sundays prepping, if they’re going to make all their food for the week. Those might be the only hours they have free that weekend.”

Fit Eats is designed to fill the appetite for healthy pick-up-and-go foods.

Priced between $7 and $10, each regular-sized Fit Eats meal contains 4 ounces of protein, a half cup of starch and a serving of vegetables, all summing less than 400 calories and 1,000 mg of sodium. The meat is lean, cut down to nearly zero percent fat, and the foods are cooked only in natural oils, such as olive or avocado, Arnold said.

The menu choices, which change weekly, include breakfast, lunch and dinner options that range from whole wheat and ground turkey breakfast burritos to BBQ pork loin with cauliflower-and-red-potato mash.

Arnold, a Chico State business graduate with a background in nutrition and fitness, launched the company in January 2014 as a home delivery meal service in Sacramento, after noticing a demand for fresh, non-processed, ready-to-eat food. He opened the company’s first retail location in mid-March at 1420 16th St. – a busy midtown strip that recently welcomed University of Beer and will soon be home to a Noodles & Company shop.

Food is prepared at an off-site kitchen under the direction of Austin Clark, a former Lake Tahoe ski resort chef. While Arnold doesn’t expect to compete with Sacramento’s farm-to-fork heavyweights in terms of taste, he believes Fit Eats cuisine is one of the quickest, most nutritious options in town.

“We do our best to show people healthy food doesn’t have to be boring,” Arnold said. “We’re no Mulvaney’s or anything like that. But imagine if everybody went to Mulvaney’s every day and ate food there. They’d be getting pretty fat.”

Since its launch less than a month ago, Arnold said the retail store has sold about 3,000 boxed meals. The Fit Eats delivery service averages about 600 meals per week to customers.

For the past nine months, Jon Blaine, a recent customer at Fit Eats, has been keeping a strict 1,200-calorie diet and tracking his daily intake on a mobile app. He usually spends time preparing juice in the morning and salad in the evening, fitting in workouts on the side. The new routine, inspired by a heart attack at age 37, has helped the now 44-year-old lose 190 pounds and counting.

Blaine tried his first Fit Eats meal – a $9.49 Carne Asada Bowl with flank steak, brown rice and pinto beans – this week, and declared it delicious and a perfect accompaniment for his lifestyle.

“It sounds like a win-win situation,” said Blaine, a bank employee who works near the Fit Eats storefront. “You just can’t beat the convenience. And knowing exactly what you’re getting, that you’re getting low-processed, high-nutrient foods, is awesome.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.