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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Evolved Eater

A Quest to Eat Better, Live Better, and Change the World

Nick Taranto

St. Martin's Press



Toward a Better Food Future

At Plated, we are on a mission to feed ten billion people in a healthy, affordable, and delicious way. Thanks for picking up this book and taking the time to hear a bit more about what we’ve done, what we have planned, and why we believe it matters. I’m going to cover a lot of ground here as quickly and efficiently as I can while still having fun, so buckle up, and let’s get started!

Toward a Better Food Future

When we started Plated in early 2012, I was twenty-seven years old, recently married, and fresh out of the Marine Corps. I moved back to New York City, started working on Wall Street, and put on twenty pounds in under six months. I was pasty, overweight, and depressed—and I knew there had to be a better way to eat (and live). That’s when a business school buddy and I teamed up to create a solution.

Our vision was to use technology and data to create a world where healthy, affordable, and delicious food is available for everyone. As business school guys who were excited about using technology to solve big problems, we saw an enormous market opportunity. In 2012, more than 30 percent of all electronics were bought online, but less than 2 percent of food in the United States came through e-commerce. As outsiders to the food industry, we saw the opportunity to build a large, profitable, mission-driven company that made good eating easier for tens of millions of people.

After studying the food industry and deep-diving on where we were falling short on food in our own lives, we realized this:

Eating fresh, real food is the best way to both connect to where your food is coming from and to ensure that you and your family are eating only high-quality, sustainable, healthy ingredients.

When we started Plated, here’s what we were thinking: The future of food will be defined by a return to freshness and quality. Increasingly more people now realize that what we eat has an impact on our health and the health of the planet. In order to keep up with the demands of both consumers and the planet, we have to embrace new technologies and growing methods. While the pastoral notion of farming and food will always exist, a greater willingness to accept technology and innovation into that picture is also needed. And we wanted to push the vanguard.

Five years later, Plated has delivered tens of millions of meals and chef-designed recipes across the United States (we deliver to the entire Lower 48), we merged with one of the country’s largest grocers, we employ hundreds of people in multiple locations—and it feels like we are just getting started. We have also ignited a dialogue about where we are, where we want to go together, and what this means for the future of food in a quest to change how we eat in this country—and around the world.

Today at Plated, we deliver everything you need to cook a delicious dinner at home in about thirty minutes. We believe that deciding what to do for dinner shouldn’t be a struggle and that convenience shouldn’t come at the cost of deliciousness. We deliver the ingredients you need, when and where you want them, precisely measured for the recipes you’ve chosen. That means less prep time, less food waste, and more control over your schedule—and your life.

What we figured out, and why our business model works better than traditional food models, is that consumers crave choice, quality, convenience, and flavor—and that they’re not willing to compromise. In the age of instant transportation, digital dating, and connected everything, the traditional food industry has not kept up or innovated fast enough to meet consumers where they need us. The consequences of this inability to evolve have had a negative impact on all of us.

Why does good, fresh food have to be more expensive? Why does healthy, nutritious food that is grown sustainably only need to be for the rich? High-quality, nutritious food should be the right of every person. And that is why eventually, hopefully not that long from now, we want Plated to be for everyone. We need to first prove that a good business model that delivers good food can also deliver good profits and returns to investors. There are still many haters out there who don’t think it’s possible, but give us a few years to prove them wrong.

For most of my personal evolution, I didn’t know much about the source of our national eating disorder or what it would take to fix it. I’ve lived many different chapters in my thirty-two years. I am a husband and “cofounder” of two little girls. I am an Ironman triathlete and a recovering ultramarathon runner. I received my MBA from Harvard. I was a Marine Corps infantry officer, and I worked on Wall Street—albeit briefly. And now I am passionate about building a business that can make good food a reality for billions of people.

But I haven’t always been that way. This book will chronicle my own journey from a young dude who hustled Halloween candy to someone who genuinely cares about what we eat and where it comes from—and is doing something about it.

I hope this book serves as a call to arms. While much about food has improved over the last two decades, we are still facing a crisis. The most food-abundant nation in human history has gotten good eating horribly wrong—but it’s on each one of us to help fix both what and how we eat.

At Plated, we’re still in the early days of our evolution, just as my own path to become an Evolved Eater continues to unfold. We are stoked about the meal kit business we are building today, and we acknowledge that the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of us are massive. The fundamental problem is that Big Food built a business model and food system that no longer works. Our solution needs to be building from the ground up a new and better system for delivering fresh food, where data and technology power everything. Big Food focused on convenience to the exclusion of connection and experience. Our business model harnesses technology to reconnect people to both their food and the experience of preparing and sharing it.

The traditional food companies’ solution to feeding three billion incremental mouths across the planet is more riskily altered, highly processed products. As I started my research for this book, I came up with an acronym for these cheap and dangerous products: CRAP (Consumable Riskily Altered Provisions). I define CRAP as foods that have been chemically processed and made solely or mainly from refined ingredients and artificial substances.

The chairman of the world’s biggest food company, Nestlé, recently went on record to say, “Nature is not good to human beings.”1 Peter Brabeck-Letmathe views food as a thing to be artificially designed in order to deliver optimal convenience at the lowest possible cost.

For those of us who are spending our careers creating access to simple, real, minimally processed food straight from the farm (whether it be traditional, hydroponic, or vertical), Nestlé’s perspective challenges the idea that real food can supply humans with all the things we need to live long, productive, happy, and healthy lives. Nestlé argues that further processing and fortifying is the only way to feed humanity.2 But as we will see, this is nothing more than what I call the CRAP Trap: Big Food’s hyperprocessed business model that prioritizes low-cost convenience over our health and happiness.

This Big Food point of view is diametrically opposed to how we think about the future of food at Plated. As we will see, we are fooling ourselves if we think that the future of nutrition science is already upon us. By processing and tinkering with foods, we adulterate them and turn them into something insidious. We believe that someday nutrition science may be at a place where food engineering delivers healthy and delicious results, but that day is not here today. And until that day arrives, we believe that working to make fresh, delicious, and real food as affordable and accessible as possible is the only path forward.

Ten years from now, Plated will have evolved radically and grown exponentially, and we will be serving needs and markets that we can’t yet even imagine. Right now, we are working on something big and important: dinner. We’ll delight millions of customers, every week, and in the process, we will build a big, profitable business.

We believe this focus is key to our success. Many more start-ups have died from drowning in opportunity than have died from starving of focus. It’s impossible to predict the future, but if we succeed in our mission, one thing is certain: We will expand beyond cooking, we will expand beyond dinner, and we will expand to serve hundreds of millions and eventually billions of people, making it easier for them to eat better. And this success will be driven by building a robust, healthy, and profitable business.

Eating is one of the most fundamental parts of being human. Yet, as a well-educated, fitness-obsessed person, prior to starting Plated, I knew surprisingly little about what I should be eating. During my time as a marine, I had choked down MREs (meals ready to eat). I was with the world’s best fighting force, being pushed to the limit to serve my country, and we were getting 100 percent of our calories for weeks on end from a potent mix of riskily altered provisions.

When I got off active duty and made my way back to New York, it seemed like everywhere I looked there was a new set of nutritional guidance or dieting advice. None of it was helpful or sustainable. Like so many things in America, food was abundant—endless fast-food chains, overloaded supermarkets, and cacophonous marketing shouting everywhere.

But here’s the shocking part: Every year, more people in the United States die from diet-related diseases like diabetes than have died during the entire global war on terror. Sickeningly, at the same time, one in five kids in this country goes to bed hungry. And even as a well-educated person, I had no idea how or what I was supposed to eat.

I was overweight, unhappy, and scared that I was on a path to obesity and diabetes, like much of my family. One day when I looked in the mirror, the person I saw was a stranger to me. When my wife got me a colon cleanse for my birthday, I knew things had gone too far.

Eating is arguably the most important human activity. But eating in the twenty-first century has become overly complicated. Most of us have come to rely on experts and labels (all-natural, paleo, gluten-free, low-carb, organic) to tell us what, when, and how to eat. The pronouncements of doctors, diet-book authors, media pundits, the U.S. government, and nutrition pseudoscientists create an inescapable confusion. Every day, we are inundated with information, yet the average American citizen still doesn’t know what or how he or she should be eating. And for those of us who do know, turning that understanding into reality is fraught with complexity. The problem is not what you don’t know—the problem is what you think you know that is wrong.

Trust me, I used to be that guy.

Surprisingly, the more time I spent researching and thinking about how to eat better, the simpler the solution became. I learned that nutrition science is still very primitive. In the words of Michael Pollan, one of the preeminent food writers of our age, nutrition science “is today approximately where surgery was in the year 1650—very promising, and very interesting to watch, but are you ready to let them operate on you?”3

As Josh Hix (my Plated cofounder) and I began digging more deeply into the food industry, what we saw both horrified and excited us. Food is one of the biggest industries in the world (more than $1 trillion in annual consumption in the United States alone) but it is surprisingly troglodytic. That’s a fancy word for a system that is inefficient, ugly, and unevolved. Picture a prehistoric crustacean bungling around a murky pool of water—not a creature you’d want to trust for your health and happiness.

* * *

I wrote this book to push how you think about the food you consume and the industry that produces it. I hope this book helps you make more informed choices about what and how you eat, and I hope it inspires you to look toward a better food future and actively work with us to make it become reality.

Our mission at Plated is to create a world where healthy, affordable, and delicious food is available for everyone. This is a book about why and how we are going to use data and technology to feed ten billion people “the Plated Way.”

Spoiler alert. Here is one of my big conclusions: New food ideas require new food companies. Big Food is not going to feed ten billion people the way they need to be fed. And we are not going to do this on our own—this is a huge challenge and a daunting mission. And we need your help.

How This Book Is Organized


My Journey from Junk-Food Junkie to Evolved Eater

I’ll briefly talk through my own food history from candy hustler to consuming thousands of calories during solitary eighteen-hour ultramarathons in the mountains to slurping whale blubber in the Arctic to Marine Corps MREs and Wall Street pad Thai takeout—and how I didn’t find happiness until I began my own journey to become an Evolved Eater. Along the way, that chubby, clueless kid I used to be experienced an epiphany: What we eat matters. A lot.


The Story of Humans and Food: How We Got to This Place Where Food Is a Problem Instead of a Solution

How did we get to this place where food is a problem instead of a solution for most of the world? How did we get so disconnected from our kitchens and our food?

In chapter 1, I’ll outline the problems, and we’ll come to understand that there is a massive drawback to how we eat as modern Americans. In chapter 2, we’ll go back three million years in history, and we will explore how human evolution has a direct impact on why we cook and why we’ve compromised for the CRAP Trap. In chapter 3, we pick up with the end of the Second World War, when Big Food began replacing our cooking traditions with manufactured riskily altered provisions.


The Plated Mission: Why a New Form of Food Production and Distribution Is Necessary If We Are Going to Reconnect with Our Food

In the next four chapters, we will explore exactly how Big Food changed our food world. In chapter 4, we will look into the way food is grown, produced, and manufactured in the United States and why that process is making us sick. I take a trip to my family farm in South Dakota, and I contrast that experience to how technology is changing the face of modern food production. In chapter 5, we will explore why processed provisions are so much more attractive and addictive, both to us as consumers and Big Food from a business model perspective. In chapter 6, we will walk through the cacophony of confusion that is created through modern food marketing and how that hurts us and our children. And in chapter 7, we will dive into the nascent world of nutrition science and the future of the quantified self. I bleed, I pee, and I poop in an obsessive effort to understand what I should be eating.


How to Feed Ten Billion People

But don’t give up all hope quite yet. In chapter 8, I’ll talk about how and why we started Plated to do things differently from Big Food and escape the CRAP Trap. In chapter 9, we’ll discuss the future of food and nutrition and what we can do to save both our waistlines and the planet. In chapter 10, we’ll talk about cooking and happiness. And in the conclusion, I’ll share some very practical things that you can do to make a change, starting right now.

Becoming an Evolved Eater is not a destination but a journey. My personal path to transforming into an Evolved Eater was catalyzed by starting Plated, and just as I have evolved to meet new challenges and demands, so has Plated.

New Food Ideas Require New Food Companies

How do we fight the millions of years of human evolution that sit on our shoulders, and in our guts, that are pushing us toward riskily altered foods? How do we encourage healthier habits on the whole so that our diet is more heavily tilted toward fresher foods and smaller portions?

We need to change our memories and associations so that our taste preferences change over time, so that we crave roasted sweet potatoes instead of potato chips.

Sound crazy?

The really crazy part is that the way our food system is currently configured is making us sick. Fixing it is only possible through making the healthy, real, delicious foods the default through easier access and education. And that’s what Plated is all about.

Here are four core beliefs that Josh and I had that have come to define how we are building Plated to be a brand and business that will last for decades:

Belief 1: Transparency and control over personal and planetary health are essential.

Belief 2: The definition of healthy living is intensely personal.

Belief 3: People succeed when it’s easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing.

Belief 4: Food, and the experiences of choosing it, cooking it, and sharing it, are to be celebrated, and thoughtful design in all things is an essential part of that celebration.

I’ll expand on these beliefs in the chapters to come because they form the basis of how we think about building a better food business and a better food system.

How do we evolve the food system forward so that it helps our planet and our bodies while still being a very pleasurable experience? It’s deceptively alluring to say that Evolved Eaters need to hit Pause and go back in time to an earlier, less-industrialized era. “Let’s throw away this system and go back to a simpler world! Let’s harvest our own kale and beans and cook every meal of the day!” But peel back one layer of the onion, and that solution fails the sniff test. In a survey conducted in 2012, over half of Americans claimed ignorance. Working out their income tax, they said, was easier than knowing how to eat well.4

What does it mean to be an Evolved Eater?

You don’t have to grow your own food, religiously practice veganism, and be a walking encyclopedia of nutrition. Food in the twenty-first century has become complicated, complex, and overwhelming, and as we’ll see later, when things get complicated, we often fail. Eating doesn’t need to be complicated or painful or overthought, and that’s what the Evolved Eater revolution is all about.

I’ve found that more evolved eating has made me feel better, look better, and have a better life. I’ve learned that what I eat has a direct impact on how I feel. I’ve learned that preparing meals with the people I love offers an unparalleled opportunity for greater health, happiness, and connection. And while nutrition science is still a nebulous no-man’s-land, I’ve learned that cooking more really does lead to living better. I’m on my way to becoming an Evolved Eater—and I’m not alone.

Several years ago, after we appeared on the hit TV show Shark Tank, Josh and I were concerned that we had tapped out the market for our cook-at-home delivery service. We had several tens of thousands of customers, and we were worried that there just weren’t that many more potential people to serve. Neither of us comes from a traditional marketing background, but we worked with some supersmart folks to conduct proprietary market research asking questions like “How big can this market be?” “How many customers are out there?” “What do they look like, and how do they live their lives?”

What came back formed the genesis of this book. More than thirty-one million Americans are Evolved Eaters, conscientious consumers who care about what they eat and where it comes from. Evolved Eaters value connection, discovery, integrity, ambition, and balance. They’re the kind of people who strive constantly to improve, and eating is an inseparable part of this evolution. They want quality and value in every bite of their lives.

Evolved Eaters are curious, ambitious, highly connected individuals. They want good food and good information. They are men and women from all walks of life who share one common trait: They are voracious for a better way to eat. While eventually we want our business model to work for everyone, today we are building the Plated brand for Evolved Eaters. An Evolved Eater is, by definition, an evolving eater, and when you need us along the way, we’ll be there for you.

* * *

If the population continues to grow as predicted, and if the way food is grown, manufactured, distributed, marketed, purchased, and consumed doesn’t change, what we can expect is increasingly more riskily altered, heavily processed, food-like products. One solution to feeding three billion incremental mouths across the planet is a more consumer-friendly version of MREs. Imagine shelf-stable jalapeño cheese spread, heat-and-eat chili, and rib-shaped pork-substitute patties for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—forever. There is a contingent in both Silicon Valley and the more established food world who believe that tasteless shakes and synthetic, lab-designed nutrition is the answer. Trust me, this is not a palatable future. For anyone.

The solution must rise from a new breed of food companies focused on making real, good, fresh food more affordable and accessible. Big Food doesn’t have the answers, and it is not capable of developing the answers on its own. If we are going to feed the world and do it affordably, conveniently, and in a sustainable, healthy, and delicious way, then the answer must come from technology and data-driven companies like Plated. We can prove that good food can be grown in a good way, affordably, where workers are treated well, and where the earth, our waistlines, our wallets, and our relationships don’t pay the price.

The food supply chain (a farm at one end and a meal at the other) isn’t really a “chain.” As described in chapter 3, the food supply chain is actually more like a food pyramid, at least the way it exists today: The fast-food joints sit at the top, supplied by the processors and manufacturers, who get their raw inputs from meat producers and farmers, who form the base of the pyramid.5

And over time, this is how I came to understand that eating and farming are the same thing. We are fooling ourselves if we believe that we can build a sustainable, healthy, affordable, and convenient approach to food on the base of what currently exists. We can’t think about changing only parts of the way we eat; that is too shortsighted and narrow-minded. We need to build an entirely new and better way to eat, where fresh and real food is a reality for everyone.6

There is so much work to be done that it’s easy to get overwhelmed, but in this book and in my life in general, I try to be a cheerleader for action. Instead of fretting about the future of food and preaching to the artisanal-cocktail kale-encrusted choir, my hope is that this book is a call to arms that leads you to do something different.

That shouldn’t be scary. For example, one of my top pieces of advice is learn to be a hedonist. It is very possible to train yourself to love cooking and to experience deep levels of satisfaction, happiness, and pleasure from the act. If I could do it, anyone can. This doesn’t mean you need to perpetually wear an apron and reek of sautéed shallots, but it does mean developing real-life solutions for staying close to your food and eating better—not just healthier, tastier, or more conveniently.

At Plated, we have come a remarkably long way in just a few years. But the challenges we have already overcome (getting our business up and off the ground, avoiding bankruptcy, and figuring out how to do right by our customers, our investors, our employees, and the environment) are small compared to the challenges we still have ahead of us. We are up against some of the biggest problems that have defined the modern world. In order to succeed in our mission, we need your help.

Just like Darwin’s theory of evolution, Big Food’s evolution thus far has not been deliberate. Monkeys and turtles don’t sit there planning how they will adapt to changing times—they just react and either survive or die. We see similar behavior from the world’s biggest food companies—they are the result of a process that was not necessarily consciously constructed.

The intersection of my personal quest, Plated’s journey, the history of modern food, and human evolution come together over the following pages. These disparate threads all share the common theme of unintended consequences, some good, some bad. Darwin’s theory doesn’t have a goal beyond survival. At Plated, we now have the opportunity to consciously evolve. I hope you’ll come with me!

Picture of an Evolved Eater

Jordan Burns, Washington, D.C.

Jordan is a student at American University, and she wrote this note and sent it to the Plated Customer Care Team: 21 Reasons Why Plated Changed My Life7

Here are 21 reasons why Plated has changed who I am today:

1. I no longer eat frozen food every night.

2. My relationship with my mom has gotten stronger.

3. I know how to make a basic dinner into a real meal.

4. Trying new things doesn’t scare me anymore.

5. I understand servings now.

6. My boyfriend and I have another way to bond.

7. I realized I have been using way too much oil.

8. I don’t second-guess myself in the kitchen anymore.

9. I have come to appreciate the art of timing.

10. I realize now how hard it must have been for my mom to cook dinner for six kids every night.

11. I can finally go to the grocery store and not just buy junk food.

12. Herbs and spices aren’t just an afterthought.

13. I don’t feel the need to constantly go out to dinner.

14. I have something to look forward to in the mail every week.

15. I have become obsessed with kitchen utensils.

16. I have figured out that there is so much more than just mild cheddar cheese.

17. Multiple steps in a recipe no longer make me recoil.

18. The microwave is no longer my most-used kitchen appliance.

19. I have become mindful while eating.

20. I spend a lot more time discussing food now.

21. I learned that cooking isn’t a task, it’s an experience.

Copyright © 2018 by Nick Taranto