The Meal Kits Experience

Is it for you? To help you decide, here’s an evaluation of some of the leaders in quick, easy, delivered-to-your-doorstep meals

Love for food doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with a love for cooking. That’s one reason why the meal kit has become a massive segment of the on-demand economy, created to introduce home cooks of all skill levels to a convenient (and sometimes quick) way to prepare dinner.

The first meal kit delivery services started in Europe in the early 2000s, and quickly spread to the U.S. as startups like Blue Apron, HelloFresh and Plated began seeking investors. The meal kit has changed the American dinner plate, particularly when it comes to the time spent planning the meal and shopping for ingredients. Why endure the hassle of grocery shopping when you can have a meal with pre-measured ingredients delivered to your doorstep?

The meal kit experience begins by selecting an average of three meals for the week. Every kit includes presorted and pre-measured ingredients and a detailed recipe card. The kits arrive on a specified day, in a large cardboard box, wrapped in an insulated liner with multiple ice packs to keep the contents cool. All kits assume you’ll have the traditional cooking accompaniments on hand—salt, pepper, olive oil, butter and sometimes sugar. It’s rare, but depending on where you live, the meal kit could arrive as late as 8 p.m. on your weekly delivery day, so if you were planning to serve one of the meals that night, prepare for a backup option (pizza, anyone?) just in case.

Here are some tips to help you get the most from your meal kit experience:

• Prep all ingredients before you start cooking. You don’t want to be fumbling for the jar of miso when you need to be toasting sesame seeds.

• Choose your menu wisely. Many meal kit companies allow you to customize your weekly meals a few days prior to shipping. Keep in mind that only certain combinations will be available, depending on your location.

• Most of all, have fun. The meal kit experience is made to serve your needs by saving you time, minimizing food waste, and, most important, delivering a delicious meal to you and your family.

Here’s a roundup of four of the most popular meal kits on the market, in alphabetical order, along with my evaluations.

Blue Apron

Cost:
• Two-Person: $59.94 ($9.99 per serving) for three meals for two people
• Family Plan 1: $71.92 ($8.99 per serving) for two meals for four people
• Family Plan 2: $143.84 ($8.99 per serving) for four meals for four people
• Free shipping

Recipes I tried:
1. Navarin-Style Lamb Meatball Stew with Pea Tips and Carrots
2. Pan-Seared Chicken Verjus with Mashed Potatoes, Mushrooms & Kale
3. Chile-Blackened Cod with Epazote, Avocado and Red Rice Salad

Pros (+) & Cons (-):
+ Vegetarian options for both the two-person and family plans
+ Lowest cost per serving (Tied with HelloFresh)
+ Tasty recipes with a couple of exotic ingredients
– Confusing recipe instructions
– Pre-measured ingredients like the spices and liquids were not for the exact amount for the recipe
– Sloppy packaging; paper bags became soggy in transit

Overall Rating:
Blue Apron was one of the first meal kits to reach the market, and its initial success in attracting investors and subscribers allowed the company to have the lowest cost per serving and protein variety; the six weekly recipes include a beef, chicken, fish and vegetarian option. Overall, Blue Apron’s food was among the best and most innovative from the services I tried. The recipes are fun, relatively easy to follow, and included ingredients that an average chef may not have used before, like the verjus or verjuice, an acidic juice made from unripe grapes, crab-apples or other sour fruit. The Navarin-stew was the first recipe I prepared and it was one of the best of any meal kit I have tried. The other two dishes were solid additions, but were slightly flawed by some of the omitted recipe steps. One of the major flaws was the need for measuring spoons. The so-called “pre-measured” ingredients like spices and liquids had more than the recipe called for, which meant more dirty utensils to clean. For more information, visit blueapron.com.

HelloFresh

Cost:
• Classic Plan: $59.94/$79.92/$99.90 ($9.99 per meal) for three/four/five meals for two people
• Classic Plan: $119.88 ($9.99 per meal) for three meals for four people
• Veggie Plan: $59.94/$119.88 ($9.99 per meal) for three meals for two/four people
• Family Plan: $69.92/$104.88 ($8.74 per meal) for two/three meals for four people
• Free shipping

Recipes I tried:
1. Shrimp Saganaki with Olive Tomato Sauce over Israeli Couscous
2. Chicken Lo Mein with Carrots and Green Beans
3. Pistachio-Crusted Chicken with Quinoa and Chopped Cucumber Jalapeno Salad
4. Sesame Beef Tacos with Quick-Pickled Veggies and Spicy Crema

Pros (+) & Cons (-):
+ Fast prep and cooking times
+ Organized packaging
+ Healthy sized portions
+ Lowest cost per serving (Tied with Blue Apron)
+ Clear calorie information
– Recipes that are not challenging
– Quantity over quality

Overall Rating:
HelloFresh allows home cooks to select from eight meals (premium options have a small surcharge). Meal portions were ample and provided two people enough food for one-and-a-half servings. Every meal was easily prepared and cooked within 35 minutes. Packaging was very organized and most of the plastic bags and bottles can be reused. However, I was frustrated with a couple of the meals, including the Chicken Lo Mein, which basically consisted of cutting vegetables in novel shapes and stir frying them in the pre-measured sauces (no technical prep needed). There was a clear quantity over quality in both the food and ingredients. For more information, visit hellofresh.com.

Plated

Cost:
• Two servings per night: $47.80/$71.70/$95.60 ($11.95 per meal) for two/three/four meals
• Three servings per night: $59.70/$89.55/$119.40 ($9.95 per meal) for two/three/four meals
• Four servings per night: $79.60/$119.40/$159.20 ($9.95 per meal) for two/three/four meals
• Free shipping

Recipes I tried:
1. Cheesy Beef Enchiladas with Avocado, Spinach and Black Beans
2. Chicken Tikka Masala with Garlicky Spinach and Naan
3. Pork and Chive Burgers with Sriracha Aioli and Kimchi Slaw
Pros (+) & Cons (-):
+ Pork and Chive Burger recipe was the only pro
– Recipes lacked flavor
– Basic recipes
– Expensive cost per serving
– Questionable ingredient freshness

Overall Rating:
The Plated meals were a huge disappointment. Straight away, I could tell that they were not going to provide enough food and were not as enjoyable to cook compared to HelloFresh and Blue Apron. Even the dish names didn’t excite, which should have been a red flag. The only redeeming dish in the kit was the Pork and Chive Burgers; with so few ingredients, the burgers came out juicy, flavorful and tender. Thankfully, I didn’t pay full price for my first kit since most meal delivery services provide massive incentives for first-time subscribers. For more information, visit plated.com.

Purple Carrot

Cost:
• One-two persons: $67.98 ($11.33 per plate) for three meals per week
• Three-four persons: $74 ($9.25 per plate) for two meals per week
• One-two persons: (high performance meals): $78 ($13 per plate) for three meals per week
• Free shipping

Recipes I tried:
1. Sweet Pea Flatbread with Truffled Fingerling Potatoes & Kite Hill Ricotta
2. Vegetable Chow Mein with Baby Leeks & Miso Mustard Sauce
3. Blackened Tempeh Chopped Salad with Creamy Ranch & Crispy Tortillas

Pros (+) & Cons (-):
+ Creative vegan dishes
+ Large portions
+ Clear calorie information
+ Quick prep
– Courier delivery
– Cancelling a delivery must be done more than a week in advance
– High cost per serving

Overall Rating:
Purple Carrot’s meal kits are centered around plant-based proteins and ingredients. The portion size for the two-person meal kit fed at least three, and the overall taste was decent. Cost per serving was a bit high, especially since there are no animal-based proteins. Recipes were easy to follow, and written well enough, but keep an eye on things. While making the flatbread recipe, I found that the naan bread started burning only after a couple of minutes in the oven. Meals are sent by local courier on Tuesday and Wednesdays, depending on where you live. This was difficult to track compared to other major delivery services, which provide frequent updates. In addition, if you need to skip a week of deliveries, all the adjustments must be made on the Tuesday prior to the date your order is shipped, which can be difficult for some people. For more information, visit purplecarrot.com.

These are just a sampling of the meal kits on the market. If you try one of the many out there, remember that there are dozens of discounts and coupons available online. Browse around for the best deal. I’d recommend trying at least two weeks’ worth of meal kits in order to give yourself a more holistic view of the service, especially since the first kit can be very generic to appeal to a wider audience. Most of all, please recycle or “upcycle” your plastic bags, containers, and ice packs. For more details, see Blue Apron’s blog at blueapron.com.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.