Dinner on Your Doorstep
Meal kit delivery companies are put to the test
Hello Fresh packages ingredients in recyclable brown bags that all arrive in a large box.
Can you get a decent meal from a box? I’m not talking about the classic Swanson TV dinners or those stiff boxes marketed as healthy cuisine. The new meal kits promise to make you a chef, do your menu planning and grocery shopping for you, and then drop it all off on your doorstep. And for the most part, they deliver on those promises, starting by getting you into the kitchen.
At first look, it sounds like a fair trade of one’s time for the amounts charged. On average, the kits cost about $75 a box, which includes three meals for two and the shipping charge. Sure, a Big Mac with fries would cost less, maybe even dinner at a local diner would run about the same, but the difference is simple — you don’t have to leave the house and, in general, the options are healthier than traditional restaurant food.
A large number of companies, many located on the East Coast and a few locally, are trying to entice busy folks back into the kitchen with winsome photos of beautifully plated food and the siren call of “You can make this yourself — and in only 30 minutes.” Yes, it’s hard to beat a fresh meal that’s made at home and seasoned to your liking. Some of the companies are better than others at figuring out what you want — a few ask about your likes and dislikes beforehand, thereby showing you options you’re much more likely to choose.
During January’s cold spell, I went wild with meal kits. I signed up for as many as I could handle with only one stomach and two chins to feed. They varied in the types of food offered, the ease of ordering, payment and feedback. A few were very responsive — your order is on its way — your order will be delivered today — your order was delivered. It’s helpful to be reminded of what you ordered and when it’s time to make or change your order.
Most have automatic subscription ordering, and will send the week’s meals if you don’t get back to them in time to change up the menu. Some are more adventurous, and provided foods I hadn’t used before, while others were so plain it would be difficult to offend a picky child.
Yes, it’s nice to let others do the planning, driving and heavy lifting. I found it pleasant to simply reach in the refrigerator to get all my ingredients. Mise en place — that’s the secret of restaurant chefs. Gathering all the ingredients makes meal prep easy, but even if you clean as you go, there are still sticky counters and dirty dishes in the sink.
Another drawback is the waste. There’s no getting around the large, well-insulated box, some too good to throw out, lingering on the kitchen floor. Each company seems to have their own solution to keeping foods fresh and all work very well. But that bag of ice water at the bottom is the worst to deal with. It’s hard to toss it in the trash. They suggest you drain its mealy contents, not down the drain, but in the trash or compost pile.
In spite of the packaging waste, there’s much to like about meal kits. You spend less time in grocery lines and there are no impulse buys. Food waste is minimized since you receive just what you need — there are no lonely, unused potatoes left to fester in the lower cabinet. And portion size is important too. The proteins are sized at three to four ounces, which is just enough to satisfy, while sides offer a healthy balance of color and carbs. Vegetables are often roasted to bring out their best flavor. Nutrition information is either on the recipe card or a separate leaflet, just in case you don’t want to look until after dinner. All promise “responsible sourcing,” but this is not easy to quantify. When eating alone, I used the extra prepared portion for an easy lunch the following day.
Here is my recent experience with the following kit providers.
Ingredients from Hello Fresh.
- Ordering: Subscription plan where you choose from veggie or classic categories from the start, so it’s hard to mix in a veggie entrée if you go with the classic option. They are very responsive with reminder emails, and it’s easy enough to skip a week.
- Meal Selection: Dinners look good on the site, but seasoning inspiration is very limited — mostly just butter (yours) or sugar via their little bottles of maple syrup or honey.
- Instructions: Very clear instructions, even to the point of what to do with the other half of the lemon.
- Packaging: Very sturdy box. You could almost build a new-age house out of them. I actually liked that all the ingredients, except the proteins, were in a recyclable brown bag, which makes it easy to retrieve from the refrigerator. Plus, points for the garlic gloves that were already peeled. (Minus points if they were peeled by prisoners in China.)
- Proteins: The chicken was sourced from FreeBird, a respected provider.
- Overall: Maybe best for non-adventurous eaters. The sides are generous portions.
- Incentives: You can offer friends free meals, and both you and your friends can receive money off on meals for adding new customers.
- More info: hellofresh.com or the app
- Ordering: Subscription-based, and be prepared to give your information before you can browse. It’s easy to skip a week, and they are good with communication.
- Meal Selection: You can mix and match meals, and there is enough variety if you choose another meal rather than accept the three meals they’ve preselected.
- Instructions: Very clear with checkboxes as you proceed. I can see a child following the directions. Occasionally I dumped in the entire bottle of vinegar when I was supposed to reserve some for another purpose — who wants to bother to read ahead?
- Packaging: The usual brown box with abundant, but necessary packaging.
- Proteins: Not really fond of any their chicken and beef, which I found flavorless. The fish was well-packaged and tasted fresh, although it was just tilapia and pollock, labeled as wild Alaskan.
- Overall: The use of unusual ingredients to add life to the meal was the best variety I found. Who has fresh chestnuts on hand? They sent everything, including fresh herbs and a pat of fresh butter when needed.
- Incentives: Friends are offered half-price on their first order.
- More info: blueapron.com or the app
- Ordering: Subscription-based with weekly skips available.
- Meal Selection: There are options for meat lovers, seafood lovers and vegetarians. Desserts are offered too. Pick two or more meals delivered on the weekday of your choice.
- Instructions: Very clear and the ingredients are in bold.
- Packaging: Comes in the usual box, but with recycled insulation.
- Overall: They offer a good selection of meals with global inspiration.
- Incentives: You get 50 percent off first order plus free meal invitations for friends.
- More info: plated.com or the app
- Ordering: Subscription with weekly skips available. They have good communication.
- Meal Selection: The selection is great, with options for paleo, vegan, gluten-free and more dietary needs. You will receive three meals a week.
- Instructions: Recipes in a booklet and online through their mobile app. Wet fingers when using a phone can be a problem.
- Packaging: Comes in the usual brown box, but insulation was recycled paper sealed in brown paper.
- Overall: Nice selection of options, but it does come all the way from San Francisco.
- Incentives: You can get $35 off your first order and credit for referring friends.
- More info: sunbasket.com or the app
Martha & Marley Spoon
- Ordering: Subscription with weekly skips available.
- Meal Selection: They ask for a few food preferences before offering suggestions for the week’s meal plan. With recipes from Martha Stewart, the game is almost won. You can choose two, three for four meals a week.
- Instructions: They are very clear with ingredients bolded and measurements for everything, including salt and pepper. Cooking methods streamlined for fewer dirty dishes.
- Packaging: The usual brown box, but packaging was minimized.
- Overall: Nice flavors, with flavorful presentations for the vegetable sides.
- Incentives: Receive $30 off your first order.
- More info: marleyspoon.com or the app
- Ordering: Subscription-based, or you can use the “Order for Tonight” option. Their communication and the initial sign-up process could be improved.
- Meal Selection: Choose from Artisan Baskit with top-tier selections, Fresh Baskit with mid-priced meats and seafood or Simple Baskit with no proteins. You can get two or more meals a week.
- Packaging: Avoid shipping by picking up your meal at a handful of locations. The prep kitchen is located in Concord.
- Overall: Local providers are constantly being added, including Loudon’s Miles Smith Farm, lēf Farms and Moulton Farm in Meredith, which offer sustainable agriculture. They will recycle packaging if you are able to get it back to them.
- Incentives: Instagram coupon codes
- More info: localbaskit.com and Facebook
- No prep time here, just take a moment to present the meal on a nice plate instead of the plastic container.
The split pea and ham soup from Balance by BistroMD.
Balance by BistroMD
- Ordering: Easy enough, and many dietary concerns are addressed. No subscription necessary.
- Meal Selection: The meals look delicious online.
- Instructions: Microwave after thawing.
- Packaging: The usual well-insulated brown box, which in this case kept everything frozen.
- Overall: The split pea and ham soup tasted OK, but couldn’t really find any ham. The fish? What was I thinking, fish from Florida? Awful! Tossed the whole meal.
- Incentives: Who cares?
- More info: balance.bistromd.com
From All Real Meal
All Real Meal
- Ordering: Choose from their daily menu, perfect for lunch, or the weekly menu in either individual or family portions. No subscription necessary.
- Meal Selection: Vegan, paleo and low-carb choices are available.
- Instructions: Heat gently.
- Packaging: No real packaging, as the freshly prepared meals are dropped on your doorstep in your container. Or you can pick up daily or weekly orders at their 87 Elm St. location in Manchester.
- Overall: Prices are a tad higher per serving, but there’s also no prep time. Foods are well-prepared, very tasty and ingredients are locally sourced and organic. Organic mashed potatoes are priceless!
- Incentives: You can save by paying ahead with a Meal Plan subscription.
- More info: allrealmeal.com, Facebook
In the end, there are many options for getting food on the family table. Meal kits are a bit expensive for a large family and offend those concerned about excess waste. Industry gurus say that the meal kit market is getting tough as more providers are entering the fray and maintaining customers is difficult. People seem to quit after about six months. Maybe the meals start to get repetitive, or maybe people are saying, “Hey, I can do this myself.” Hopefully, with an armful of achievable recipe cards in hand, there is a ready reference for future meals, made truly by the chef of the house. On the other hand, Amazon/Whole Foods may soon be delivering your ingredients (and maybe meal kits) to your door, so don’t worry about getting addicted to convenience. If there’s no time for farmers markets, CSA pickups or a stop at the deli counter, then just see what is sitting on your doorstep and get the oven going.