By Katie Kelly Bell
Meal kit delivery services are reinventing the dinner ritual a very good way. Working couples, singles, and busy families who care about eating fresh, home-cooked meals are flocking to the concept of a freshly prepped meal-in-a-box and the market is lighting up with a flurry of new offerings. For this story I only tested national delivery services: Plated, Blue Apron, PeachDish, Chef’D, Purple Carrot, HelloFresh, Terra’s Kitchen and the newest, Home Chef–to be added next week.
Each service did a terrific job of delivering amazingly fresh ingredients and offering a variety of dishes and easy-to-read recipes. My family personally loved the meals from HelloFresh and PeachDish best of all. We even invited another couple over to have a meal kit cook-off (this is what 50+ adults do for fun). Every single meal turned out as expected and given the potential for user-error in my house, that is an impressive statistic. These are my five takeaways from the experience:
- You will most certainly improve your culinary skills and repertoire.
- It is SO much fun, and never gets old opening the box to see what’s for dinner.
- You will surprise yourself–preparing recipes you might otherwise gloss over in a magazine or cookbook.
- The ingredients are, for the most part, fresher, higher-quality and generally better than you might find at your average chain grocery store.
- Your children will get engaged with the process—because, see item #2, you are opening a box and it is like Christmas at dinner time.
The recipes from each service were printed in full color on heavy card stock sheets with step-by step instructions and the only ingredients I needed to provide were cooking oil, salt and pepper. Most offer free shipping, but read the fine print. I would also absolutely order up these meals to be delivered to the beach during family vacation—instead of wasting your precious vacation time shopping and stocking the pantry, just cook from the kit. Bon Appetit!
PeachDish: This was my favorite service largely because each meal included a main, side and vegetable (a very southern kind of plate to be honest). Many of the other services delivered one-dish meals which are great, but the veggies tend to get lost in meals like that. I also loved the creative simplicity in the PeachDish recipes –consider the chopped celery salad with shaved parmesan, such an easy, fresh delightful way to make something green into something delicious in less than three minutes. Ingredients for each dish come in individual organza bags (very cute and fun to re-use) however, our box was missing the recipe instructions, but we found them easily online when we notified them. While the protein portions were technically appropriate (a palm-sized chicken breast), they were not large enough for my teenage boys. The Tex-Mex black bean and blue corn tortilla soup and the smothered chicken with herb grits and celery salad were overall top dishes among the many we sampled. Pricing: Price starts at $12.50 per person per meal. Customers can subscribe or order week by week.
HelloFresh: HelloFresh’s dishes were also some of our favorites and the recipes had slightly fewer steps than other clubs. They do a nice job of juggling the right amount of flavor and complexity with the busy-life factor (I often only have bandwidth for a meal that requires just a squeeze of this and a dash of that). The company also partners with celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver. His dishes are some of the more complex and intriguing on offer and I suggest making sure you order at least one of his meals in your delivery. Overall, the portions were appropriate. We prepared chili roasted shrimp with spinach, white bean sauté, feta and mint (this was my fave dish), also included was mozzarella crusted chicken (kids’ favorite, duh) and Jamie Oliver’s Alo Gobhi (a spicy potato and cauliflower dish). Pricing: A classic box with 3 meals for 2 people is $69 per box and the same size in the veggie box is $59.
Plated: Plated meals are a bit more complex, requiring more dicing, chopping and various other cooking techniques (searing, roasting, etc.) than some of the other plans. There were definitely a lot of things happening when I made my pork tacos al pastor—warming the tortillas, marinating the pork, searing the pork, reducing the sauce, and prepping the taco topping. If you have three kids who all need homework help this might be too many things to manage but, then again, maybe you need something sophisticated and civilized in your day and this is just the ticket. I quizzed a big Plated user, Blake Palmer, Treasury Management Sales Consultant for Wells-Fargo, who said they can be tough to reach when there is a problem (which is not often he says). Palmer was quick to add though that “The meals have been very fresh and delicious, and have really been a great date option!” Pricing: 2 dinners for 2 people: $48/week (+$6 shipping); 3 dinners for 2 people: $72/week (free shipping).
Blue Apron: Much like Plated, these dishes had several steps to the recipe and preparation time tended to average 30 to 45 minutes. The box arrived with the proteins over ice and the remaining ingredients, or “knick knacks” as they call them, are packed in individual paper bags. You also get a single full-color information sheet about an ingredient (in my case it was the story of the bay leaf, interesting). My triple pork mazeman looked like an amazing dish but required almost 40 minutes to roast an individual garlic bulb (not what I wanted to read at 6:45pm when everyone was starving), but it also came with fresh ramen noodles which were a real treat. The other dishes: seared salmon with spinach and walnut pesto and adobo styled chicken were equally tasty—and complex. Blue Apron is also offering a wine club in conjunction with the meals—so they aren’t just making pairing suggestions—now you can actually have them send you wines that work with the meals and each wine comes with a card full of tasting notes and detailed info about the wine. Pricing: 2 people (three meals a week) $59.94 or Family Plan (serves 4) 2 meals per week, $69.92
Terra’s Kitchen: This service scored major points with the clever way they solved the packaging waste problem— by shipping your meals in something akin to a plastic miniature refrigerator (they call it a vessel). Your box arrives, you pop the “locks,” open the door to the box and slid out your different ingredients. After unloading, lock the box back up, peel off the shipping sticker which reveals the return sticker beneath, leave the box on the front porch and the shipper picks it up the next day. Everything in this kit was very simple. Veggies were pre-chopped and sauces and seasonings were packaged (all you need to do is cut and squeeze). For the person who loves the art of preparation, Terra might be too easy, but for the busy family or couple, this is a service that delivers a fresh, home cooked meal that you assemble. We loved the barbecue chicken with roasted sweet potato and spinach salad (a tasty combination I would never think of). They also made wine pairing suggestions. Pricing: Meals start at $9.99 per person.
Chef’D: Chef’D meals also involved more prep time and cooking techniques. The company partners with a wide range of accomplished chefs so complexity can vary but, without a doubt, these were some of the tastiest recipes we tried. For the delicious verde chicken and calabacitas with spinach garlic rice dish there was considerable chopping and dicing and I needed a blender for the salsa– at least the poblano arrived pre-roasted for me. My only issue was with the recipe directions, which were at times confusing (i.e. does “use half of the onions, tomatillos, jalapeno and 2 garlic cloves” mean half of all of those, or just half of the onions?) After a few read-throughs I sorted it out. Each recipe offers a skill level rating, and beer and wine paring suggestions. Dinner for 2 averages $24 to $30. Free shipping if you spend over $40.
Purple Carrot: This meal delivery was also a favorite of mine because each dish taught me something new. Mark Bittman, food columnist for the New York Times, creates the recipes, and this is the only all-vegan service I researched that delivers nationally. Confession, the recipes were totally out of my comfort zone—largely because I have never worked with ingredients such as chayote and jackfruit. Yet, everything I prepared survived my JV cooking skills, which is testament to the clarity of the recipe writing. Our jackfruit enfrijoladas with coconut crema were astonishingly delicious, ditto the North African orzo risotto with raw fennel salad. The recipes are not for the meek—dishes took 45 minutes to prepare and several different steps—but the thrill of working with ingredients that are so good for you is worth the time investment. If you have ever wanted to learn more about vegan cuisine, this is the tastiest way to educate yourself. The meals easily serve two people with some leftover. Pricing: $68 for 2 people, 3 meals a week; $74 for 4 pple two meals a week.
Home Chef: Our dinner of mozzarella stuffed meatballs sliders was a hit, as expected. The recipe was easy-to-follow and the ingredients were fresh. I would describe Home Chef as a well-priced choice for the individual who isn’t committed to organic, free-range, non-GMO ingredients. I ordered the meatball dinner and a crispy rice salmon dish. The salmon (which was sealed in airtight plastic bags) in my shipment did not survive being compressed between two large freezer packs and arrived rough shape. There was no information on what kind of salmon (farm-raised or wild?) or where it came from. Some people really don’t care, but I shop very intentionally and like to know where my food comes from. Home Chef is probably one of the more basic plans in terms of pricing—almost every meal is $9.95, at $40 you get free shipping.
Green Chef: This newest player in the game is the only, for the moment, USDA-certified organic meal kit delivery company. The service offers Paleo, gluten-free, vegetarian, omnivore, carnivore and most recently–vegan–options. Everything, and I mean everything, is organic, right down to the two tablespoons of organic balsamic vinaigrette dressing included in my shipment. We loved the harissa romesco steak which provided ample portions of steak over an asparagus and pickled pepper farro. Recipes are complex, with several steps but things like the harissa come ready-made so most of the work is in the chopping, sauteeing and finishing work.We also liked the spinach-herb chicken kiev, but I’d pass on the pesto-ricotta flatbread (essentially pizza)–something I can whip up at home from leftovers, without a delivery fee. All in all, a nice choice if you are seeking 100% organic meals. The Omnivore package includes three meals (veggie, meat and seafood) and starts at $11.99 per person, per meal; shipping is $9 per box.