Let me tell you about a delicious plot I cooked up. Over the course of one year, in an effort to clean up my eating habits, I ordered one-week trials from 12 different meal-kit companies. By the end of the year, I had sliced, diced and sometimes microwaved my way to more than 50 different meals.
There were several reasons I wanted to try prepped dishes rather than old-fashioned cooking. Although I was sick of shelling out money on small plates at trendy restaurants — and about $15 per day on mediocre Midtown lunches — I also knew that those habits were driven by convenience. (Many $45 Seamless orders of Sichuan food is a case in point.) Having kits mailed to my apartment, on days I could choose, seemed less daunting than recipe research and grocery shopping.
Another reason is that I had gained weight. Selecting recipes from the various companies, I reasoned, was a way to both control spending and know exactly what was in my meals (from butter, salt, oil and carbs to veggies).
Plus, for a New Yorker with limited fridge and pantry space, the appeal of having exotic spices and ingredients delivered in the exact (small) amounts needed is incredibly appealing. Normally, if I wanted to try a new recipe, I would need to buy entire spice jars. Groceries inevitably go bad, and jars of seasoning and special oils take up precious cabinet room.
I started with the major players — Blue Apron and HelloFresh — and then ventured off into lesser knowns: Sun Basket, Home Chef and Green Chef. Then came plant-based Hungryroot and Purple Carrot, Martha Stewart-backed Martha & Marley Spoon and rivals in the fewer-ingredients-and-less-prep arena Gobble, Dinnerly and EveryPlate. I even ventured into prepared foods — meals that just needed to be heated up — with Epicured.
I emerged on the other side of my great meal-kit experiment with better dicing skills and several takeaways.
One was that the most popular options aren’t always the best. Standbys Blue Apron and HelloFresh, for example, can be needlessly complex, with their dozen-plus ingredients and at least that many steps. If the point is to make cooking more accessible, easier and faster, there are other companies that do it better — Gobble, Hungryroot and EveryPlate, to name a few.
Another is that these kits can be incredibly affordable if you order them right. I took advantage of the discounts and deals offered for first-time customers. Each company has a different cancellation policy — and they can be difficult to find or buried on the website — so mark down in your calendar when the deadline for week two is so that you’re not charged full price for an additional box. An additional perk: Many services will try to buy back your patronage with coupons and discounts.
As for the excessive packaging that many criticize the meal-kit industry for: Most services make almost everything recyclable or reusable, including ice packs. Prior to this experiment, I was probably creating more waste with spoiled groceries and Seamless containers.
My biggest takeaway, though, was that food always tastes better when cooked from scratch. No matter how many professional chefs collaborated on ready-made meals, the dishes could come out sad and disappointing, like airplane food. What you lose in speed when cooking at home, you get back in flavor and satisfaction.
It feels good to have control over my food without toiling for hours in front of a hot stove. And with all the “Hana, we miss you!” deals sitting in my inbox, I’m looking forward to riding this meal-kit carousel forward.
Editor’s note, April 2020: In light of the coronavirus pandemic, as New Yorkers and Americans need reliable groceries delivered to their door safely more than ever before, this piece was edited to include updated information about all of the meal kit and food delivery services reviewed.
The best takeout substitute
Gobble | from $11.99 per serving (plus $6.99 shipping)
This 2013-founded company specializes in 15-minute dinners you can cook using just one pan, with many of the ingredients pre-prepped. (Translation: much less time chopping.) Gobble currently offers two plans, the “classic” dinner plan and the new “lean & clean” dinner plan. The latter only has low-carb, lean protein-filled meals under 600 calories. It’s also added breakfasts, soups, salads and sides to every weekly lineup, along with the ability to shop kitchen staples like sauces, rice and grains, proteins and more. One typical dish was pan-roasted salmon with leek patties, sauteed greens and salsa verde.
The meals are easy and fast while still feeling complex and special. The two meals I ordered from Gobble happened to be Mexican — tofu tacos and pork tamales — and turned out great; Gobble has more elevated options from a variety of international cuisines. They also threw in a lump of free dough for two chocolate chip cookies. New members can get six meals for $36 via a special introductory offer.
COVID-19 update: As of April 10, Gobble remains open and ready to deliver as usual. Read Gobble’s coronavirus statement.
The best healthy pick
Purple Carrot | from $9.99 per serving (shipping included)
Founded in 2014, Purple Carrot is all about doing that vegan thing with a serious infusion of flavor. Though the company has gone through a variety of incarnations, such as collaborations with Mark Bittman during his VB6-era and gluten-free, high-protein “TB12 Performance Meals” with Tom Brady, they’ve ditched the partnerships. Now, expect plant-based breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks with cultural influences ranging from Thai to Mexican. I especially enjoyed one meal of cauliflower shawarma with harissa-beet slaw and garlic aioli.
As a carnivore, I feared a vegan diet would leave me hungry. But the meals I made — especially the eggplant flatbreads with celery tabbouleh and mango tahini-amba — were filling. Some of that satisfaction probably stemmed from how smug I felt about being healthy. Right now, you can get $30 off your first box with code Carrot30.
COVID-19 update: As of April 10, Purple Carrot remains open and ready to deliver as usual. Through the end of May, healthcare professionals can get 30 percent off meal kits. Purple Carrot is also donating a percentage of sales from all their boxes to Feeding America through the end of May.
The best timesaver
Hungryroot | from about $60 per week
This “plant-centric” online grocery service delivers modern, healthy food with recipe and meal planning support. Expect healthy precut, premixed ingredients that can be combined to make entrees, snacks, breakfast or dessert. When you sign up, you’ll fill out a food-preference form to help determine which groceries and recipes you get.
Hungryroot meals were the fastest to prepare, hands down. Each lunch or dinner recipe is made up of two to four prepackaged items. Proteins like tofu nuggets, veggie blends like cucumber, corn and black bean salad, and veggie carb substitutes like kohlrabi noodles or cauliflower rice are mixed together with a sauce (say, avocado crema or cashew cheddar) and are ready in less than 15 minutes. One example: butternut squash and tofu curry. Yum.
COVID-19 update: As of April 10, Hungryroot remains open and ready to deliver as usual. The company is offering 30 percent off a customer’s first delivery of more than $99. Read Hungryroot’s coronavirus statement.
The wallet- (and planet-) friendly option
Dinnerly | from $4.29 per serving (plus $8.99 shipping)
Owned by Marley Spoon, recent reviewers have enjoyed easy-to-make hits like lemon-pepper chicken and black bean tacos. At only $4.49 per serving — the company keeps prices lower than competitors by providing fewer ingredients per meal and simple packaging — Dinnerly is certainly one of the most cost-effective options on the market.
Then again, its crispy egg roll with cabbage and sweet Thai chili sauce was rubbery — the least delicious of all the companies I tried, I’d reckon. Also, Dinnerly’s recipe cards are only available online. I’m all for protecting the environment — which is what they’re doing by saving paper — but it was undeniably frustrating to keep pressing on my smartphone or tablet with chili-sauce-covered fingers to unlock the screen.
COVID-19 update: As of April 10, Dinnerly remains open and ready to deliver as usual. Read Dinnerly’s coronavirus statements.
The smallest portions (but no prep time)
Epicured | from $3.99 per prepared meal (plus shipping from $10)
Some people have a hard time digesting FODMAP foods (which include, among many other things, broccoli, beans and asparagus). So while it’s great that Epicured offers a prepared-meal service geared to those food sensitivities, it’s not for those with healthy appetites. I was still hungry after gobbling down soba noodles with sesame ponzu and veggies. And it cost $13.99! For that price, I could go to a Midtown bowl or salad joint — and not end the day famished. (Though admittedly, it’s not as easy for customers with FODMAP difficulty to order things they can eat out at cafes or restaurants.)
That said, Epicured’s current chef, Dani Chavez-Bello, landed at the brand after experience at 3-star Michelin restaurants around the world. The company now offers 70 dietician-approved menu items, with prices for an individual item ranging from $3.99 to $22.99. There’s free delivery for customers on the East Coast with orders totaling more than $100.
COVID-19 update: As of April 10, Epicured remains open and ready to deliver as usual. It has added to its roster more freezable items, sold in bulk for customers who need reliable food on-hand that they can digest safely. Epicured is currently holding weekly virtual support groups, hosted by head of nutrition and gut health expert Kate Scarlata. On the customer service front, they’re offering discounts to those who request them.
The most well-known
Blue Apron | from $9.99 per serving
Publicly traded Blue Apron (founded in 2012) is a market leader in this industry of culinary convenience. As such, it’s able to offer extra flourishes like wine pairings, custom kitchenware and a collaboration with Weight Watchers, dubbed the WW Mark of Wellness, with 11 recipes to choose from on Blue Apron’s signature menu. I devoured a great plate of seared steak and soy-miso pan sauce with sweet potatoes and kale.
Blue Apron offers high quality for a relatively low per-serving price. Months later, I can still remember how delicious the za’atar-spiced beef pitas I made were. However, I found the recipes tended to include a few too many ingredients and took longer than the stated time to make.
COVID-19 update: As of April 10, Blue Apron remains open and ready to deliver as usual. On social media, though, some customers have reported swaps or substitutions in some of their orders.
The (other) industry leader
HelloFresh | from $7.49 per serving (plus $7.99 shipping)
Another stronghold of the industry that’s been around since 2011 and is traded publicly, HelloFresh draws from a broad swath of culinary influences each week. Currently on offer are options from Korean beef bibimbap to black bean enchiladas; I particularly liked shrimp and zucchini ribbons with basil oil over jasmine rice.
This is the meal-kit service I sent as a gift to a friend having a baby. The new mom, an occupational therapist, liked it so much that she and her nurse husband still order HelloFresh regularly to streamline their home-cooking efforts, given their busy work schedules. They’re generous, too: For a two-serving steak dish with roasted potatoes, HelloFresh sent me some nine Yukon Gold potatoes. Nine! That’s a lot of potatoes, guys.
COVID-19 update: As of April 10, HelloFresh remains open and ready to deliver as usual. While there are no major disruptions to their service, some customers may temporarily experience slight shipping delays and some limited meal choices. Read HelloFresh’s coronavirus updates.
The worthy upstart
Sun Basket | from $10.99 per serving
A rival to mightier titans Blue Apron and HelloFresh, Sun Basket also offers wide-ranging and frequently rotating slates of recipes, with options to sort the week’s recipes by cook time (under 20 minutes), calories (under 600) and cuisine (paleo, soy-free, diabetes-friendly, gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan). To its “classic cooking” recipes with ingredients, Sun Basket has added two other options: pre-prepped (no slicing, dicing or peeling) oven-ready (ready via oven or microwave in as little as five minutes).
The “classic cooking” meals available — say, flaked cod and chicory salad over white bean puree — are a great mix between meat-and-potatoes classics and more exotic options, and the portions are generous. I had more than enough to take to work for lunch the next day. Some recipes, though didn’t hit the spot the way others did. I tended to enjoy the seafood, vegetarian, pork and turkey dishes more than the ones with beef and chicken.
COVID-19 update: As of April 10, Sun Basket remains open and ready to deliver. Some changes may be made to existing orders, though, and the company admits it may be temporarily unable to accept new orders. Read Sun Basket’s coronavirus statements.
EveryPlate | from $4.99 per serving (plus $8.99 shipping)
In 2018, the folks behind HelloFresh launched EveryPlate, which offers 11 weekly options with fewer ingredients per meal. The meals are simple and tasty, ideal for busy New Yorkers. Take the company’s smoky-sweet pork chops with roasted potatoes and carrots.
I had never attempted risotto before, but EveryPlate’s easy-to-follow recipe resulted in a creamy dish with roasted bell pepper, sausage, lemon and Parmesan — in about 45 minutes. And that was the longest prep time of any meal. Although the meal options change weekly, they tend to be formulaic: a protein with one carb-y side and one veggie side. The price, however, is incredibly good for what customers get.
COVID-19 update: As of April 10, EveryPlate remains open and ready to deliver as usual. While there are no major disruptions to service, some customers may temporarily experience slight shipping delays and more limited meal choices than usual.
Martha & Marley Spoon | from $6.39 per serving (plus $8.99 shipping)
Unflappable domestic goddess Martha Stewart endorses this service — and provided 18,000 recipes to boot. Each week, 22 recipes — with options for gluten-free ones, kid-friendly ones, healthy ones and more — are up for the choosing. They just introduced fast recipes, which take only 20-minutes to prepare, like a “quicker-than-takeout” Korean steak stir-fry with cellophane noodles and veggies. Get used to advance planning: You have to pick your recipes 10 days before the delivery date. If not, you’ll get the grab bag they pick for you.
On the plus side, the variety was impressive: My week of feasts with from Marley Spoon included everything from asparagus-and-noodle stir-fry with leeks and red chili sauce to brown butter cheese ravioli with spinach and pine nut dressing to pork banh mi tacos with spicy chili mayo and mint.
COVID-19 update: As of April 10, Martha & Marley Spoon remains open and ready to deliver, though delivery dates may be adjusted. Read Martha & Marley Spoon’s coronavirus statements.
Green Chef | from $9.99 per serving (plus $6.99 shipping)
Acquired by HelloFresh in 2018, this outfit prides itself in being the first keto meal kit available. They also have plant powered, paleo and balanced living menus. A sample meal: maple-mustard pork with feta in walnut sauce, with a side of black lentils with orange and turnips.
Meatless meals sometimes leave me wanting, but Green Chef’s vegetarian farro salad with sweet potato, endive, apple, chard and candied pecans ended up being one of my favorites. Making a meatless dish filling enough for dinner and the next day’s lunch is an admirable feat! Because Green Chef’s choices tend to be veggie-heavy, chopping and prepping can take longer than their estimated time.
COVID-19 update: As of April 10, Green Chef remains open and ready to deliver as usual. While there are no major disruptions to service, some customers may temporarily experience slight shipping delays and more limited meal choices than usual.
Home Chef | from $6.99 per serving
With 15-plus straightforward-yet-inventive recipes a week, Home Chef (owned by grocery chain Kroger) is a solid contender. In addition to traditional entrees, the company sells five-minute lunches, like a blackened chicken grain bowl, and oven-ready dishes, like goat-cheese crusted chicken with green beans and almonds.
It’s on the affordable end of the spectrum while still producing quality grub; the turkey-and-avocado tostadas were my favorite. A close runner-up: the pork tenderloin with roasted pears, green beans and garlic-thyme sauce. Maybe I’m just a slow dicer, but my total cooking times exceeded Home Chef’s estimations.
This was one of the first meal kit delivery services I tried, in part because my college roommate and her husband, both teachers, are devoted subscribers who get a box a week — and have continued to rely on the company during their coronavirus lockdown in California.
COVID-19 update: As of April 10, Home Chef remains open and ready to deliver as usual. Read Home Chef’s coronavirus statements.
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