It’s probably because I’m a millennial (and we apparently don’t know how to cook and spend all of our money on grab and go foods), but I get a LOT of targeted advertising for meal kit services. I now see my local grocery store selling their own version of grab and go meal kits in the deli and I see influencers on my Instagram feed selling new ones I have not yet heard of. Martha Stewart even has her own line of meal kit services. If the Queen Foodie has her own line, they’re definitely not a trend to be ignored, right?
What’s the deal with these meal kits and are they worth the price point? My opinion doesn’t speak for everyone, but I’ll tell you what I liked and didn’t like about them. I’ll also end with some ‘food for thought’ on how I may have changed my mind about the eco-consciousness of this concept.
Meal Kit Services I Tested
I’ve tried both Hello Fresh and Blue Apron meal kit services at the time of writing this post.
Hello Fresh: Hello Fresh describes itself as “America’s Most Popular Meal Kit” and touts meals starting at $7.49. Hello Fresh lets you build weekly subscription boxes with up to 4 meals and serving 2-4 people per meal. You can select dietary preferences like vegetarian, family-friendly and calorie conscious. Hello Fresh emphasizes that meals come together quickly and includes the preparation time right in the description of meals. You pick from a variety of meals available for a specific week (ordering at least one week ahead of time) and get a sense of what ingredients might be in there (and if they’d be a hit for you or your family). I found prices at $8.99 per meal, plus $6.99 for shipping each week. Hello Fresh does have some offers for new customers – they are currently offering an $80 promotional code – but this typically must be applied over several consecutive weeks of shipments. It’s not as though you get your first box for nearly free.
Blue Apron: Blue Apron describes itself as offering chef-designed recipes and touts its recyclable packaging and sustainably sourced ingredients. They have a section on their webpage that talks about building a better food system. This is a new branding effort since I last tried Blue Apron and I’m kind of into it! Blue Apron also indicates that meals start at $7.49, but I’m not sure how you arrive at that price point because the meals are listed for $9.99 per meal with free shipping. You can select dietary preferences like signature, WW Freestyle (lower calorie options developed in partnership with Weight Watchers), and vegetarian, as well as a four serving signature option geared toward families. Blue Apron also lists the preparation time in the description of meals and from first glance, appears to have more ethnically diverse meals and is less modeled around a protein + vegetable + starch design. Blue Apron offers a $60 promotional code ($20 off your first 3 boxes) to new customers.
Pros of Meal Kit Services
You will likely cook outside your normal comfort zone of familiar recipes. I’ve tried six shipments between the two above meal kit services and I have to say that I’ve never received one that had a typical American recipe in it like spaghetti or hamburgers. These meal kit services offer detailed customization for different diets, but will likely present you with a more ‘gourmet’ meal pairing than you’d likely come up with on your own.
It’s cheaper than a date night out at a restaurant and can provide a fun experience. I really enjoy cooking with my husband – it’s a great exercise in teamwork and is a task that lets you spend time close together and talk while you work. It’s a far cry from watching tv while sitting next to each other in front of a pizza box (don’t worry, we do that, too). With a price point of about $6 per person per meal, it is on par with a fast food/ fast casual meal, but much less than the price of a sit down dining experience.
It’s pretty foolproof. The recipes are not always easy (I find them to be somewhat laborious, and I like cooking, so that’s saying something), but the directions are explicit step by step and they include EVERY single ingredient you’d need in the packaging except for olive oil, salt and pepper. Even the worst stocked kitchen in the United States could probably scrounge together some oil, salt and pepper.
You can recreate the recipes again with the use of the recipe cards. Many of the recipes I’ve tried through meal kit services I likely would not repeat, but I like that you do have the ability to easily recreate these meals because each meal includes a recipe card with ingredient list. I’m sure plenty of households have go-to, frequent favorite meals, and if one of these was one for us, I’d appreciate having the recipe card to refer back to.
The meal kits emphasize whole food cooking using minimally processed ingredients. I love this feature of meal kit services and it’s my biggest pro of the whole concept. So much “cooking” nowadays involves reheating semi-cooked ingredients or using highly processed ingredients that are barely recognizable as the real foods they mimic. These meal kits do encourage true cooking, using real, whole food ingredients. It really instills that making a perfectly prepared vegetable or crafting a homemade sauce isn’t as easy as opening a can or microwaving something.
Cons of Meal Kit Services
You have to plan ahead at least one week when ordering your meals. In our household we *try* to plan ahead and know which nights we are cooking at home / have night meetings / are dining out, etc. Sometimes the best made plans don’t go as planned. These meal kits (if you have meat-based meals) have fresh meat that needs to be used or frozen fairly quickly. The produce (in my experience) goes bad quickly, too. If you subscribe for a meal kit – you need to prepare those meals in short order. If this works for your schedule, great! If not, you may end up freezing the meat and replacing the produce – effectively paying for your meal twice.
The meals are sometimes laborious, more so than you’d normally sign up to cook. This can absolutely be a con in my book and a pro for someone else. Two of the meals I made in the last few years from meal kits included a braised duck breast and enchiladas with salsa verde. The duck breast was frustrating and time consuming to prepare (duck is super fatty and it had to be drained multiple times midway through the cooking process). When making the enchiladas I was marveling over how long I spent roasting tomatoes and onions. I realized at that point that I was making the salsa verde from scratch. Look, I love cooking more than the average person, but I buy my salsa in a jar or my pico fresh made in the deli like a sane human. I’m not trying to make a scratch roasted salsa after work on a Tuesday. I’ve also found that the meals do not always come together quite as quickly as the times on the recipe cards suggest.
It’s not cost effective if you often cook at home. We cook at home with whole food ingredients at least three times per week, usually four times per week. Our meals prepare about 2-4 servings, offering us leftovers to eat for lunch. As such, we only dine out for dinner one night on the weekend and maybe one night during the week. Our grocery budget for all of those dinners, lunches and breakfasts is about $70-80 per week for two people. A meal kit service like this that would offer three meals (totaling about 7-9 servings) each would cost about $60 per week. I can stretch my $70-80 grocery budget across 18-20 servings. I’d likely need to spend an additional $25-30 per week to cover breakfast and other meals – meaning my budget spent on groceries would increase dramatically. If you don’t cook at home and find that you are buying those other meals on the go – yes, meal kit services would be a less expensive option.
I don’t like auto-renew subscription services. This is a personal thing, but I’m not one to jump feet first into subscription services without trying them first. I would rather pay a little extra and do a one-time trial of something before I give over my credit card and agree to auto renewal. Perhaps things have changed, but I was only able to sign up as a subscription service when I first tried this, and it took effort to cancel it once I had tried it out. I like the option of a discounted subscription service, but I like even better if a company can offer a slightly more expensive one time try and buy option.
Lastly – a maybe pro, or a maybe con? I’m not sure where I land on this…
The eco-friendly debate. I remember being appalled the first time I ordered a meal kit service by how much packaging was in the box. I mean, it makes sense. They are shipping uncooked meat to your door and know that the average person is away from their door for eight+ hours, meaning it has to stay at a food safe cold temperature even in summer. There were bulky ice packs and layers of packaging to keep the food insulated. I was able to reuse the ice packs in our cooler one summer, but much of the rest of the packaging was not recyclable.
I Googled this and came across several articles arguing that in fact, despite the packaging, meal kits are actually a more eco-conscious option than trips to the grocery store. What?? Hear me (and the good people at NPR) out:
- Meal kits are delivered on a shared route by UPS/USPS/FedEx, whatever delivery fulfillment service. Your trip to the grocery store (and everyone else’s) is very likely made in your car, by yourself.
- There is less food waste with meal kit services because ingredients are portioned to the exact amount you need. Less food waste means less food in landfills creating methane gas.
- Grocery stores throw out a significant amount of food (they throw away blemished produce, for example) and can easily overstock items, too.
- The supply chain is more direct, with ingredients being assembled at one point source and then distributed direct to consumers.
Because of these factors, despite the packaging, meals you prepare with ingredients from the grocery store can generate 33% more greenhouse gas production than a meal kit delivered meal. That’s something to think on.
Are meal kit services just about convenience for people who don’t like to cook? Or are they a more sustainable step forward that reduces food waste and shortens the supply chain?