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The cost of convenience: Recipe meal kits deliver, but at a price

Friday, February 28, 2014 - Updated: 7:08 AM


Chicago Tribune

As swimsuit weather ekes closer, one typical resolution is to eat healthier, but those good intentions can fall by the wayside when the reality of menu planning and grocery shopping hit.

Enter the recipe meal kit delivery service.

A relatively new service, recipe meal kits eliminate these two steps. The kits include step-by-step recipe cards and all that's needed to make the meal from scratch, including fresh vegetables and meat/fish, portioned exactly in individual packets. The meal kits say they eliminate food waste (at least at the cook's level) by providing only what is exactly needed. Additionally, cooks avoid buying a spice or condiment that they'll likely never use again.

There are three main companies providing the complete recipe meal kit delivery services: Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and Plated. I tried them all and found they all worked similarly, and the quality and quantity of food was comparable.

The websites are sleek and easy to use, with rotating menus featuring meat, fish or vegetarian meals. Boxes are delivered weekly with all raw ingredients; freezer blocks and liners keep everything cold until the cook gets home. The packaging is efficient enough that even if a delivery day is missed, food should remain cold until the next day. This happened to me. One of the boxes wasn't delivered as expected, but even a day later freezer blocks were solid and the meat cold, which made me confident all was good. (Depending on the company, refunds or credits are offered if food is spoiled.)

Ingredient quality was good, and the recipe cards were easy to follow. One quibble: I found the recipe cards/website underestimated cooking time. The recipes say most meals will take 30 to 40 minutes to make, but generally the meals took me closer to 50 minutes to an hour, from start to finish, with one exception.

Most meals made enough leftovers for at least one lunch, particularly if the dish had a grain component such as rice or quinoa. That said, most of the recipes that used grain had serving levels higher than I normally would consider in a meal. For instance, when a dish included rice, the packaging would include a cup of dry rice for two people, which produces a lot of cooked rice.

How do they taste? Overall, they're fine. Personally, I would like more flavor, but considering these meals are designed to appeal to a vast array of tastes, I imagine the seasoning is toned down.

Are these for you? It depends. The convenience doesn't come cheap. With meals costing anywhere from $10 to $15 each, dinner for two people, three nights a week adds up, versus doing your own grocery shopping and meal planning. However, for people who eat dinner out most nights, many, but not all, of these recipe kits would be cheaper.

Benefits are portion control and calorie counts on each menu, plus time saved on planning and shopping. As promised, there was little food waste at the cook's level. However, there's a lot of packaging, from the main box to the liners, freezer blocks and all the little bags containing food, which companies say is recyclable.

As an alternative to the fresh recipe meal kit, I also tried another recipe meal kit delivery service, Destination Dinners, another easy-to-use website. The focus is on ethnic foods, but includes only the shelf-stable, hard-to-get spices and recipe directions. These kits require a trip to the supermarket to pick up the vegetables and protein, which makes them more of a plan-ahead dinner. The kit also includes a booklet about the food's country of origin, which makes it a learning experience and gives it more a "special occasion" feel. Flavors were robust and made enough for two lunches the next day.

About the kits: A three-meals-per-week subscription plan. Cooks can skip a week as long as they notify Blue Apron before the delivery cut-off time. Subscription plans include three meals per week for two or four people. Choose up to seven meals with a monthly or annual membership.


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