Do you have the cooking blahs? Tired of planning meals and bored with your recipes? Reluctant to spend money on new ingredients you may not like? A meal kit—a box of chef-created recipes and pre-measured ingredients delivered to your home—will spice up your cooking, with a dollop of convenience on the side. You’ll spend less time planning and grocery shopping and reduce food waste. No more figuring out what to do with a giant bunch of parsley or a tub of sour cream before it spoils.
Although a few dozen companies deliver meal kits, we looked at three of the largest purveyors—HelloFresh, Sunbasket and Blue Apron— to get an idea of cost, convenience and nutrition. What we learned is some kits offer flexibility to customize dishes and even eat healthy, but a different kind of meal planning is still required.
How it works
Each of the big three requires a subscription that renews automatically. You receive a delivery based on how many people you’re serving (two or four), the number of meals you want each week (a minimum of two and a maximum of four at Blue Apron, five at HelloFresh and six at Sunbasket) and your dietary preferences. HelloFresh and Blue Apron start at $12 per serving, but the more you order, the lower the cost. Sunbasket charges $12 per serving or more, depending on the recipe, regardless of the number of servings. Blue Apron and Sunbasket also offer single-serving, ready-to-eat meals for $10 apiece, which you can mix into your order. All three offer a variety of add-ons, such as breakfasts, appetizers, snacks and desserts. Shipping is generally $10 per box.
Will you save money? At a minimum, meal kits are probably cheaper than takeout or dining out. HelloFresh claims to be 75% cheaper than grocery shopping in part because it buys directly from suppliers, which eliminates middlemen. But beware of the promised savings from initial discounts, which are a way to lure you into becoming a subscriber. After analyzing a HelloFresh discount that promised free meals, watchdog truthinadvertising.org discovered that consumers had to spend hundreds of dollars to realize their savings. The group reported HelloFresh to the Federal Trade Commission for false advertising in June.
What you get
There’s no shortage of dishes or choices. Blue Apron and Sunbasket provide more than a dozen recipes each week, and HelloFresh more than 30. Reviewers at TheSpruceEats.com who used and reviewed the kits found that HelloFresh offered “delicious, gourmet meals,” but required “time-consuming preparation” and “lots of clean up.” Blue Apron provides “upscale modern American cuisine,” but limited dietary accommodations. Sunbasket “accommodates a range of diets” and is “simple and easy to prepare,” but flavors were occasionally “muted.” It promises that its ingredients (not meat and fish) are 99% organic.
Menus change weekly but you can view them in advance, along with the recipes, nutritional information and preparation time. You choose the recipes you want or receive a default selection based on your preferences. Plans can be customized by eliminating ingredients, swapping them or upgrading to more expensive ones. Each box includes everything you need except pantry staples, such as cooking oil, butter, sugar, salt and pepper.
When Consumer Reports analyzed meal kits, it found that the ingredients were mostly whole foods or minimally processed and the meals were “a big improvement over restaurant takeout or ultra-processed foods.” But some recipes were high in saturated fat and salt, and skimpy on the vegetables. You can always cut back on the amount of salt, sugar or butter that a recipe calls for, and some companies have healthier categories of meals. Sunbasket, for example, offers 15 to 17 recipes each week in a wide variety of categories: paleo, vegetarian, Lean & Clean, gluten-free, carb conscious, Mediterranean, diabetes friendly and pescatarian. All three companies also have a low-calorie meal category for dieters.
None of the three companies deliver in Alaska or Hawaii, and Sunbasket also excludes Montana, North Dakota and parts of New Mexico. The box is insulated, and the food is chilled with ice packs to ensure freshness. If delivery is delayed by the carrier, the ingredients may spoil. When ingredients are unacceptable or missing, you may be able to receive a credit or refund, but you’ll have to buy your own replacements.
And meal kits still require planning ahead. Each company sets a deadline for choosing recipes for the following week, skipping a week, changing your delivery day, suspending your subscription or canceling it altogether. If you miss the deadline, you’ll still receive a box the following week and be charged for it—a frequent source of complaints by consumers. To make managing your account easier and avoid snafus, download the company’s free app and pay attention to reminders.
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