Not too long ago I decided I would try a few meal delivery kits, the kind that send you a box of fresh ingredients with enough food for three dinners, plus recipes.
I was curious and I had heard that meal kits could help reduce grocery bills and food waste, both of which can be problems in our household.
Full disclosure: I did not tell anyone that I was doing this, most particularly not the producers of the meal kits. I did not set out to rank the kits and I am receiving nothing in exchange for my opinions.
The services I tried were Home Chef, Hello Fresh, SunBasket, EveryPlate, and Dinnerly. I took advantage of introductory offers to order a different kit every week for a month. Here’s what I found.
From Home Chef we selected the shrimp yakisoba noodle bowl, New England fish cakes, and Italian pork wedding pasta.
Our selections from Hello Fresh were orzo and sausage with veggies, shrimp with zucchini ribbons, and sweet and smoky pork tenderloin.
The SunBasket meals we ordered were salmon with white bean artichoke salad, coconut shrimp, and a skillet version of moussaka.
From EveryPlate we chose spicy chicken tacos and slaw, chicken cutlets with mashed sweet potato, and Asian bbq pork with rice and broccoli.
Dinnerly provided mole chile and rice, caprese pasta, and spicy egg rolls with Thai sauce.
Now on to the comparisons.
Each box arrived in a timely fashion, most of them by noon and all before dinner. The boxes were sturdy cardboard with cold packs inside to keep the fresh ingredients that way. The boxes were left on the doorstep without our having to sign for them, which was good, except when it rained and the bottom of the box became soggy. But I prefer that to needing to be home when the box arrives.
Packaging evidently makes a difference to some users of the services. Three of them packed the ingredients for each meal in a separate bag, Hello Fresh and SunBasket’s in brown paper bags, Home Chef’s in plastic (though reusable) bags. Dinnerly and EveryPlate went the grocery cart route, with all the ingredients somewhere in the box, making the user sort them into each meal’s supplies.
All the ingredients arrived in satisfactory condition, although the chard in one box was slightly limp but usable. Sauces and such came in little restaurant packages or cute little jars. The pesto for the caprese pasta and the dipping sauce for the eggrolls were in lidded plastic cups inside plastic bags, which made me nervous, but held up despite the potential for mess. The one egg called for in a recipe came in a cunning little individual egg box and, amazingly, arrived safely. If garlic was required, a whole head arrived, with instructions to use two cloves and save the rest for later.
I was generally satisfied with the amount of ingredients, although all of the services should look at sending more tomatoes than they do, especially since they provide roma tomatoes and tell you to seed and core them, leaving very little actual tomato flesh.
I was surprised that shrimp featured in so many dishes. Pork and chicken were other prominent proteins. The lack of beef was explained when I noticed that most beef dishes cost extra – keep an eye peeled, because these premium prices aren’t prominently marked.
Detailed recipes are included with each box, except for Dinnerly, which asks you to download the recipes from their website. Home Chef’s recipes came packed in a notebook binder, making it easy to save the hole-punched instructions. The recipes all included five or six steps, mostly evenly divided between prep and cooking. My husband had been worried that the dishes might not be filling, but he was wrong. He was satisfied with the portions.
The meal delivery services assume you have some standard pantry ingredients like salt, pepper, and flour, and common kitchen implements such as knives and colanders. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a vegetable peeler, which meant our zucchini ribbons were less than uniform, or a grater, so the carrots in our slaw were rather larger than recommended.
I’d have to say that the results here were hit or miss. There were excellent dishes from each service, and less successful ones as well. Particular favorites were Hello Fresh’s sausage with orzo, which was more flavorful than Home Chef’s similar Italian wedding pasta. SunBasket had one real winner, the salmon with white-bean/artichoke salad, and one not so great, the coconut shrimp. Overall, we liked the Dinnerly dishes the best, though of course we had no way to judge the flavor when ordering. You’re totally dependent on the pictures and descriptions, though some are thoughtfully labeled “spicy,” which may or may not be accurate.
We found many of the dinners a little bland, probably because they recommend adding a fair amount of salt, which we don’t for health reasons (the sodium levels in the nutrition information can be quite high). We had to supplement with Mrs. Dash or ingredients like chili flakes left over from previous meals.
Here’s where the meal services really differ. Although all of them do seem to reduce food waste, and you probably do save money by not buying a whole bunch of carrots instead of just two or two ounces of Thai chili sauce instead of a whole bottle, the dinner boxes are not inexpensive. EveryPlate and Dinnerly were the most economical, with prices around $5 per person per meal, which is not unreasonable. The other meal services were as high as $11 per person per meal, which means they’re comparable to eating out at a casual dining restaurant, something we couldn’t do three times a week. Add to that the delivery charges, and the prices are more appropriate for someone with a higher income than we have.
EveryPlate and Dinnerly suffer, though, by offering a choice of only five and six different meals per week, respectively. Perhaps that’s how they keep costs down. Other services offer up to 18 choices per week.
Bottom line? If we were more financially stable, EveryPlate or Dinnerly would get my vote. There might be fewer choices per week, but since I never really know how any recipe will taste, that doesn’t seem a complete drawback. Plus, if nothing appeals, I can always skip a week.