Grading the DIY dinner delivery choices

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It’s 2016 (Happy New Year!), which means it’s that time again to reflect on the changes you want to make over the next 365 days (technically 366 — Happy Leap Year!). Coincidentally, I’m turning 30 in 10 days, so I’ve spent the last year trying to be a better full-fledged adult, and that means, among other things, more home-cooked meals.

You may be familiar with the rising trend of on-demand food delivery services like Plated, Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, but you may not have given them a second thought. Luckily for you, I’ve been working my way through them all, and I’m ready to give you an assessment that can help you decide whether (and which) services are worth your time and money in 2016.

The basics

These services are all similar in that they deliver boxes of pre-portioned ingredients, complete with step-by-step recipe instructions, right to your door. You simply cook. That’s about where the similarities end. Some services offer subscriptions (e.g., 3 meals a week), whereas others allow you to order a la carte. Some offer set menus; others allow substitutions.

Before forking over any money to a service like this, it’s important to understand what you’re hoping to gain. Are you trying to learn to be a better cook? Are you trying to eat healthier? Are you trying to save time? How much are you willing to spend, and how will that compare to your current grocery bill?

Once you’ve determined your goals, then you’ll be in a better position to choose from the top contenders.

Blue Apron

Blue Apron was the first service I tried, and I quickly fell in love with it. They sent interesting recipes that made me feel like a gourmet chef. But after a few weeks, our relationship lost its initial luster.

The pros:

Blue Apron is less expensive than some of its competitors, and you’re guaranteed to cook up some interesting dishes you might never have tried at home, like Korean-Style Tteok & Spicy Pork Ragu with Baby Bok Choy, along with comforting classics like Italian Beef Grinders with Aged Cheddar Cheese Sauce & Crispy Potato Wedges. (Yum, I know.)

They also offer optional wine pairing delivery each month to complement their two plan choices (a two-person plan with three meals per week, or a family plan that serves four, with either two or four meals per week). Of course, you’ll need to check your state’s alcohol delivery laws before proceeding — not every state is eligible.

The cons:

Blue Apron is a subscription service, so you’ll need to agree to the monthly subscription and remember to cancel any weeks that you want to skip. I sometimes forgot to cancel in time if I was traveling or was not going to be home in the evenings, which needless to say was both annoying and expensive. That said, when I did finally put my subscription on hold, it was easy to do.

The ingredients also come in their purest form — which means you’re peeling the garlic and chopping it from scratch. This made the prep more time-consuming than I had hoped. The ingredients for each meal are also all delivered together in one box, with no separation by individual meals. Much like when you purchase regular groceries, you’ll be digging for ingredients as you prepare to cook your meal.

Finally (at least at the time I tried it), Blue Apron only offered a few set menus, so although you could choose based on your dietary preferences, you could only customize the boxes to a point. And I have to say, they missed the mark on recipes a few times as time wore on, so we’d find ourselves with leftover, never-used ingredients languishing in the refrigerator (which defeated the point of ordering ingredients in exactly the right amounts so as not to have waste).

Overall grade: B

Plated

Plated was the second delivery service I tried, and I used it religiously for a few months in 2015.

The pros:
Plated sends each meal’s ingredients in a separate bag within the box you receive, so there’s no time wasted on finding out which ingredients are meant for which recipe. They also take care of some of the pre-prep in advance, so you’ll receive pre-cubed butternut squash, or pre-peeled garlic. It seems like a small thing, but this helped save a ton of time on prep.

Plated also offers much more customization, allowing you to mix and match to choose specific meals each week, rather than be restricted to a few set menus. It allows you to choose plans offering two and seven meals for two people per week (which appealed to me in case I wanted my Plated investment to cover the entire week, rather than just three days). The food was also delicious — they never missed the mark.

You can easily access PDF files of previous meals in your online account, which is great if you find a stellar recipe you want to make again for company (yes, that did happen). Yes, other services provide recipe cards you can use again, but in today’s digital age I’d rather find them quickly online than dig through a giant stack of cards in my recipe cabinet.

The cons:

Plated is more expensive than other services. It’s also subscription-based, so although you are not charged unless you order something, you do have to actively skip weeks in order to avoid the charge. If you don’t skip or choose your meals, they’ll choose meals for you based on your stated preferences, and you will be charged. Ultimately, I loved my experience with Plated, but have been skipping weeks for a few months now for two main reasons: price and nutrition. Plated does offer low-calorie options, but only the calories are listed — so if you’re watching other things like sodium, sugar, fat or carbohydrates, you’ll have to figure it out yourself.

Overall grade: A-

Hello Fresh

Hello Fresh is like a hybrid of Blue Apron and Plated, with more “healthy” brand messaging. You can choose from three types of boxes — vegetarian, classic or family. Pricing is on par with Blue Apron.

The pros:

Hello Fresh offers many customization options in terms of the number of meals you’d like to receive each week, and for how many people. This is similar to Plated, but they offer a specific, discounted family option, whereas Plated just tells you to order more of the same meal if you want to feed more people. They also include celebrity chef options, such as recipes from Jamie Oliver (famous for his healthy cooking), and are incredibly transparent about their suppliers. This is the box for you if you’re particularly interested in supporting local purveyors. Finally, they include a full nutritional breakdown of their meals, which is great for those watching specific aspects of their diet.

The cons:

I dug into the calorie and nutrition content for Hello Fresh, and while it’s technically healthy, it’s not any more so than Blue Apron or Plated. Especially when it comes to calories. Hello Fresh isn’t necessarily designed for you to lose weight. There’s currently not a ton of customization available within the three box options. The Classic Box has a bit more flexibility, but if you choose vegetarian or family, you’re at the mercy of that week’s menu. Like the others, Hello Fresh is a subscription service — so remember to cancel any skipped weeks before the deadline, or you’ll find yourself with unwanted food and an unwanted credit card charge.

Overall grade: B+

Chef’d

Last, but certainly not least, is Chef’d.

The pros:

Chef’d is not subscription-based, which means you don’t have to remember to keep canceling if you want to skip a week. They focus on bringing recipes from trusted chefs and sources to life. For example, that recipe for Chicken Tinga Tostados you saw on AllRecipes.com? Now you can order all of the ingredients from Chef’d. Feeling like something from the James Beard Foundation or one of the chefs from Top Chef Masters? You can find that, too. See something delicious in this month’s issue of Prevention Magazine? You guessed it, you can find that, too. If you’re hoping to improve your chef skills and add more gourmet flare to your kitchen, this is the service for you.

Chef’d also recently partnered with Weight Watchers, so if you’re trying to make cooking at home and sticking to the plan easy, this is the way to go. Pricing for Chef’d is on par with the other services, with more variation depending on the meal. There is also a huge selection available at once, rather than menus that change each week, so if you find a dish you love, you can reorder whenever you like. Full nutritional information is available for most meals, as well as user reviews so you can get more insight into the recipes.

The cons:

Price. While you can find meals right on par with other services (e.g., $24 for two people), there are also some tantalizing options that will catch your eye only to leave you with serious sticker shock. Also, if you’re watching calories, be sure to check how many servings are in a package — sometimes the dinners for two will actually have five or more servings in a package, and you’ll want to count the nutrition facts accordingly (although this — thankfully — doesn’t apply to their Weight Watchers plan). Finally, given the gourmet slant, some recipes can be more time-consuming than others, so check the instructions and the reviews before deciding if cooking a particular dish will fit into your schedule.

Overall grade: A

Honorable Mention: Hungryroot.

Hungryroot offers a limited selection of main dishes, side dishes and desserts, all made almost entirely from vegetables. My personal favorite is their Rutabaga Noodles with Roasted Mushroom Pistou. Basically, they make noodles out of root vegetables. Dishes can be made on the stovetop or in the microwave in less than seven minutes.

I’d be remiss not to mention that their desserts are each a guilt-free delight.

Are you going to improve your master chef skills with Hungryroot? Nope. But it’s a quick, creative, convenient and delicious way to eat your veggies.

The bottom line: If you want to save time at the grocery store, are willing to pay a little bit more for that convenience, like the idea of not having leftover ingredients (especially vegetables) languishing in your refrigerator, and want to improve your cooking chops in 2016, you might consider giving one of these services a try. It might not be a five-day-a-week solution, but it takes the hassle out of meal planning and is undoubtedly a healthier choice than another night of pizza. Just be careful — subscription services require diligence to avoid unwanted charges and orders, and we don’t want to see you back here on our forums trying to figure out how to get a refund!

Heather Dratler

Lover of all things travel and hospitality, both from a personal and professional standpoint. A PR pro by day, I've represented a wide variety of clients in the travel industry since 2008. Sharing my passion for and knowledge of travel makes me happy. Cornell University graduate. Follow me on Twitter @HeatherLori7.

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  • Leslie

    Very interesting article-thanks!

  • LostInMidwest

    This is very interesting, but Heather ,,, one hint … The very reason I bother cooking at all (when I have time for it) is that I actually get to choose and pick my own ingredients in the store. Without even thinking about sounding like I know what I am doing, consider also this: the difference between short order cook and chef is mostly that one cooks with ingredients sent to them while the other picks his/her own.

    So, before I would ever waste my time on ordering pre-chopped “fresh” ingredients, I would much rather go to couple of restaurants around the place where I live where I know I can find cooked-on-the-premisses from fresh ingredients food of relatively high quality for reasonable money.

    You still get B- for effort :)

  • Regina Litman

    I’m such a fussy eater – no cheese (yes, this means no pizza) or tasteable nuts, and this is due to personal preference, not allergies or other health concerns – that these services probably won’t work for me.

    Also, Heather, I know you’re engaged (congratULATIONs!), so you may have put the problems of being single behind you and don’t even think about the extra costs of being unattached. But do any of these plans offer a single person deal, not “based on double occupancy”? (By the way, I do have someone in my life, but due to our schedules, we are not always able to have our meals together.)

  • Candi Harmon Kruse

    Have you tried Home Chef? Not as “healthy” but I feel like the ingredients were some of the best I’ve seen over all the services and prep/cooking times most accurate. I bounce mostly between Home Chef and Blue Apron.

  • Heather Lori Dratler

    Thank you, Regina! For single eaters, these services usually suggest that you make the portions for 2 and bring the leftovers for lunch the next day, or have them for dinner another night that week. :)

  • Tanya

    I can only get three of these in my market, so far, Plated, Blue Apron, and Hello Fresh. I love both Plated and Hello Fresh. Blue Apron lost me when a few of the recipes were just not good. We cook often (only go out about 1 time a week), so it was not user error, just a bad recipe, which left us with $20 bucks of food that was thrown away. When I mentioned this to Blue Apron, no response, no sorry, no partial credit, nothing. In contrast, when Hello Fresh did not send all the ingredients necessary for a meal, I e-mailed, and was given a credit. When Plated messed up and sent a box earlier than I had subscribed for, again, credit. Offered without asking, they noticed the error and fixed it. I enjoy the flexibility, but have stopped getting orders for now. They are a great option when I am working more hours, but for now can just shop and cook like normal, which typically takes less time than one of the Plated/Hello Fresh meals, BUT I do get into ruts, so the creativity at times is great!

  • We’ve only tried Hello Fresh once and the packaging was so much that we stopped getting it. Are they all like that? Sure, much of it may be recyclable but OY! it’s such a waste of materials that I can’t get beyond that. I’d rather pay the mark-up from Instacart for food and make it ourselves .. even if it takes a bit of time. Just can’t get over the lack of sustainability.

  • Heather Lori Dratler

    Some are better than others, but you’re right – there’s a lot of packaging. On another note, I LOVE Instacart!

  • Grant Ritchie

    Hi DR,
    As you can see (below), it wasn’t. It’s just that you’re fairly new to us here at Elliott, and we do a background check before allowing you into the family. What is your Disqus “reputation”? How long have you been posting on Disqus sites? How many comments have you posted? How many times have your comments been flagged? How many spam posts have you attempted to inflict upon the rest of us? That sort of thing. If you come up as “Trusted” (which you did), we move you to our “white list,” and, as long as you maintain your “Trusted” status, your comments post automatically. Welcome aboard. :-)
    Grant
    (Your moderator)

  • DReid

    Thanks Grant. I appreciate the clarification!