Are Cook-It-Yourself Meal Kits Worth the Cost and Hoopla?

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Meal-kit services that deliver the ingredients and instructions for chef-worthy meals to subscribers have exploded in popularity. Here's what I learned using Blue Apron.

When I visited a friend for dinner recently she pulled a Blue Apron meal from the fridge. She laid out the measured portions of fresh ingredients, each in its own little package, on her kitchen counter.

“Look,” she said. “One scallion!” She held up a single green onion in a teeny plastic bag. Other bags, tiny bottles and condiment containers held spices, a dab of creme fraiche, a couple of cloves of garlic and a portion of verjus, which Wikipedia says is a kind of sour grape juice.

We cooked together, following clear, simple instructions from a big, colorful card. In about 40 minutes we’d produced a stunningly good meal of chicken thighs in sauce, wild mushrooms, sautéed collard greens and tender little potatoes. The portions weren’t huge but the flavors were intense and satisfying, and we felt satisfied.

The meal prompted me to experiment more using Blue Apron. Here’s what I learned — what worked and what did not — about this increasingly popular approach to preparing meals.

Meal-subscription services

The meal-kit industry began in Europe and hit the United States in 2012 with two services, Blue Apron and Plated.

Today, a dozen or more meal-kit subscription services are competing for access to our kitchens. A few: HelloFresh (featuring celebrity chef Jamie Oliver), Purple Carrot (vegan), Gobble (10 minutes, one pan), PeachDish (Southern-themed), Green Chef (paleo, omnivore, carnivore, gluten-free or vegetarian), Green Blender (smoothies) and Sun Basket (organic, with gluten-free, paleo and vegetarian options). Even the New York Times offers a meal-subscription service, Chef’d.

By the time I dabbled with this way of cooking, customers around the globe were spending $1.5 billion a year for the kits — delivered to their doors — of fresh, uncooked dinner ingredients and preparation directions.

Pork chops and pea shoots

Blue Apron ships some 5 million meals monthly, according to Vogue. The service provides a cooking show-type experience several times a week and variety — spicy Korean rice cakes with snow peas and pea shoots, seared pork chops and fig compote with sautéed kale and faro salad or miso-sesame shredded salad with red rice and gingered carrots, to name a few of the menu items this week.

Even meat-and-potatoes dishes get the chef treatment: Seared steak and spiced potatoes with sautéed sugar snap peas and tarragon labneh sauce, for instance, comes with an aromatic spice blend (sumac, za’atar, allspice, coriander, cardamom, cumin and garlic powder) and cheese made from strained yogurt.

Scrumptious

The friend sent me a discounted invitation to try Blue Apron, so I purchased two weeks of deliveries for two: three deliveries (six servings) each week for about $60 a week (including delivery). The introductory discount was for two free meals.

Blue Apron is not a budget meal plan, but it is among the less expensive meal-subscription services. You could easily spend the same amount — $10 per meal — at McDonald’s.

Blue Apron’s family plan — Money Talks News writer Krystal Steinmetz uses it and likes it — includes either two or four different meals a week with four servings per meal. The cost: $8.74 per serving. Some competing meal-subscription services let you pick, choose and swap meals. Not Blue Apron. Once you’ve chosen your dietary preference (vegetarian, pescatarian or omnivore) you’re offered three recipes each week and can accept all the week’s recipes or skip the entire week.

My omnivore meals ranged from really terrific to OK. None was bad. I enjoyed the variety, the Christmas-morning excitement of a new delivery and learning new techniques. Avoiding the grocery store was a bonus.

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