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

Photo (cc) by iriskh

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.If you like cooking, you’ll probably appreciate the top-quality ingredients, sophisticated meals and fun experience. Food waste is virtually eliminated. Each delivery includes only what you’ll use and not one grain of rice more. (As a point of reference, 20 to 40 percent of U.S. food goes to waste, according to Feeding America, the national network of food banks.)

Some people find Blue Apron solves many of their problems, including cutting back on their grocery shopping, helping find fresh ingredients and answering the perennial problem of what to eat.

“I live in a really small rural town (under 10,000 people) in Montana and we have just two grocery stores, so we’re very limited on food offerings — especially fresh and affordable produce, seafood, herbs and ethnic foods/spices,” MTN’s Steinmetz told me. “My husband and I love that with Blue Apron we’re able to cook meals with ingredients we either can’t purchase locally or can’t purchase affordably.”

A challenge for special dietary needs

And yet, I probably will not be enrolling in Blue Apron, at least regularly, for several reasons.

One affects only a few people: I have celiac disease. At first it seemed I could make substitutes — my pasta for their pasta, gluten-free soy sauce for their soy sauce. The company’s customer service was stellar, answering my emails, researching ingredients and thinking up workarounds. The difficulty is that lots of ingredients have hidden gluten and, with celiac, even a little can make you pretty sick. Customer service bent over backwards, but even they couldn’t figure out the contents of the glaze in the soy-glazed meatballs with Swiss chard, jasmine rice and marinated relish. I found a glaze recipe online and made my own. The meal was delicious. But it taught me that this wasn’t a realistic approach for me.

Another downside: packaging

Another deal-breaker for me was that Blue Apron and, presumably, its cousins, generate lots and lots of packaging waste.

The environmental cost of delivering meals to my doorstep detracted from the fun. (Scroll to the bottom of this BuzzFeed post to view the packaging from one week’s two-person plan.) Blue Apron encourages recycling, but how many cities’ recycling programs accept items like many types of plastic involved? Mine won’t. Blue Apron will pay postage if you return your trash for recycling or reuse. But shipping and recycling also have a price — one we all pay.

“Though recycling can make consumers think they are helping the environment, the process has its own costs, including the emissions from shipping it to recycling centers, which use a lot of energy and water,” the New York Times reports, adding that shipping and delivery from online shopping probably are a “primary” reason greenhouse gas emissions rose 20 percent from 2001 to 2011.

Stove time and cleanup

One more thing; Blue Apron requires more stove time and cleanup than I like to do on a regular basis. I like to cook and do lots of it, but usually I make extra so there’s always something to defrost and reheat or a salad or soup to throw together quickly.

Although Blue Apron made it easy to produce a tasty meal, it did not offer an equally easy way to get rid of the mess.

If you do purchase

If you try Blue Apron, get one of the heavily discounted trial offers. You’ll find them on Groupon, by following Blue Apron on Twitter or by going directly to this page.

You don’t have to subscribe to enjoy the dozens of recipes and tips available online.

What’s your experience with meal kits? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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