Meal-kit delivery is a big business, and there’s every reason to think it will continue to grow. In May of last year, Blue Apron was valued at $2 billion, and Hello Fresh claimed to be selling 4 million meals each month – more than it sold in the entire first half of 2013. I consider these two, along with Plated, to be the big hitters in the meal-kit delivery business. But there is a huge number of up-and-comers.
It seems clear why this model is getting popular. American families are so busy, yet we increasingly crave home-cooked meals and the family time spent eating them together. Celebrity food writers like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman tell us that being in touch with our food is important to our health. But while busy people may be able to carve out time to cook and eat together, what about the menu planning? The grocery shopping? “Provisioning,” as we call it at my house, is a time-consuming task. By outsourcing the meal planning and shopping, even very busy families can have the satisfaction of home-cooked, varied meals.
But how good are those meals? How much do they cost? And are there other factors to consider?
From my admittedly very small sample size, I would say that Blue Apron meals range from fair to very good. I hope to check out some of the other available services to see how they compare. (If any of my readers have promotional offers to share, please pass them along!) Blue Apron’s cost is about $10 per plate; Plated and Hello Fresh are slightly more expensive at around $12 per plate. All the services include shipping in the price. Some are easier to cancel or skip weeks than others; I was annoyed that I couldn’t just cancel Blue Apron from the website, but had to send an email to the company to get the cancellation link. (After that it was easy.) Plated and Hello Fresh can be canceled straight from your account on the website, but with Hello Fresh it’s slightly more complicated to skip a week.
Each service has a slightly different focus. Plated is a little more customizable, allowing up to 7 different meals per week and offering dessert for $4 a serving. It also looks a little more upscale in presentation and offers a couple of choices each week with a “market price” upcharge, allowing them to offer premium items like steak and shellfish. Germany-based company Hello Fresh, on the other hand, puts its emphasis on quality ingredients and nutrition. The website offers a page highlighting specific food suppliers, and a weekly recipe from Jamie Oliver, a British chef known for his food education campaigns. Difficulty, cooking time, nutrition info, ingredients, and allergens for each recipe are conveniently shown on the menu page.
One very reasonable issue to consider is sustainability. While the ecological footprint of the shipping itself is debatable – Albuquerque’s Skarsgard Farms CSA has gone to an all-delivery model, arguing that it’s more ecologically sound for one truck to drive around than for all the customers it serves to drive to a distribution center – there is a large amount of packaging to consider. My Blue Apron box included an internal collapsible cooler and two huge slabs of plastic-encased Nordic Ice. If you’re getting deliveries weekly, that stuff will pile up fast.
It turns out that most of these elements are recyclable, at least in theory. (It may be hard to find anyone to take the plastic Nordic Ice bags, for instance.) There’s a page on the Blue Apron website describing how to recycle all the pieces, but they don’t make a big deal about it; you have to seek out the information.
One meal-kit delivery service that does make a big deal about sustainability is GreenChef. I would really love to try this service. Its focus is on fresh, mostly organic ingredients. Like Hello Fresh, they offer a page highlighting some of their most valued suppliers. They have a selection of plans: vegetarian, omnivore, carnivore, paleo, and gluten-free plans range from $10.49 to 14.99 per person-meal. And the food looks great.
There are a huge number of other options out there, though many are location-limited: Chicago or Los Angeles only, for instance. A few widely (though not necessarily nationally) available services include:
PeachDish, which claims a Southern inspiration (though in the menu I looked at, only one of eight menu options seemed Southern at all, while two were clearly Italian) and also offers a selection of prepared desserts and Southern goods;
The Purple Carrot, in association with “vegan before 6:00” Mark Bittman, delivering vegan meal kits;
Lighter, available in 18 large cities, which uses local shoppers to offer a plan of light meals and snacks at a lower price point;
(Incidentally, if you enjoy subscription boxes of all kinds, check out Cratejoy. They have subscriptions for things you never would have dreamed of: instant ramen, beer-can “koozies,” world spices, fandom-themed charm bracelets, stuff from Portland, cat toys, chakra-balancing supplies… lacrosse equipment!)
On the whole, I think if you like to cook but find yourself pressed for time to plan and shop, it’s worth trying out one of these meal-kit subscriptions – though depending on your budget, ten bucks or more a plate may seem steep when you still have to do the cooking. Blue Apron hands out a lot of free promotional boxes for regular customers to give their friends, so ask around to see if you can find one of those for a no-commitment trial.
Families aren’t getting less busy anytime soon, and we all want to share healthy and delicious food with our loved ones, so I expect to see this market continue to expand rapidly over the next few years. I hope we’ll start to see more niche markets developing: How about Southeast Asian meal kits, or kits designed to provide both a simple option for kids and an upgraded dinner for their parents in just a few more steps? The possibilities seem endless.