As a food writer, the one question I get asked more than anything else -- for sure -- is which among the the glut of subscription meal services is the "best one."
In case you have been living off the grid and growing your own food -- if so, welcome back to society! -- these meal-kit subscriptions are boxes of pre-portioned ingredients sent with recipes through the mail (these have to be one of the only things keeping the post office in business, no?). They basically cut out the ordeal of figuring out what to eat and grocery shopping in one delivered-to-your-door swoop. And there's a whole lot of companies out there, with new ones popping up every few months. I sifted through the mail-order bullshit to find out which ones are actually worth the money.
NOTE: All of these subscription services are available across MOST of the United States. Don't blame me if you can't get one. Write your local congressman/woman.
The safest bet: Blue Apron
Price: $59.94 (three meals for two people) or $69.92 (two meals for four people)
Pros: Blue Apron, founded in 2012, was one of the companies that started the subscription food-box boom, and is pretty much the gold standard of food delivery services. It's the most profitable, popular, and probably the most well-known, making it a solid start for mail-order-food virgins. The ingredients are meticulously packed and the seasonal menu is idiosyncratic. I like it because -- like most of these services -- it gives me the option to experiment with food I wouldn't think to make on my own, and access to ingredients and dishes I would probably never encounter organically, like "spicy Korean rice cakes with broccoli, tofu, and cashews," or "pork burgers with pickled beets and cone cabbage slaw." It also allows you to experiment with new tastes without buying a full bottle of some random spice or garnish (fennel pollen?).
Also, the portions are VERY generous, so unless you are feeding a family of eight competitive eaters, expect leftovers. Overall, the food is of a high quality, and the offerings -- especially within a given week -- are diverse enough to never feel stale.
Cons: If you are super-waste-conscious, BA's incessant packaging (it literally will individually wrap pickles) might kill your eco-friendly soul. Also, some of the recipes can be a little complicated -- and almost always take more time than what's laid out on the recipe cards. And like I said in the pros, you'll get a mound of leftovers, which some people might see as a con.
Rating: 9/10. Great first option to try out to see if the sub-box thing overall is a good choice for you, and maybe the best choice, overall.
The one with the little plastic mini-fridge: Terra's Kitchen
Price: $3.99 to $9.99 (for one-serving meals) or $9.99 to 17.99 (for two-serving meals)
Pros: Founder Mike McDevitt created Terra's Kitchen in early 2016 because he wanted his own children to experience the meals he grew up with, but realized that times have changed and not every household has the culinary bandwidth to piece together quality dinners (this is pretty much the impetus behind every subscription service, really). TK's meals (for example, it has "beef ragu with spinach-Parmesan polenta" and "grilled sirloin with warm tomato salad and sweet pecans" on this week’s slate) are certainly speedy and efficient, but the most noteworthy thing about the nutritionally conscious company is actually the packaging. It comes in this plastic, reusable mini-fridge thing, designed to keep down waste and probably add a little gimmick to this new-ish service. The menu itself is infinitely customizable. You can pretty much choose as much -- or as little -- as you want. You do have to mail back the little plastic fridge though (it's not for keeps, it keeps getting dropped off and picked up like old-school milk bottles). And the meals are very, very easy -- and cheap.
Cons: Well, the reason the meals are very, very easy to make is that pretty much everything comes pre-cut, pre-made, or pre-skewered. This means the menu is definitely not as fresh as some of its competitors. It's also, frankly… not so great. If time is a massive factor this might be a good bet, but the items are super simple (like, meat-and-veggies simple). You might as well just be going to your local supermarket and picking up some zucchini and chicken breast. You might have to chop those suckers up yourself, but they will taste fresher.
Rating: 5/10. It has its schtick, but it's not worth the price, effort, or looks from your neighbors when there's a plastic mini-fridge waiting for you outside your door.
The aggressively vegan one: Purple Carrot
Price: $68 (three meals for two people)
Pros: The biggest pro for Purple Carrot (horrible name, by the way, it sounds like slang for a pecker) is that it is decidedly vegan. Devastatingly vegan. Which is really only a pro if you are into it, right? So before you opt in, know that you are getting dishes like black bean kale bowls and Thai tofu salads -- it's definitely for a niche audience. The difficulty here is moderate, as some of these recipes are complex, but the instructions are damn clear, which may be because food writer Mark Bittman, of How to Cook Everything fame, is behind the brand. I didn't have a problem making any of the dishes, even though I had never heard of most of them (miso chili meatballs with brown-rice spaghetti?). But in terms of overall quality of food, Purple Carrot is shockingly one of the best of the bunch.
Cons: If vegan-centric food isn't your forte, you might not be into this. BUT -- as someone who has never even said the word "vegan" out loud, I was absolutely floored at how tasty these recipes were. There's not really much to hate here. Except that awkwardly phallic-sounding name.
Rating: 8/10. If you are looking for a vegan option -- or simply don't care either way -- this is definitely what you need. I wouldn't make this my go-to, but it's definitely worth trying, and is overall one of the best options on the list, despite its seemingly limited offerings.
The one for people with lots of dietary restrictions: Home Chef
Price: $9.99 per meal
Pros: Home Chef has vegetarian, nut-free, low-carb, soy-free options; most dishes can be prepared in 30 minutes or less. We are talking about dishes like "lemon-spiced cauliflower pita with tzatziki and spinach salad." It also features meat dishes like (and this is really the name of it) "healthy takeout orange chicken with snap peas and jasmine rice." It also occasionally offers some breakfast items like "churro French toast with sausage links." And that's like… kind of the only pro here.
Cons: Literally everything. Where Purple Carrot proves that you can have a menu that is health-conscious -- and even decidedly vegan -- Home Chef shows the other side of health food: the piles of flavorless mush that wouldn't pass at a children's boarding house in a Charles Dickens novel.
Rating: 3/10. I feel bad giving this such a low score, because I am sure this is someone's dream/baby and they are super passionate about it. But this mush is bad stuff.
The one that's fine but just very forgettable: HelloFresh
Price: $69 (three meals for two people) or $59 (for the veggie version)
Pros: Along with having the resources of partner/chef Jamie Oliver, HelloFresh sets itself apart from the glut of subscription services with super-simple recipes that allow for improvisation if needed. We're talking basic American fare: chicken, pasta, burgers with some fancy-ish side dishes like oven fries or arugula salad. Or, you can specifically select one of Oliver's curated dishes, and I suggest you do if only to get the most out of this sucker. His recipes definitely have more style and panache than the basic offerings, along with the name "Jamie" in front of every dish ("Jamie's grilled Moroccan chicken!" "Jamie's smoky sweet potato chili!") without being too much more complex than the usual dishes. And all the packaging is totally sparse and recyclable.
Cons: Even Oliver's custom dishes lack the appeal of some of the other options on this list -- frankly, they are a little boring, and tend to underwhelm when compared to the promised results. And while the simplicity of the recipes can be a draw for people who really have no idea what they are doing in the kitchen, the difficulty step-up to something like Blue Apron is negligible. And it's just as expensive.
Rating: 6/10. I barely remember this one. It has no discerning features, and is a little too easy and unexciting.
The kooky Southern aunt of subscription boxes: PeachDish
Price: Varies by dish, but normally within $15-$25 per entree
Pros: This Southern-tuned subscription is definitely the option with the weirdest offerings. Like, almost as if it's trying to get weird on purpose… and kind of take the whole project away from the Southern thing. When you cover your chicken breast and butternut squash with apple salsa, the vibe becomes more south of the border than south of the Mason-Dixon. And "turkey burgers with fresh greens and sweet potato salad" isn't exactly what you picture when someone is sending you a recipe based around Southern cuisine. That being said, the meals were all high-quality, and despite the quirks, weren't too difficult to make. It also employs a wide swath of Southern chefs (from Jennifer Booker to Zeb Stevenson) to compose the meals -- so it does always feel like you are getting something completely different.
Cons: It can get pretty damn pricey. And it's all weird variations of Southern food -- so picky eaters might not be down with this one.
Rating: 7/10. Overall, the menu seems weird for the sake of weird. Kind of like Andy Dick. No one wants to eat Andy Dick.
The one for people who know what they are doing: Chef'd
Price: Dinners range from $25 to $30, but shipping is free on orders over $40
Pros: This one is almost definitely the most intense. Not only are the recipes the most complicated (it is appealing to people who already consider themselves to be competent chefs, methinks), there's also a bounty of available themed plans, from food specifically designed to cook with kids, to diabetes-friendly meals, to a partnership with Weight Watchers, and a meal plan curated by the NY Times' food writers, which is the one I tried out. The meals themselves -- though difficult to prepare -- were amazing, even if I sometimes had to get help (I called my mom, OK?). Sam Sifton's recipe for oven-roasted chicken shawarma required me to go out and purchase an EXTRA sheet pan (which may not seem egregious, but you definitely need a stocked cabinet of kitchen tools to make these work) and sucked, like, 90 minutes of my life away from me. But when it was done, it was damn good. And, despite being from the NY Times, the recipes didn't feel stale or pedantic. Who knew?
Cons: The complicated set-up preferred by some could definitely be a con for others looking for some quick, simple meals. You will definitely end up putting a lot of time in here, and it's really designed for people who want to get intimately involved with food trends. Logistically, the recipes can be damn confusing at times. They kind of run on the assumption that you know what you are doing -- often requiring instruments like tongs, peelers, and sauté pans (things I actually did not have) -- and definitely don’t lead you along by the hand. This was problematic for me at times. The only real convenience is that you get all the ingredients you need for your meal in one place.
Rating: 8/10. Complicated, yes -- but worth it for those who have the time and the skills to get it done. This is more for the at-home cook who is looking to get better and diversify what they make.
The Martha Stewart one: Marley Spoon
Price: $18 (two meals for two people)
Pros: Marley Spoon is a European subscription box that came stateside earlier this year, partnering with everyone's favorite craft-maker Martha Stewart, who curates the meals/adds "good things" to every box. It's also extremely, extremely cheap. And there's not a big drop-off in quality, despite the lower prices. The recipes read like an episode of Martha (which could be a con, I guess) and are generally very straightforward and easily doable. The food measurements are extremely accurate, so the portions are just right. Don't expect leftovers from your steak and potatoes or maple-glazed pork and parsnips.
Cons: The overall operation is pretty basic, and hey -- you might hate Martha Stewart, who is in fact an ex-con. Other than that, there's not a ton of negatives here.
Rating: 7/10. Aside from the tie-in with ex-con Martha Stewart, there's not much setting it apart from the pack. That being said, it's pretty solid overall, and is a low-risk, low-reward option for those who want to test the meal subscription waters.
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