I suppose it was inevitable. When a product taps into both nostalgia and modernity, it will have legs to carry it a long way. So it is with meal delivery kits. In one way, they hearken back to a day when the kitchen was filled with the smell of dinner and the image of Mom in an apron. In another, they are the height of 21st-Century life. Open the door and greet dinner.
What do the various meal kits have in common? First, they require some preparation input on your part. That isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, it is something a couple, or even a family, would enjoy doing together. Second, they tout themselves as a healthier alternative to how we eat now. True that! Most of us don’t get enough fruits, vegetables or grains in our diet. Third, the prices are fairly close to uniform. A meal kit isn’t as inexpensive as going to the Piggly Wiggly for the ingredients, schlepping them home, and preparing dinner. However, meal kits are cheaper than dining out and ordering these meals. The fourth thing the kits had in common? For the most part, you can’t believe the prep times. To be safe, double the times listed.
Gildshire’s food unit tried some of what was out there and asked the opinions of others who have tried what we have not. We came up with a consensus that was pretty standard throughout our test group. Are you hungry? If you aren’t now you will be by the end.
Plated: At $12 per serving (in other words, expensive) we had high hopes for Plated’s quality. That, combined with a generous month-long 25% off jumping-off point made us eager to give this one a try. Instead, we ended up voting it “ok.” Nothing stood out, save for the cooking and prep times. They were the most accurate of the lot.
Sun Basket: The flavor of the foods from Sun Basket was a half-step up from Plated’s offerings. However, the recipes were twice as hard to decipher! One of our testers said he wished Alton Brown lived next door. Truth told, we always wish Alton Brown lived next door, but we don’t want to need him to understand our meal kit recipe card.
Terra’s Kitchen: Terra has the delivery mechanism down like no other! Your meal comes in a reusable refrigerated box, complete with shelves. Make dinner, put the leftovers (if any) in your own refrigerator, and give the postpaid box back to the postman. How cool is that? However, for now, we have to rank Terra’s Kitchen with “the rest”due to consistency problems with the quality of the meals. This is a company that feels like a comer, though. If we revisit this topic in two years, we feel like Terra’s Kitchen may land with the best.
Blue Apron: This was the first of its kind and still the most popular, partly due to familiarity. Blue Apron does have pluses. Its recipe cards include handy information that you will use in your own cooking. In that way, Blue Apron is a kinda/sorta cooking class. We like that, a lot! However, we found its selection process restrictive. Only some sides go with some entrees. Maybe that’s the way it is in high-end restaurant kitchens, but what if I want the potato salad with my rib-eye? It seems needlessly picky that way.
Purple Carrot: Though we are grouping it with “the rest” for reasons we will explain in a minute, Purple Carrot is a niche winner. If you are a vegan or cook for one regularly, P.C. is the way to be. That said, the menu selection was the least we have ever seen for this kind of food service. To move into “the best” Purple Carrot will need to up its carnivore game, to match its vegan fare. When it does that, Purple Carrot will threaten the top spot.
Hello Fresh: This was an agonizing decision. Does Hello Fresh deserve to be the best of “the rest” or the last of “the best?” At $9.90 a meal, H.F. comes in with the lowest price. That’s wonderful, but are we going to give it props for being a nickel a meal less than one of our winners? Probably not. Here is what’s good. Almost everything. One tester named Hello Fresh’s mustard pork chops the best thing she had ever eaten! However, Hello Fresh’s estimated time of preparation was the furthest thing from reality. Several testers reported real-life prep and cook times of nearly an hour and a half. If and when Hello Fresh tightens their times we will welcome them into the winner’s circle. For now, though, there are two that stand above the rest.
Green Chef: All meal services trumpet the word “fresh,” but nothing crunches like what comes out of a Green Chef box. The typical Green Chef bite is the loudest! You’ll munch various textures, like snap peas or julienned bell peppers, even while you’re preparing the balance of the meal. Some tester’s favorites included balsamic pork with a cherry pan sauce and crispy shrimp salad. Green Chef’s meals were preparable pretty much as advertised. We prepared real-life dinner in 54 minutes when the recipe card said 45 minutes. Truly, if money is no object, G.C. may be the answer you crave. However, for 99% of us, money is, at least a little bit, an object. That’s why we name as our favorite meal kit, one other…
Home Chef: Home Chef offers the best combination of value and quality. At $9.95 a meal, Home Chef undercuts Green Chef by more than two dollars. H.C. also had the lowest average prep time among our least-experienced testers. “All well and good,” you say. “How does it taste?” Well, it tastes divine! Home Chef offers some classic recipes, as well as some fun and new experiences in the kitchen. One tester was nearly moved to tears by the smoky coffee-rubbed steak with a sweet reduction sauce when paired with brown butter mashed potatoes. Another really, REALLY liked seared and roasted pork chops coated in crisped rice. (Interestingly enough, all of the good meal kits did well when it came to pork chops.)
That’s our scorecard for now, but this is an industry growing by leaps and bounds. In a year, there will be this many again and it will be our duty to try them all. Rough life.