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How to Choose the Right Meal Kit

Meal Delivery Is for Everyone

You wish you loved to cook, but can’t stand the
prep and cleanup. Or: You can’t go to the grocery store (thanks, COVID-19), but
still want to eat inventive meals. Or: You’re learning to cook but feel a pang
of anxiety at having to buy a $9 jar of berbere for just one recipe. Or: You
have zero time to shop, prep, or make meals (we see you, healthcare workers),
but you still want nutritious options. Meal delivery services are the answer to
these dilemmas and many others.

What Is A Meal Delivery Service?

Meal delivery (also referred to as meal-kit delivery) is a type of subscription
service in which a company sends you a box of fresh ingredients in the right
amounts for a few recipes that you can make at home. It’s a rapidly growing
sector of the food industry, with one report projecting the global market for
meal delivery to be worth $8.94 billion by 2025.

Cook-from-a-kit boxes are just one style of meal
delivery, however. Some throw the “kit” element to the wind and
instead provide heat-and-eat ready meals or those requiring minimal effort. You
might get all the ingredients for a family dinner already mixed and assembled
in an oven-safe container, as you can with Sun Basket. Others, such as Splendid Spoon) specialize in
ready-to-eat meals for one, like smoothies, soups, and bowls or a heat-and-eat plate that’s more akin to a TV dinner. Freshly, which PCMag
has not yet reviewed, falls into this latter category. Blue Apron is a service committed to helping you learn
to cook—to the degree that it also sells chef’s knives, meat thermometers, and
other equipment you might need as your skills progress.

The diversity of services is remarkable, and we
haven’t had an opportunity to test them all, including Yumble, which
specializes in kid-friendly foods in kiddie portion sizes. Or Sakaralife; this
company sets you up with a wellness plan and includes meals that purportedly
improve whatever issues you have, such as making your skin clearer or
increasing your energy. There’s even a ramen delivery service, called Ramen Hero,
that sends premeasured ingredients in heat-safe pouches that you warm in
boiling water to make your own Japanese noodle soup. And while we tested a few
vegan services, we haven’t gotten to Veestro, which sells single-serve vegan
entrees and main ingredients.

Hungryroot customize

Do I Get to Choose the Food?

Before you sign up for a meal delivery service,
you can preview the menu for the upcoming week and future weeks. In our
experience, this is the most important part of choosing a service. Looking at
the weekly menus for a few services and comparing them tells you a lot about what
makes each one unique.

It’s a little like choosing a restaurant. Both
the menu and presentation, including pictures of the food and how the company
describes it, determine whether it speaks to your taste buds. Just look at the
difference between Daily Harvest’s stark images of vegetables in a bowl, compared to Hello Fresh’s colorful plates brimming with warm meals and a
scattering of fresh herbs or toasted breadcrumbs on top.

When previewing menus, be sure to check two
things. 1) Are there enough menu options each week that meet your dietary
requirements, including allergen concerns? 2) Can you see the recipe and
instructions, and do they line up with how much work you’re willing to do? The
recipes indicate what equipment and ingredients you need. It might be nothing
more than a skillet, wooden spoon, and salt and pepper. It helps to have olive
oil, vegetable oil, and sometimes butter on hand, too. Depending on the
service, you might see recipes that call for a slow cooker, though it’s easy to
avoid them if you don’t have one.

In a few rare cases, companies make it hard to
see the detailed recipes until after you pay. We like companies that show you
everything in advance so there are no surprises after payment.

Once you sign up, you choose which meals you
want each week from a rotating selection. If you forget to pick meals, the
company automatically selects some for you.

A few companies allow substitutions or offer
add-ons and upgrades. Some Home Chef meals let you substitute, say, chicken for
shrimp, or pay extra for organic or antibiotic-free meat. Sun Basket sells
snacks, breakfast items, and other standalone groceries that you can add to
your order. Hungryroot is a slightly unusual meal delivery service that’s part
online grocery store and part meal kit service, letting you choose both kits
and groceries in every order. Gobble sells add-ons, too, like a two-pack of cookie dough or an extra container of
marinara sauce.

HelloFresh steak provencal ingredients

How Many Meals Do I Get?

Most meal delivery services require a
subscription. All the companies on this list do. When you sign up, you agree to
receive a shipment of meals or meal kits regularly, usually weekly. On average,
you must commit to a minimum of three meals per week that serve two people each, or six
servings total. A few companies let you scale down to as few as two meals for two
people per week.

With all of the plans, you can skip a week at
any time or pause your subscription indefinitely. You also
typically have the option to skip multiple weeks at a time. The best companies
let you do this directly from your account.

When you first sign up, the site typically asks
a few details about you and your food needs. How many people will be eating
with you? Do you have allergies or dietary restrictions? A top-notch service will only show you the meals that meet
your needs. Watch out, because not all companies do this. For some services, you’ll need to vet each meal as you choose your orders. 

Sunbasket packaged meals

How Much Do Meal Kit Services
Cost?

The going rate for a meal delivery service is
between $8.99 and $12.99 per serving. Delivery fees typically hang in the range
of $7.99 per shipment.

Note that meals are priced per serving. Most (but not all) companies calculate the price of
your kits on a sliding scale, based on how many servings you order. It’s the
old “the more you buy, the more you save,” idea. A box of three meals
per week with two servings each has a higher per-serving price than a box
containing four meals per week with four servings each—even though the larger box has
a final higher cost.

Two notably low-cost services are EveryPlate and
Dinnerly. We have not yet reviewed Dinnerly. Both charge $4.99 per serving, and
Dinnerly’s prices dip down by another $0.50 per serving if you order a very
large box of meals.

For shipping, $7.99 is the standard rate, but
you can often find better deals. Blue Apron charges $0 in delivery fees for all
but the smallest orders. Hungryroot’s shipping is free if you qualify for
ground delivery from its New York City location; air shipments cost $10. Purple
Carrot charges more for big boxes (up to $11.99) and less for small ones
($5.99).

GreenChef packaging

I Heard Packaging Is a Problem…

You heard right. When you receive a meal kit
order, you have to deal with the packaging, and sometimes there’s a distressing amount of it. Some services reduce
the amount of material used (EveryPlate does a fair job) or are moving toward
compostable materials (Daily Harvest), but none is a paragon of
environmentalism.

In our testing, we noticed two options for
keeping the shipment cold. The most common is a gel pack. It’s a frozen block
of non-toxic liquid wrapped in heavy-duty plastic. They are a pain to
dispose of properly. You can reuse them by refreezing them, or you can let them
thaw out, snip a corner of the plastic, and then dump the watery contents into
the trash. The gel is not suitable for your plumbing. Then, you must thoroughly
rinse the remaining plastic and hope that your recycling center accepts it.

Option two is dry ice. Dry ice works well with
fully frozen items, but not fresh produce. If it evaporates before you open the
box, that’s ideal. If the ice is still intact, you must be extremely careful
not to touch it, as dry ice can burn your skin. You might not want to risk it
around nosy children and pets.

Total Health

The main draw to any meal delivery service is
convenience. Many meal kits also have a health angle, however, and most home-cooked meals are going to be better for you than the average delivery meal, if only because you can control the amount of salt that goes into them. Certainly you can use them to get more
plant-based meals into your diet, too, if that’s a goal. If you subscribe to WW
(formerly Weight Watchers), you can even find some meal plans that tell you how
many points your meals are. Blue Apron has a tag showing which menu options are
WW approved, and Splendid Spoon has a help page with the point value of some of
its items.

If you’re looking toward meal delivery for
health reasons, you might also consider a fitness tracker, fitness apps, and other helpful
tools, like a smart bathroom scale or a heart rate monitor to steer your
workouts to be more effective.

Variety Is the Best Spice

There are far, far more meal delivery services than these top choices, including choices for every sort of cuisine, every kind of specialized diet, and every cooking skill level. We’ve already reviewed more services than we can fit in this roundup, and we’ll be looking at more services from time to time, too. For additional reviews beyond what’s here and news about the meal delivery services,  please visit our dedicated meal-kits page

  • Blue Apron Meal Delivery Service

    Blue Apron Meal Delivery Service

    Pros: Great range of flavors

    Detailed instructions for cooks who are learning

    Wine and grocery add-ons available

    All-vegetarian subscription available

    Speedy attention to customers

    Shipping included with most plans

    Cons: Not suitable for anyone with food allergies, or vegan, keto, or paleo diets

    Bottom Line: With Blue Apron, anyone can cook. This meal-kit service makes novice chefs more competent in the kitchen by sending everything they need to make a meal, from ingredients and recipes to video tutorials. You can even buy any kitchen tools you might need from its website.

    Read Review

  • Green Chef Meal Delivery Service

    Green Chef Meal Delivery Service

    Pros: Delicious vegetable-heavy menus

    Appeals to all manner of healthy, plant-focused diets

    Superb quality

    Cons: Watch out for unwanted ingredients in sauces

    Unnecessary plastic in packaging

    Bottom Line: If you like fresh, vegetable-forward meals, GreenChef is the meal kit delivery service for you. The entrees put plants at center stage, with mouth-watering options for vegetarians and vegans, as well as meat eaters who follow paleo or keto diets.

    Read Review

  • HelloFresh Meal Delivery Service

    HelloFresh Meal Delivery Service

    Pros: Wide-ranging menu

    High-quality ingredients

    Vegetarian, low-calorie, and family-sized meal options

    Few prepared sauces and dressings (you make them fresh)

    Good packaging

    Cons: Not ideal for vegan, keto, or paleo diets
    Two-step process to review allergens

    Bottom Line: If you eat a little bit of everything and enjoy cooking at home, HelloFresh delivers. It sends high-quality ingredients alongside detailed recipe cards and for a fair price.

    Read Review

  • Hungryroot

    Hungryroot

    Pros: Does all the work of grocery shopping for you

    Includes suggested recipes

    Excellent variety of foods

    Caters well to dietary requirements

    Cons: First delivery takes a leap of faith

    Bottom Line: Tell Hungryroot what you like to eat, and it picks groceries for you. A box of items arrives with suggested recipes, which you can follow or throw to the wind. The first box takes a leap of faith, but the results are deliciously fun.

  • Purple Carrot Meal Delivery Service

    Purple Carrot Meal Delivery Service

    Pros: Helps you prepare varied and delicious vegan meals.
    Responsive and friendly customer service.
    Signing up and pausing deliveries is easy.

    Cons: Expensive.
    No meal choices.

    Bottom Line: Purple Carrot is a great side dish on the meal-kit delivery service table, providing convenient to adherents of plant-based eating.
    The service has a few limitations, but you get delicious meals and you might learn some new techniques, too.

  • Daily Harvest

    Daily Harvest

    Pros: Minimal to no cooking required

    Diverse ingredients

    Heavily plant-focused and all vegan

    New packaging will be compostable

    Cons: Must bring your own liquids for smoothies and soups

    Some flavor combinations and ingredients are unusual

    Purported wellness benefits may be a turnoff to some

    Bottom Line: With minimal preparation, Daily Harvest can have you eating a lot more vegetables than you currently do, particularly for breakfast and lunch.

    Read Review

  • EveryPlate

    EveryPlate

    Pros: Low cost
    Crowd-pleasing, American comfort food menu
    Few premade sauces
    Good packaging that minimizes plastics
    Student Discounts

    Cons: Menu not especially vegetable-heavy or health-conscious

    Not good for vegetarians

    Can’t filter menu options by dietary requirements

    Finding allergens takes two steps

    Bottom Line: If cost is your main sticking point for meal-kit delivery services, the surprisingly affordable EveryPlate may be the answer. Its menu of American comfort foods doesn’t work for vegetarians, health-conscious eaters, or those with special dietary requirements, however.

    Read Review

  • Home Chef Meal Delivery Service

    Home Chef Meal Delivery Service

    Pros: Meals can feed from two to eight people

    Some kits include disposable pans or grilling packets

    Can swap or upgrade certain ingredients

    Cons: Excessive plastic used in packaging
    Meat-heavy menu
    Not for those looking to learn how to cook

    Bottom Line: Meal kit delivery service Home Chef can help you get a hot dinner on the table fast, and
    it’s particularly good for big, meat-eating families. Vegetarians and anyone hoping to learn culinary skills should pick a different service.

    Read Review

  • Splendid Spoon

    Splendid Spoon

    Pros: Amazingly convenient

    Packed with plant-based foods

    Fun flavors

    Surprisingly delicious soups

    Good packaging

    Cons: Price for smoothies is high
    Grain bowls need more texture contrast
    Some offerings needed rescuing from blandness in testing

    Bottom Line: Convenience food may be at its best with Splendid Spoon, a line of vegan, gluten-free meals made for one and delivered to your door. These smoothies, soups, and grain bowls aren’t a substitute for fresh meals, but they’re great when you’re crunched for time.

    Read Review

  • Sun basket meal delivery service

    Sun basket meal delivery service

    Pros: Delicious from-scratch kits
    Convenient pre-prepped options
    Substitutions sometimes offered
    Can add other grocery items to your order
    Good packaging

    Cons: Disappointing oven-ready meals
    Ordering process needs improvement
    No visual instructions

    Bottom Line: Sun Basket stands on convenience. This meal kit service offers entrées at different levels of effort, from heat-and-eat to classic cooking. You can add groceries to your order, too. But the oven-ready options we tried were disappointing and the menu selection process needs improvement.


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