I’ve always loved to cook.
But then life happened. Suddenly, between kids and work, I didn’t have a lot of time for cooking.
It wasn’t actually cooking I didn’t have time for-it was grocery shopping. Come dinner time, I was ready to start chopping vegetables and seasoning meat. But none of those things were ever in my refrigerator.
So the busier I got, the more I ordered take-out.
But eating out all the time isn’t good-for either your health or your wallet.
- Dining out-whether at a restaurant or through carry out-is unhealthy. One study found that restaurant food has more fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories than home-cooked meals.
- Eating out is expensive. One study found the equivalent of a $22 take-out meal costs $12 to make at home.
Years ago, I started to notice ads in my Facebook feed for companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh that would deliver boxes of fresh, pre-portioned ingredients and restaurant-quality recipes to my doorstep.
Of course, I immediately worried about the cost. They sort of seemed like businesses for rich people, not someone like me.
But since they all offered discounts for first-time customers, I decided to give several of them a try. What I found was pleasantly surprising. All of these services offer fresh ingredients and delicious recipes. The work involved to prepare a meal varies. And while these services are not inexpensive, they may not be as expensive as you think.
Table of contents
- How meal subscriptions work
- Blue Apron
- Home Chef
- Hello Fresh
- Quick compare: Blue Apron, Hello Fresh & Home Chef
How meal subscriptions work
All services-Blue Apron, Plated, Home Chef and HelloFresh-work similarly. Their chefs create delicious, balanced, and healthy recipes. The service does the grocery shopping for you and ships you everything you need to cook the meal: meats, veggies, seasonings, etc.
All deliver to most US zip codes and use packaging that keeps ingredients fresh for up to 24 hours after delivery (in case you’re not home) and between four and five days in the fridge. One downside to consider, however, is the environmental impact of packaging. Meals ship with ice packs and some with foam liners. The foam may or may not be accepted by your local recycling facility. As for the ice packs, you can certainly reuse them, but once you accumulate more than a dozen you’ll be wondering what to do with them. When contacted, the companies here recommend thawing the packs, clipping the corner and placing the water-soluble, non-toxic gel in the trash, then recycling the plastic.
Each service offers different subscription options, but all offer the choice of between two and four weekly meals for two or more people.
Let’s take a deeper look at each company.
Above: Our preparation of Blue Apron’s steak and eggs.
According to their PR rep, Blue Apron is the largest fresh ingredient and recipe delivery service in the US, delivering over 800,000 meals per month to 85 percent of the country.
There’s a reason they’re popular. They’re pretty darn good, and cost the least.
Sign up online and Blue Apron will bring you weekly boxes packed with just enough ingredients and step-by-step recipes for three meals for two, four, or six people.
You can select your dietary preferences to ensure that you don’t receive anything you don’t eat, like red meat, fish, or shellfish, but you’ll have less control over individual meals (you can, however, often choose three of six, for example). The meals at Blue Apron change weekly so you don’t get stuck in a rut.
With Blue Apron, expect to cook with and eat ingredients you might find at your local grocery store. I eat anything, so my box contained everything needed for chicken hiyashi chukka, seared cod piperade, and Turkish lamb burgers. And they were all much, much better than anything I’d prepare on my own on a typical weekday night.
The first meals took just the right amount of time to prepare-under 45 minutes from box to plate. After weeks of Blue Apron meals, however, we found some to take longer than indicated-up to an hour an a half. While many meals can be prepared in under an hour, we wouldn’t recommend Blue Apron to anyone looking for fast weeknight meals.
How much does Blue Apron cost?
For two people, meals are $9.99 per meal per person. For four, meals are $8.74 per meal per person.
In other words, three meals for two people per week (six meals total) would run you $59.94, which includes shipping.
At first, that seemed like a lot. But then I looked over some of my recent orders from GrubHub and saw I was spending about $40 for two meals. Six meals would cost me $120. Sure, maybe I’d have more leftovers from ordering out, but the food wouldn’t have been as good.
Here are some more numbers: Blue Apron conducted an extensive survey on the costs of ordering meals through their service versus shopping for the ingredients for the same meals yourself. They found that customers who produced the same dinners in the exact same portions-while doing their own shopping-spent 60 percent more than they would have if they’d just ordered through Blue Apron.
You’ll also waste time hunting for ingredients. Blue Apron found that only 75 percent of ingredients used in their recipes are available at typical grocery stores.
I’m always skeptical of surveys conducted by a company on their own products, but this one seems to be legit.
For example, my local grocery store doesn’t sell piment d’espelette, which I needed for Blue Apron’s seared cod.
- Blue Apron promotion: Get started with 3 free meals on your first Blue Apron order.
Learn more about Blue Apron or try a subscription here.
Since originally publishing this article, we’ve been approached by some other meal delivery services asking to review their offerings. One such service is Home Chef.
Home Chef kindly sent us a complimentary package of three meals for two, including:
- Crispy Dijon Chicken With Parmesan Cauliflower Mash
- Spaghettis Carbonara Frittata
- Mozzarella and Red Pepper Stuffed Pork Tenderloin
All meals were very tasty, and a bit easier to prepare than our experiences with Blue Apron and Plated. (Home Chef categorizes its meals by difficulty, from easy to expert.) The crispy chicken was an easy meal to prepare, much appreciated on a busy weeknight. The stuffed pork tenderloin, on the other hand, qualified as expert level because of the need to filet the pork tenderloin, stuff it, then tie it for cooking-I’ll admit, that was tricky, but the results were delicious.
Above: Getting ready to prep Mozzarella and Red Pepper Stuffed Pork Tenderloin from Home Chef.
Competitively priced at $9.95 per serving, Home Chef is attractive because they offer 10 or more meal choices each week, with a good variety to meet dietary needs. There are vegetarian options, as well as soy-free, gluten-free and low-calorie meals. Home Chef also thinks beyond dinners with breakfast offerings (like the frittata we ordered, though it was just as tasty for dinner) and other optional “sides” like a margarita smoothie the week of Cinco de Mayo or a spring fruit basket.
The quality of most of our Home Chef Ingredients was good, although arugula intended for a side salad with the frittata was a bit wilted. I should point out that we appreciated Home Chef’s entrees included a lot of green veggies (green beans, arugula salad and brussels sprouts), but these ingredients can be understandably fragile.
In sum, Home Chef definitely delivered three fun-to-prepare and delicious meals. We’d use them again.
The only thing we didn’t love about Home Chef is that it seemed like they used even more packaging than some competitors. But this is a problem with all meal delivery services, to be honest.
While most of the packing is recyclable (cardboard boxes, small plastic containers for liquids and plastic and or brown paper bags for dry ingredients), everything is individually wrapped. And all meals come sandwiched between two or more gigantic ice packs. These can, of course, be reused, but you only need so many ice packs – after a week or two you’ll need to throw them out. (According to the companies, these ice packs can be defrosted, the non-toxic contents either thrown away or washed down the drain, and the plastic exterior recycled.) Maybe so, but it’s still a lot of packing materials.
- Home Chef Promo Code: Get $30 off your first order-that’s three free servings. Click here to take advantage of this promotion!
Learn more about Home Chef or try a subscription here.
Above: Coconut Curry Noodles, from Plated.
If this article were just about the quality of food, I’d actually say Plated was the best of the bunch. The food was inventive and unique-nothing I’d ever dream up on my own. The downside is that they were more involved to cook and took up to an hour each.
Every week, you can choose between seven recipes, including ones like Mushroom Beef Patties with Millet Pilaf.
Plated is also priciest of the bunch. Recipes begin at $12 per person, per meal, with a weekly subscription. You can add dessert for $4 per serving. Shipping is free on boxes over $50. So two dinners for two people would be $48 per week (plus $6 shipping=$54) or you could get free shipping by adding dessert for a total of $56 per week.
- Plated promotion: Order Your 1st Box & Save $24 On Plated!
Learn more about Plated or try a subscription here.
The other big player worth checking out is Hello Fresh.
Hello Fresh touts its farm-fresh ingredients, acclaimed chefs, and fun recipe cards that teach you how to cook as you go.
Above: Watermelon Mint Juelps, an example of an available add-on from Hello Fresh.
Meals start at $9.90 per person (including shipping). Hello Fresh also offers a vegetarian plan starting at $9.08 per person, per meal, and a family plan starting at $8.75 per meal.
Above: A Hello Fresh family plan shipment of two meals for four. Of all the services here, we liked Hello Fresh’s packaging the best. Many ingredients came pre-chopped or already combined, saving time.
We tried Hello Fresh’s family plan for a few weeks and enjoyed meals like cauliflower pancetta mac and cheese. Hello Fresh’s take on the kid-friendly classic was delicious, but the hidden cauliflower didn’t fool our 6-year old.
Meal prep with Hello Fresh was the easiest of the bunch. With Hello Fresh, broccoli and cauliflower arrived pre-cut, for example. By contrast, we’re always laughing at how involved Blue Apron’s recipes are. If a recipe calls for pickles, you’ll be slicing cucumbers and marinating them in vinegar. Not so with Hello Fresh, they take a few steps out, which is appreciated if you’re short on time.
One gripe with Hello Fresh were the recipe cards. The text was small and close together, making the steps a bit hard to follow.
Hello Fresh’s account management was also easy to use-you can easily update your subscription preferences or pause delivery for any week.
- Hello Fresh promotion: $50 Discount on your First two Boxes! Code HELLO50FRESH. Valid for new customers only. Classic, Veggie or Family Box. Ends 1/1/17. Eat fresh & healthy – Shop Now
Learn more about Hello Fresh or try a subscription here.
Hello Fresh is also in Canada! If you’re north of the border you can take $25 off your first two boxes (new customers only). Check out HelloFresh Canada here.
Above: Grilled Flat Iron Steak from Freshly.
Like the idea of getting some balanced meals delivered each week, but you don’t want to cook? Check out Freshly.
Freshly ships single-serving meals that are “healthy, delicious and convenient”. So convenient, in fact, that you just stick ’em in the microwave for about two minutes.
Freshly was nice enough to send us a number of meals to check out including chicken parm, southern-style BBQ pork, and pene bolognese.
Freshly’s meals were tasty. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite get past the fact I was pulling the meal out of a plastic tray and putting it in the microwave. The food was infinitely better than a Lean Cuisine, but it was still microwaved.
Ultimately, Freshly meals are the ultimate convenience. If I were single or simply had NO time to cook or shop, Freshly would be immensely appealing.
And Freshly’s price reflects that. Plans start at $49.99 per week for four meals, delivery included. That’s $12.50 per meal. The cost drops to $9.99 per meal if you order six meals per week for $59.99. If you get 12 meals per week for $107.99 the price-per-meal drops to $8.99.
Again, with Freshly, it’s all about the convenience of getting a nutritious non-frozen meal.
- Freshly promotion: Get 35 percent off Your 1st Freshly Order. Click here to take advantage of this!fevcwrysxwbdtu
Learn more about Freshly or try a subscription here.
Quick compare: Blue Apron, Hello Fresh & Home Chef
|Blue Apron||Hello Fresh||Home Chef|
|Price per meal||$8.74 – $9.99||$8.75 – $9.99||$9.99 (most meals)|
|Minimum order||3 meals/2 plates||3 meals/2 plates||1 meal/2 plates|
|Delivery Cost||Free||Free||Free on orders over $45, otherwise $10|
|Vegetarian plans||Yes, 2-person plan only||Yes||Yes|
|Promotion||3 free meals on your first order||$50 discount on first 2 boxes||$30 off your first order|
|Learn more||Try Blue Apron »||Try Hello Fresh »||Try Home Chef »|
If you want to eat well, but don’t have the time to plan and shop for every meal, meal subscription companies offer a solution. You’ll pay a hefty premium over doing your own shopping, but these services will likely save you money (and be better for you) than getting lots of take-out.
You can’t go wrong with the food from any of these companies. We tried them all, and each sent along some tasty meals. Each service, however, has its own quirks that will appeal to different tastes.
Hello Fresh offers exclusively vegetarian plans as well as family plans that are quick to cook and kid-friendly. (Your mileage may vary.) In our experience, Hello Fresh meals were the fastest to prepare.
Plated and Blue Apron will appeal to you if you want to try exotic flavors and unusual combinations. These meals include ingredients you won’t find at your local supermarket. That can be fun, but makes the meals hard to recreate. We found meals from these two companies were the most involved to prepare, but also the most interesting to eat.
Home Chef would win our “all-around” award. We really liked it. The meals were simple but flavorful. I learned a few new techniques preparing them, but didn’t roll my eyes at extraneous steps like I often did with Blue Apron.
Finally, Freshly is in a league of its own, offering fully-prepared meals ready for the microwave. Don’t expect a five star meal. But Freshly is a good option if you need decent food, really fast.