Meal lead

Dinner is Shipped

From Blue Apron to Plated, the definitive ranking of meals delivered in boxes

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By Kaitlyn Tiffany | Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

The most unsexy, onerous, absurdly challenging task I face on a daily basis is figuring out how to put food in my body. This isn’t college — grilled cheese every night isn’t fine. This isn’t elementary school — the government doesn’t make sure my lunch hits all the big food groups. It’s ridiculous how much time and effort and planning goes into the one chore I really can’t skip.

My palate is what I’ll call "suburban Methodist fundraising dinner" — the recipes I know by heart are casseroles; the greenery I’m familiar with is iceberg lettuce. And because my economic sense was honed in a household with four constantly ravenous athletes, my usual strategy for keeping myself alive for another week relies on the simple math of one $2 box of ziti plus one $2 jar of spaghetti sauce equals eight meals. I recently poured spoiled milk onto a pot full of macaroni, and instead of tossing the whole thing, I spent 10 minutes rinsing the noodles off with my bare hands. Waste not, want not, and only buy the cheap stuff.

I’m eating, but I’m not deluded enough to think I’m eating well. It’s a problem most working people I know struggle with. How do you possibly come up with the many hours per week it takes to plan, shop for, and execute meals that are actually good for you? In recent years, meal-subscription services have been offered up as a new solution for this outwardly unimpressive problem. So I decided to embark on a six-week mission to find the one service that rules them all.

All of these services share common features: they send you every single ingredient (down to pinches of chili flakes and one-ounce bottles of wine) that you need to make a week’s worth of delicious (!), home-cooked (!), interesting (!?) meals. Most of them pride themselves on selecting produce that’s some combination of ethically sourced, organic, GMO-free, and seasonal. And all these services are quite blatantly marketed toward the young professional — people with enough money to eat right (the cheapest service I tried was $9.99 per serving) but not enough free time to plan their own meals (you may need 40 minutes to cook some of these recipes, but zero minutes to plan or shop).

Even before I got my first meal, I already had a few semi-serious moral quibbles with these services. They ranged from a silly disdain for the phrase "mise en place," to a more political discomfort with excessive waste, conspicuous convenience (a term I just made up), and false accessibility (these are luxury products after all, disguised as practical solutions). What services like these conveyed to me was that the future is for people who simultaneously have their shit together, have expendable incomes, and yet don’t want to do anything for themselves.

On a purely personal level, I thought that I would resent the schedule these services demanded. I thought I would find the stricture of making three decent meals per week for myself a horrendous burden. Honestly, it was. Nevertheless, I wanted to give the idea a chance — maybe the cost would justify itself somehow, with an intangible sense of accomplishment or with a steep decrease in the regularity with which I throw out entire boxes of rotten, untouched spinach from my fridge.

I chose five services in all: first, the big three — Blue Apron, Plated, and Hello Fresh — all of which serve a pretty standard mix of classic American, Americanized Asian, Americanized Mexican, and Americanized Italian food, and have valuations in excess of $500 million. For variety, I also signed up for PeachDish, a small, Southern food-specific service, and Purple Carrot, a fairly new vegan service. All five are available pretty close to anywhere in the United States.

These five are really just a small sampling of the wealth of options out there — you can order boxes tailored to your personal nutritional deficits, boxes specifically for new moms, boxes that comply with a paleo diet, and newly, boxes of food based around recipes from The New York Times Cooking website. (Congrats on the creative revenue plan, NYT!)

Over the course of six weeks I evaluated these services on quality, presentation, clarity of instructions, skills I learned, loveliness of packaging, and absurdity of price. In the final category they were mostly tied. At the end of the six weeks I couldn’t believe I had to go back to the shabby life I had been living before.

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Plated

The first service on my meal-subscription walkabout has a semi-embarrassing Shark Tank backstory. Founded in 2012, Plated promised to differentiate itself from the more established Blue Apron by offering more diverse meal choices and adding dessert to the roster. The founders nabbed an investment from one of the "sharks" but were called back to Beyond the Tank to be chewed out for losing $100,000-worth of food in one day when a shipping container was stolen (??) in Chicago and moving its fulfillment center 14 times in three years. This tidbit of trivia primed me to love Plated with my whole heart.

If it hadn’t been for a very generous new subscriber coupon code, the Plated box I ordered would have cost $72. Like every box I received during this experiment, it contained three meals that were portioned for two people (or six meals for one very lonely person). For Plated, this worked out to $12 per serving, which is sort of ludicrous. If I wanted to spend $12 per meal, wouldn’t I just order a burrito?

Plated’s branding is a dream, though, which is really what you pay for (right?), and I assume it’s what seduced Team Shark to their cause. The website looks like it was designed by Lauren Conrad. It’s also simple, intuitive, and allows you to schedule deliveries for any day of the week, with only a four-day warning.

From nine choices, I selected the widest variety my Methodist palate would allow — vegetable calzones; roasted chicken with caramelized fennel; and lamb meatballs with green pea risotto. Plated also sells a beautiful-looking cookbook, which I nearly preordered because it comes with free, beautiful-looking dish towels. Everything was so beautiful, I forgot that I have access to the internet and that cookbooks will never, ever be vital to my life.

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Fast-forward to my first cooking experiment five days later: veggie calzones and a side of disaster. The box from Plated weighed 11 pounds, according to UPS. I would say 80 percent of that weight was packaging: enormous ice packs, some sheets of grass (?), and plastic wrapping for every single ingredient — right down to the quarter cup of flour I was provided for rolling out premade pizza dough. You’re encouraged to recycle the packaging (and the website has very specific instructions), but it’s still a little uncomfortable to stare down at the heap of wrappings.

The pizza dough I received could not be stretched or folded or "sealed" into anything remotely resembling a calzone. I know that you have to wait for dough to reach room temperature before you try to stretch it (and the instructions did emphasize that fact). It would not stretch. The "calzones" ended up being edible, but also non-visually appealing piles of dough with piles of vegetables sitting on top of them.

Later in the week, Plated taught me a valuable skill — how to make risotto! The risotto was accompanied by beef and lamb meatballs that tasted like taco meat, perhaps because the only seasoning in them was cumin. Plated promised to "put a chef in your corner," which ended up meaning that they would send me some video tutorials about how to use knives. It did not mean that recipes would be interesting, or worth the price.

I was never to the point of dumping something in the trash, but if I had spent my own $12 on any of these meals I would not have been pleased. To be fair, serving-size-wise, Plated does pretty well. The veggie calzones recipe was more than enough for four calzones, and I ate off of the meatballs and risotto for three meals.

The most disappointing thing I noticed about all of the Plated meals was that there wasn’t a lot of color variety or attention paid to presentation. There weren’t any instructions for presenting the meal beyond "divide between two plates," and the greenery was overpowered by mountains of colorless carbs. In addition to ruining any potential Instagram posts, entirely beige meals did not make me feel that good about myself.

Use if you:

Are interested in a hefty portion of beige meals that taste fine.

Don’t use if you:

Want to post your meals on Instagram.

Final Scores

VALUE: 4
PACKAGING: 2
EASE: 4
DELICIOUSNESS: 3
TOTAL SCORE: 3.3


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PeachDish lede

PeachDish

The stated theme of PeachDish is "seasonal Southern-infused cuisine." PeachDish offers eight meal choices each week, four of which change weekly and four of which change seasonally. Rarely did they seem particularly Southern-infused, but I’m from upstate New York so I was willing to accept that I just might not have any non-Steel Magnolias notions of what people in the South eat. The Southern-themed service ships its boxes from Georgia, a fact which is prominently displayed on the packaging; everything is labeled with a Georgia peach sticker.

All five services urged me to learn about where my produce was sourced from, but PeachDish was especially infatuated with the idea. "Discover more about the farmers, ranchers and food artisans who helped make your meal possible," they entreated me repeatedly via email. I found it a little spammy, but if you would like to meet the family from Bluffton, Georgia that raised your lamb and then ground it for you, this may appeal to you.

Each two-person meal was $25. As the most expensive service I tried, PeachDish logically had the fanciest packaging: instead of plastic bags organizing the ingredients by meal, there were tulle bags in various pastel shades, reminiscent of party favors at a baby shower. It was frivolous, but it made me feel fancy. They even sent me two clementines and two pieces of dark chocolate as an unexpected bonus.

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I ordered "smothered & covered" chicken with herb grits and celery salad; a beef "hot pot" with Asian greens and potatoes; and gnocchi with chicken and kale. I really didn’t want to eat grits or celery, but felt it was the only option that had anything to do with the Southern theme.

The meals were perfectly sized to be exactly the amount of food that two people should eat. That’s fine, but I appreciated the wiggle room and bonus leftovers of Plated, which made it feel marginally economical. Each one of PeachDish’s recipes was dauntingly complex to make (one of the recipes was over 2,000 words long), which sort of sidesteps the whole "convenience" element of a subscription box, but did relieve me of the notion that I would be capable of planning and paying for the ingredients on my own at a discount.

The highlight of my week turned out to be the grits that I originally had no interest in. They tasted great but ruined my pan. Big shout out to PeachDish for teaching me a real skill, and ruining my pan. Another thing that PeachDish taught me is that I crave luxury in spite of myself. I wanted to live the ritzy life of having fresh thyme mailed to me alongside the personal recipes of celebrity chef Virginia Willis for the rest of my days.

I loved my week of tulle. As an eater of hearty casseroles, the beef hot pot was right up my alley; the gnocchi was covered in elegant parmesan shavings that made me feel like a million bucks. It was all consistently tasty, occasionally off-theme meals. The one dish that left a stain on the week was the the predictably unfortunate "celery salad" (otherwise known as "raw celery soaked in olive oil").

Use if you:

Really want to learn how to make grits and love tulle.

Don’t use if you:

Appreciate a service that adheres to its stated theme.

Final Scores

VALUE: 3
PACKAGING: 4
EASE: 3
DELICIOUSNESS: 5
TOTAL SCORE: 3.8


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Blue Apron

Blue Apron’s mission page states that "cooking together is good for society," which rings a bit cultish to me. It is the cheapest and the most popular service, and more or less considered the blueprint for meal-subscription boxes. I’m sure you’ve seen its subway ads, or the interstitial Hulu ads. As of October of last year the company was valued at $2 billion and delivering 5 million boxes per month.

The standard Blue Apron box is $59.94, which comes out to $9.99 per meal. Blue Apron uses a ludicrous amount of plastic packaging, yet not enough to make it clear what anything was or what meal it was for. The ingredients were all adrift in the box in their own personal shrink wraps and paper bags. Blue Apron also mailed me several informational cards which explained to me things like, for example, what a scallion is. I don’t care. Also I’ve been on Earth this whole time.

Blue Apron is a massive pain-in-the-ass to order. The website was as usable as the New York State DMV's. Blue Apron also only has a few delivery days to choose from, and required a 10-day notice. Eventually, I ordered za’atar chicken with pearl couscous; seared salmon and green potato salad; and creamy lemon pasta. The popularity of Blue Apron is possibly due to the affordability and possibly due to the fact that the service encapsulates the range of human experience: my best meal and my worst meal were both from this box.

The best meal I ever ate in my young life was a seared salmon steak with pickled mustard seeds upon it (+1 for learning a skill). Unfortunately some stupid packaging (why would sour cream be in the same paper bag as all the spices?!), led me to have rotten sour cream and therefore make potato salad with plain yogurt I stole from my roommate. It tasted fine. Averaged out with the salmon, which was the best thing I ever put in my mouth, the meal was still great.

The "creamy lemon pasta" was plain pasta with some peas in it, I tell you.

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Blue Apron’s recipe cards are sort of an eyesore (half a dozen different heavy fonts and creepy hand model photography), but they do suggest a wine pairing for each meal (which you can order through Blue Apron, or obviously just buy yourself). The instructions are clear enough, and include detailed suggestions for how to present the final plate, but they also feature unnerving photos of very hairy hands.

The hand modeling contributed to what I would consider the biggest downside to Blue Apron — an intangible sense of being all alone in the big old kitchen. I didn’t receive any friendly emails offering knife-use tips, there were no chef biographies, no carefully organized boxes of ingredients, or sense that a human being was involved at any stage of production. "Cooking tips and tricks" are only available through Blue Apron’s app, accessed by inputting the recipe number.

Canceling my subscription required me to email customer service, as there’s no way to do it on the site itself. I felt a lot of pressure to just stay subscribed to this wildly inconsistent and impersonal service for the rest of my life.

Use if you:

Are on a budget.

Don’t use if you:

Want to feel loved.

Final Scores

VALUE: 4
PACKAGING: 1
EASE: 4
DELICIOUSNESS: 3
TOTAL SCORE: 3


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Purple Carrot

Purple Carrot is an all-vegan meal service co-founded by Mark Bittman, formerly a food columnist for The New York Times. The website stresses the health benefits of eating an all-vegetable diet (lower blood pressure, reduced risk of stomach cancer, etc.), as well as the environmental benefits of abstaining from meat. Call me crazy, but calculating the carbon footprint of purchasing hamburgers or cheese seems pretty hypocritical coming from a company that ships groceries across the country on top of five-pound ice packs.

This isn’t the only place where their marketing is odd. A recipe card I received led off with the sentence: "The first Indian dish many of us non-Indians learn to cook is aloo paratha." Companies often make choices about which purchasing demographic they care about most, but it’s bizarre to see it presented so blatantly and presumptively.

The Purple Carrot box is $68, but a first-timer coupon knocks it down to $48. At $11.33 per serving, this meatless subscription is sort of ridiculous (the all-veggie Hello Fresh box is $9.08 per serving). Additionally, the food did not taste good.

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I ordered broccoli pasta with butter beans; black bean burgers with spiced sweet potato fries; and aloo paratha with mustard seed-scented eggplant. Purple Carrot also offers a salad option each week, which is nice for people who can ignore the fact that a homemade salad should never cost $11.

The recipe card for the pasta dish consistently referred to broccoli and butter beans as "the sauce," which infuriated me not just because I wanted some actual sauce but because I don’t think it’s fine to refer to two solid objects as "sauce." This pasta was so disgusting that I can still kind of taste it if I concentrate for a second.

The black bean burgers required a food processor, which I definitely don’t own and wouldn’t really consider a common appliance in tiny urban kitchens. The aloo paratha recipe shipped with a can of diced tomatoes, which seemed to sort of defeat the purpose of getting seasonal produce in the mail.

Purple Carrot recovered no points in the branding and packaging categories, as its meals shipped in a comically large box that was even more wasteful than all of the other services. This after lecturing us all about our dairy addiction. The box was also very nondescript — if I’m going to have expensive vegan food delivered to my door, I’d rather my neighbors knew it!

Use if you:

Are vegan.

Don’t use if you:

Are Indian, apparently.

Final Scores

VALUE: 3
PACKAGING: 2
EASE: 4
DELICIOUSNESS: 2
TOTAL SCORE: 2.8


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Hello Fresh lede

Hello Fresh

Hello Fresh was founded in Berlin in 2011, and has 500,000 global subscribers. The company doesn’t have much in the way of shticks or gimmicks, though celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is responsible for many of its recipes. As is often the case, the lack of gimmicks turned out to be an indicator that the product was actually good!

The Hello Fresh box is usually $69, which comes out to $11.50 per serving. However, Hello Fresh is constantly paying C-list celebrities to post on Instagram about their service, which is relevant because the posts are accompanied by great coupon codes! Hello Fresh had the best packaging stratagem by far — everything I needed for each meal was placed naked into one of three smaller cardboard boxes, inside the big cardboard box. It took up a lot more fridge space, but there was infinitely less plastic wrap to feel like a heel about.

Hello Fresh offers six menu options, lets you choose three, four, or five meals per week, and lets you select whether each meal is for two, three, or four people. That’s the biggest range of options of any of the services I tried out. It also offers a vegetarian box, at a significantly lower price point than the omnivore box. I chose ginger beef stir-fry with hoisin, asparagus, and basmati rice; zucchini-crusted chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans; and spicy pork and kale soup with ramen noodles.

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I ordered the zucchini-crusted chicken mostly because I had never heard of such a thing. It’s beautiful to look at it — very colorful and complicated-looking.The pork and kale soup wasn’t as impressive to gaze upon, but it lasted for five meals. While I wasn’t swept off my feet by Hello Fresh’s matter-of-fact branding, I made three dinners that tasted great and demanded new skill sets of me, which I assume is the point of this whole thing. I may be a sucker for good branding, but I’m also a sucker for excellent chicken!

Hello Fresh promises that their produce is fresh enough to be left in the delivery box for up to 36 hours without wilting, which is a bold claim I probably should have checked out. I don’t know why you would order groceries to your door and let them sit there for a day and a half, but just know that Hello Fresh is daring you to try it.

This, paired with a helpful chart that told me exactly how long I could keep each ingredient before it would rot and poison me, gave me the impression that Hello Fresh was aware that its customers are human beings who are poorly equipped to do things for themselves. I felt very understood by this chart and think about zucchini-crusted chicken almost every day now. Also, if you follow enough cast members of Vanderpump Rules on Instagram, you might never have to pay full price for Hello Fresh.

Use if you:

Want to make beautiful, complicated dinners.

Don’t use if you:

Crave themes.

Final Scores

VALUE: 4
PACKAGING: 5
EASE: 3
DELICIOUSNESS: 5
TOTAL SCORE: 4.3


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The Winner

If I were going to convert to a meal-subscription lifestyle, the best option would probably be Hello Fresh. It struck the best balance between teaching me new skills and not taking up my entire night; the food was reliably edible, and I appreciate gimmickless chicken. I’m not going to come down too firmly on that, because it’s purely hypothetical. I’m not going to convert to a meal-subscription lifestyle.

Life is expensive, and we have to pick our luxuries.

I love grocery shopping, and missed it a lot over the six weeks I didn’t have to do it. Counterintuitively, I do not find it challenging to find time to go to the store. I hate cooking, but I love shopping. Strolling up and down the aisles of an enormous, pristine grocery store triggers my suburbia sense, and makes me believe very briefly that I am not living in a gross city that wants to spit me out.

I can see why people use these services — the excessive packaging waste is certainly counteracted a bit by the fact that there is no produce waste to speak of. I’m not going to buy and genuinely use a whole bunch of thyme or even an entire tomato, unless someone tells me when and how. I’m not put-together enough to keep my cooking wine separate from my this-Tuesday-sucked wine. If you feel like you’ll never know exactly how much chard to buy if you want it to equal three cups when chopped, a meal service could be incredibly useful to you.

And of course, I would never devalue the endorphins that come with logging small accomplishments. Even though I was painting by numbers, the cooking I did during this experiment gave me an enormous sense of pride. It felt like doing the "right" thing — cooking real dinners, with nutritional value and greens and a protein and complex spice medleys. Doing something with your hands other than slapping a keyboard all day long has got to be the key to happiness. That one factor nearly convinced me that the cost and silliness of subscription services is worth it.


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Design & lead photo retouching by James Bareham

Edited by Michael Zelenko