Once thought of as a luxury for busy home cooks, meal kits, which don’t require trips to the grocery store, can be especially useful during a pandemic. Here's a breakdown of the best and worst.
'The paint by numbers of the home cooking world'
Fresh food meal kits are the paint by numbers of the home cooking world. You choose your meal online, ingredients arrive in a box on your doorstep, you follow the included recipe and boom, dinner is ready.
Once thought of as a luxury for busy home cooks, meal kits, which don't require trips to the grocery store, can be especially useful during a pandemic. It's a market expected to reach $11.6 billion by 2022.
Home Chef, a delivery meal-kit service based in Chicago, has seen an increase in business in areas where shelter-in-place orders are in effect, including California. Rich DeNardis, the company's chief revenue officer, declined to release specific numbers but said business is up across several categories.
"Customers that had paused their accounts have come back. We've seen an increase in the number of orders and also an increase in the amount of food in each order from existing customers," he said. "And an increase in the number of new customers coming to the service."
I recently kitchen-tested seven of the most popular kits. Martha Stewart's Martha & Marley Spoon was so popular that I couldn't get a delivery window until the end of April, so that one isn't included.
Below is a breakdown of the best and worst of them, with information on pricing, degree of difficulty and deliciousness. Please note that I live with two adult-size children (my parents) who have tiger-size appetites.
Overall worst runner-up: Every Plate
Price: $38.93 for three meals (includes shipping), $6.48 per person per meal.
Dishes: Chicken alfredo flatbreads; stuffed jalapeno popper burgers; pork chili over sweet potatoes.
Specific dietary needs: There's no way to choose meals based on dietary restrictions.
Degree of difficulty: Easy. Your 10-year-old could cook dinner tonight.
Things to watch out for: With most of the kits, you're expected to have cooking oil, olive oil, salt and pepper on hand. This one expected you to have ketchup, flour and sugar; not easy items to procure in the middle of a pandemic.
Taste: The "alfredo" sauce was made with water, flour and cream cheese, which you spread onto a hard cracker crust to make the flatbread. The chili resembled dry, crumbly, underseasoned meat. If you removed the cardboard bun, the burger was edible. If you're looking for sustenance on par with what you might find at your local high school cafeteria, this is the meal kit for you.
Overall worst: Gobble
Price: $71.94 for three meals (includes shipping), $11.99 per person per meal.
Dishes: Sicilian-style balsamic glazed ahi tuna; chicken and biscuits; and paneer and cauliflower tikka masala.
Specific dietary needs: You can choose between vegetarian, a category called "lean and clean" or classic. The recipes list if there are allergens present, including milk, wheat and nuts.
Degree of difficulty: Easy. Most of the ingredients were precooked and simply required mixing.
Things to watch out for: Some of the recipe directions reminded me of Paris Hilton's vaguely instructed "Cooking with Paris" videos. "Break apart any large cauliflower florets into smaller pieces." Should I do this with my super-strong hands? No. Some of the pieces clearly needed a knife. I was left with chunks of raw cauliflower and tiny overcooked pieces when I was finished.
There were too many precooked ingredients as well, including frozen chopped vegetables and chicken that tasted like it came out of a can. The tuna smelled like a trip to SeaWorld.
Taste: There was an earnest attempt made with the "Indian soffrito" included with the paneer and cauliflower tikka masala. But the flavors were muted, with only faint whiffs of the usual punch of turmeric, cumin and garam masala.
Best for non-cooks: Home Chef
Price: $49.80 for two meals (includes shipping), $12.25 per person per meal.
Specific dietary needs: You can choose among omnivore, pescatarian, vegetarian, carnivore, low-carb and low-cal meals. The company also asks if you avoid any foods or would like recipes that can be completed in 15 minutes.
Dishes: Chipotle BBQ chicken with roasted cheesy cauliflower; and chicken adobo flautas.
Degree of difficulty: Easy. There was minimal chopping, and most of the sauces required mixing squeeze packets of already-made condiments.
Things to watch out for: The directions call for way more seasoning than is needed. If I had used the entire seasoning packet as instructed, the food would have been inedible. Some of the proportions were off too. There was not enough cheese for the flautas. Not enough cheese in anything is a serious infraction.
Taste: The recipes won't surprise or amaze you, but they're good; kind of like that dependable college boyfriend. He was never that exciting, but you were always glad when he came over.
Best for specific dietary needs: Sun Basket
Price: $31.96 for two meals (free shipping and an automatic discount for the first order), $7.99 per person per meal.
Specific dietary needs: You can choose carb-conscious, gluten-free, paleo, lean and clean, pescatarian, diabetes-friendly and vegetarian meals.
Dishes: Gluten-free, dairy-free and soy-free turkey meatballs with penne in marinara sauce with spinach; and gluten-free, paleo, carb-conscious sesame-crusted salmon with apple and roasted carrot salad.
Degree of difficulty: Medium. You need to be able to handle fish with some level of confidence. The salmon does not come deboned.
Things to watch out for: They sent the box with no recipes. Seriously. After doing some digging, I was able to find the recipes online. The turkey meatball recipe listed a small container of prepared mirepoix as an ingredient, but it never showed up in the step-by-step instructions. I was told by a customer service representative (who didn't respond via text for an hour) that the company was looking into the mirepoix. Apparently, it is still looking.
Taste: The turkey meatballs and premade marinara sauce were about as good as a pasta bowl from Olive Garden but would probably make my 3-year-old godson happy. The salmon, drizzled in a hot scallion and ginger oil sauce, looked and tasted like something you might find at a pretty decent restaurant. The fish didn't smell and cooked up nicely.
Best value for your money: Hello Fresh
Price: $61.93 for three meals (includes shipping), $10.32 per person per meal.
Dietary restrictions: Options include meat and veggie, veggie, low calorie and family friendly. There is also an option to try actress Lea Michele's favorite veggie bowl.
Dishes: Meatloaf with roasted potatoes and green beans; chicken sausage, sweet potato and kale soup; and Korean beef tacos.
Degree of difficulty: Easy. There are a lot of fresh ingredients and condiments to make your own sauces, but the instructions are straightforward and easy to follow.
Things to watch out for: Pick dishes that don't include premade tortillas, buns or bread. These tend to be the worst part of any kit, including this one.
Taste: All three recipes tasted like someone's grandma whipped them up in your coronavirus-free sanitized kitchen. The meatloaf was moist, filling and reassuring. The hearty soup is a fortifying recipe I intend to revisit again and again. And the tacos, with their quick-pickled cucumber and Korean-chile-flake-flecked sauce were excellent and fun to make.
Best overall runner-up: Blue Apron
Price: $47.95 for two meals (includes shipping), $11.98 per person per meal.
Specific dietary needs: You can't specify dietary needs beyond vegetarian, but the recipes do note common allergens.
Dishes: Savory beef and bok choy rice bowls; and couscous-stuffed poblano peppers with spinach and raisins in tahini dressing.
Degree of difficulty: Easy. Like the Hello Fresh box, there are plenty of fresh ingredients to work with, along with clear directives for each.
Things to watch out for: If you're used to big meals, this is not the kit for you. The portions are modest but adequate.
Taste: The dishes strike the right balance of adventurous and approachable. If you've never tried tahini before, the stuffed peppers are a good place to start. If you mainline the sesame paste every time you get takeout shawarma, you will also enjoy the stuffed peppers.
Best overall: Purple Carrot
Price: $46.94 for three meals (includes shipping and a $25 discount for your first order), $7.82 per person.
Dietary restrictions: All the meals are plant-based, but you can choose gluten-free, soy-free, nut-free and high-protein options.
Dishes: Japanese yam sushi bowls with spinach; cauliflower steaks with pepita romesco sauce and crispy white beans; and Korean tofu tacos with kimchi slaw.
Degree of difficulty: Easy. Working with vegetables isn't as intimidating as having to figure out how to properly sear a piece of fish. The most difficult step will be chopping.
Things to watch out for: One recipe required a blender or food processor. Besides that and the corn tortillas being less than stellar (see above note regarding not choosing recipes with premade breads and starches), this is a solid meal kit.
Taste: The flavors are ambitious and unexpected. The sauce for the tofu tacos was a heady, smart mix of peanut butter, gochujang and sesame oil. The cauliflower steaks tasted like something you'd find at Crossroads, one of the best plant-based restaurants in Los Angeles. And the Japanese yam sushi bowls were quick and satiating. They will now be on regular rotation in the Harris household.
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