Meal subscription saved my family’s life. Because I work at home, I’m the default meal planner and cook—roles I wedge into the paper-thin gap between all the professional work I’m cranking out 26 hours a day. Getting my collegiate spawn to give up some kind of opinion on what they would like to eat is almost as hard as getting the same from my S.O. “What do you want for dinner?” gets me indifferent shrugs that transmogrify into hangry growls of reproach when I serve them frozen lasagna and sad broccoli. Which makes me want to poison their porridge.
Fortunately for them, home delivery meals saved their bacon.
It’s Clear Why Meal Kits Are So Popular
Meal kits started in Sweden, took over Europe, then landed in America with the launch of Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. Twelve years later, the global market for home meal delivery is over $8 billion. More than 14 million households purchased meal kits in the last half of 2018. Sales are trending upward. Pretty soon, meal kits will be how many households get their groceries.
It’s easy to see why. Home delivery meals are cheap. They taste great. They’re pretty good for the environment—and they’re so forking easy. If you’re a busy person running a small business out of your home office (broom closet, hole in the ground) they will make your life better.
Meal kits may also save you money. The second and middle quintiles of U.S. households spend between $6,000 and $7,000 annually on food. That’s just under $6 per meal per day. When you factor in what you save on gas to go to the grocery store—and not buying that 12-pack of doughnuts because you shop hungry—meal subscription services may save you even more.
Certainly, you can work harder on being a savvy shopper and a brilliant meal planner to save money. But will you?
I tried three meal kits to see how they stack up against my schedule and my family’s taste buds.
Dinnerly’s Home Meal Delivery is Stripped to the Minimum
Like all the meal subscription services, you pick your meals online. I had a good time picking the Dinnerly meals. I was a little concerned because their meal photos aren’t exactly enticing. Turns out their meals aren’t either. The dinners are good. My family ate them. But the meals just don’t pop. They made me feel like those times when I tried something new that didn’t pan out. Or when I was really broke.
Still, Dinnerly is the most affordable option here, at $1.21 less than the national average per meal. But Dinnerly’s frugality means you have to do more work. They supply the ingredients, but you have to chop the onions and you peel the potatoes … while reading the directions on your iPad because they don’t print a recipe book.
Base Price: $4.49 per meal/person.
Shipping: $8.99 per box.
Environmental Footprint: Very small.
Ease of preparation: Tiny.
Deliciousness: Tastes like your roommate really tried.
Sun Basket is Le Cordon Bleu in a Box
If Dinnerly is the Twitter of meal subscription, Sun Basket is Instagram. Everything about them is carefully curated and appealing. Their online process caters to vegan, veggie, gluten-free, paleo, pescatarian, carb-conscious, and diabetes-friendly, which I can assume comes packed in Wilford Brimley’s mustache. They cover three meals and snacks. You pre-game your dinner with their gorgeous pop-up menus and recipes with pictures that would make a social media influencer want to throw their camera across the room.
I was impressed by the way the meals were packed, with the perishables nestled in icepacks underneath a thin sliver of cardboard, underneath all the non-perishables and their well-designed cookbook. Where Dinnerly seems to target budget-conscious cooks, Sun Basket seems to target busy professionals who want everything prepped and ready to go. Almost all the ingredients are ready to toss into the pan with some recipes offering just enough of a challenge to make you feel like a chef without letting you burn the ragout.
Price: Meals start at $9.98 each.
Environmental Footprint: Dainty.
Ease of preparation: Easy.
Deliciousness: Like you’re friends with a chef.
Home Chef is the Busy Professional’s Meal Subscription Choice
Home Chef is sneaky in the very best way. Their meals are as exciting as Sun Basket’s. If you saw them on a restaurant menu, you’d probably tell the waiter, yes, please, bring me the Pesto Butter Chicken with Asiago Broccoli. Here’s the cool part: Somehow, they’ve engineered these recipes to stick in your brain. I tested all these meal boxes and cooked a week’s worth of dinners from each. Then I went back to my amateur chef self and my staple meals—with one addition. Home Chef’s Steak with Creamy Risotto and Fresh Tomatoes somehow wedged itself into my repertoire. The instructions were almost a class on how to prepare proper risotto, and the flavor was bombtacular. My wife now demands this dish at least once a week.
Home Chef takes its name seriously. The recipe structure and presentation appeal to professionals and home management executives who love to cook but are slammed for time to shop, prep, and plan meals. Nothing in the Home Chef kitchen is out of the normal skill set of a halfway committed home cook. And even if you’ve never picked up a pot, the instructions are illustrated brilliantly and written clearly so you’ll end up with a great meal. The company blog is an excellent resource, teaching techniques as rudimentary as how to dice an avocado or store fresh herbs.
For newbie cooks who want to learn portion control and how to cook delicious, simple meals, or for seasoned amateurs too busy to prep, Home Chef is the best choice.
Price: About $7.50 per meal.
Environmental Footprint: Elven.
Ease of preparation: Easy.
Deliciousness: All of it.
Did I Say You’ll Save More Money?
The downside of any meal subscriptions might be the Amazon effect: A lot of cardboard boxes and packing materials to deal with. And at the last minute you might have to run to the grocer for ingredients you didn’t realize you needed. The upside? You save a ton of money and a ton of time.
Where I live in Chicago there are two Whole Foods, a Trader Joe’s, three Aldi’s, four major grocers, and 11 neighborhood grocers, each specializing in a cultural cuisine. If I tried very hard, I could feed my family on a very reasonable budget. But just yesterday I dropped by the small grocer (literally walking distance from my front door) to get Diet Coke and the ingredients for chicken soup and spent $70 bucks.
If you’re busy, if you’re bad at home economics, meal subscription will save you money on your weekly grocery expenditures. The bonus: It will teach you how to cook delicious, properly portioned, simple meals.