After hearing rave reviews from friends about their experiences with meal delivery services like Blue Apron, HelloFresh and Plated, I decided to give them all a spin. While each has its own personality, the three most popular outfits all work pretty much the same. Boxes containing enough chilled, fresh ingredients for multiple meals are delivered to your door. All eliminate the hassle of planning recipes and grocery shopping.
My very first shipment came courtesy of Blue Apron, so I had zero expectations before opening the package. My initial thoughts were: Wow, this stuff looks remarkably fresh. My second thought was: Holy crap, that's a lot of packaging. Inside the cardboard box was an insulated freezer bag loaded with enough fresh ingredients to prepare two servings each of three separate meals. Everything was well chilled, and the meats (cod, chicken breast, ground beef) all were vacuum sealed and kept separate from the other ingredients. Seasonal produce like ramps, rhubarb and asparagus arrived bright and crisp.
The same was true for Plated, which included ground salmon, ripe cherry tomatoes, arugula and mache – all of it cold and fresh. Plated gets props for placing its ingredients in reusable "green bags," which keep them fresh longer in the fridge.
HelloFresh earns kudos for combining all the ingredients needed for each recipe together in a single plastic bag. Not only is there less packaging, but it saves time when rounding up the numerous individual items from the fridge come cooking time.
While all of these companies strive to use good-quality suppliers, it's not always easy to determine what, if any, produce is organic. Most meats are hormone and antibiotic free, seafood tends to be sustainable, but for others it's impossible to say for sure.
All of these services provide everything needed to make the recipes, right down to the sugar, chili flakes, soy sauce and red wine vinegar. The only things not included are salt, pepper and oil. While you do have to wash and dry the produce, you do not have to measure a single ingredient as they come in proper quantities. Step-by-step instructions are illustrated and clear, and nutritional information is provided.
Of the three, I found Blue Apron to have the most ambitious – and delicious – recipes. The methods required multiple pans and multitasking. While brown rice simmered away, you prepare a quick-pickle brine for the ramps that would garnish the finished steamed cod dish. As the fish gently steamed atop sautéed yu choy greens, you whip up a ginger-soy finishing sauce.
HelloFresh recipes tended to be less challenging, with less rewarding flavors as a result. A cinnamon and oregano-scented ground beef chili on rice and beans, for example, was ho-hum, while a roasted veggie quesadilla was satisfying but somewhat flat in flavor.
Plated seemed to fall right in the middle, with easier techniques than Blue Apron and better-tasting results than HelloFresh. We loved our horseradish and caper-infused salmon burgers with tarragon aioli on soft brioche buns, and the spinach pesto that sauced our orecchiette was bright, lemony and creamy from the pecorino cheese.
All three services offer subscribers some level of choice when it comes to recipe selection, with Plated providing the most options. Looking at many of the recipes listed for all three services, I could notice a certain level of redundancy in terms of overall recipe technique that might get tedious over time.
Each offers various plans for subscribers. HelloFresh ships three meals for two or four per week, with each plate coming out to around $11, including shipping. Plated ships a minimum of two meals for two people per order, with each plate costing $12, including shipping. Blue Apron ships three meals for two or a larger family plan, with meals costing around $9 to $10 each.
I think the sweet spot for these services is busy home cooks who enjoy cooking but don't have the time to plan and shop or inspiration to come up with recipes. Yes, the cost per plate is more than had you done the shopping yourself, but there's none of the waste that comes with buying more (insert ingredient here) than you need for one meal. Plus, there's a certain joy that comes from opening the box, trying new recipes, and improving your skills as a home cook.