On Getting Meals Delivered

Most of you have probably heard of meal delivery services, whether through television spots, Facebook ads, or email offers. The business concept blends the idea of convenience with healthy eating. For a small weekly subscription fee, you can receive ingredients and recipes for cooking 3 to 5 nutritionally balanced and delicious meals delivered straight to your door.

Of course, you still have to cook the food, but the detailed step-by-step instructions — with full-color illustrations – makes it possible to create a restaurant worthy meal in less than 45 minutes. Moreover, you have full control over the preparation of the food (i.e. you can add or delete ingredients you don’t like, ramp up the spice level, cut out the salt, or whatever you want to make the food to your taste). Most of the meals delivery services also provide detailed nutritional information online or right on the recipe card so you know just how many calories and grams of what you are consuming, unlike when you order Chinese food from the takeout place down the road.

My husband and I first tried one of these services shortly after I was released from the hospital, thanks to a gift from sister and another from a friend of mine. We quickly became enamored of that service, Hello Fresh, and became regular subscribers. However, as part of my 2017 resolution to gain greater personal balance – physically, mentally and financially – I decided to do an experiment (I have a Ph.D. in biology after all). Specifically, I decided to compare the quality, ease, and price of four of the most commonly advertised meal delivery services: Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Home Chef, and Plated. Most of these services offer discounts for first-time users, which I took advantage off. The cost per meal also changes depending on the number of meals per week and the number of servings per meal. Some also have different “levels” of service, depending on if you are a strict vegetarian or eat meat, want to add on the occasional breakfast or snack, and if you want to select higher end meals like filet mignon. For the comparisons below, I’m only looking at an entry-level plan consisting of 3 dinners for 2 people a week.

  1. Blue Apron ($59.94/week, or $9.99/person/meal)

For our week of Blue Apron, we feasted on Bucatini Pasta Bolognese with Brussels Sprouts, Chicken Paillard with Potato and Fennel, and a Mushroom and Spinach Stromboli. Most of the meals were sufficiently tasty and satisfying, but there were rarely any leftovers for lunch. The thing that I didn’t care for was that Blue Apron restricts your menu options in ways that the other meal delivery services do not. By choosing a beef dish, for example, I found that my other menu choices were severely limited for that week, which made it impossible to select gluten-free or dairy-free options for all the meals delivered. I also felt that the food was packaged in a haphazard manner, without any clear sorting. In order to know what ingredients would be needed for each meal, I had to read the recipe card carefully and sort through the fridge for the necessary items. Finally, I didn’t find the instructions on the recipe card to be particularly user-friendly in terms of the timing, tips for cooking, etc. That said, the one thing that I did appreciate was that Blue Apron was the most forward thinking of the meal delivery services in terms of the recycling/reuse of the packing materials (e.g. recycling instructions are placed on Blue Apron website prominently, and you can also send back for free).

  1. Hello Fresh ($69.00/week, or $11.50/person/meal)

For our latest week of Hello Fresh, we received a menu consisting of Honey Mustard Chicken with Baked Veggies, Sizzling Beef Stir-Fry on Jasmine Rice, and Shawarma-Spiced Pork with Couscous. As with Blue Apron, there were rarely any leftovers for lunch. In general, I would probably rate the meals from Hello Fresh among my favorites, although some of the produce itself was a little wilted. Hello Fresh is also very user-friendly in the approach that it takes. For example, it packages the ingredients so that each meal comes in a separate box (except for the proteins, of course). The recipe themselves are also very straightforward, with the timing of each step made clear and lots of tips to ensure effective multitasking.

  1. Home Chef ($59.70/week, or $9.95/person/meal)

Home Chef provided, in my opinion, both the best and the worst of the meals that we ate. The London Broil Sirloin Steak with Sweet Potato Fries was fantastic but the Bone-in Pork Chop with Candied Walnut Butter and Acorn Squash was tough and overly sweet. The toughness might have been a result of overcooking on my part. The third meal provided that week, the Thai Chicken Salad, was tasty but forgettable. Overall, the meals provided by Home Chef seemed the most complete, as they included well thought-out sides where appropriate. We also had leftovers for most dinners, making the preparation for lunch the next day quick and cheap. Like Hello Fresh, this meal delivery service carefully packed and sorted the ingredients, although it used recyclable plastic bags rather than boxes. However, the produce that we received was of higher quality than any of the other meal delivery services we tried. The recipes themselves were also very straightforward, although the timing wasn’t always so clear. Home Chef also provides lots of cooking tips and explanations (including some of the science of cooking), as well as calorie counts on the menu cards and a plastic binder for organizing saved recipes. Finally, like Blue Apron, Home Chef provides detailed information on how to recycle the packing materials.

  1. Plated ($72.00/week, or $12.00/person/meal)

 The most expensive of the services was also the most disappointing. I truly enjoyed most of the meals themselves – Chicken Shwarma, Meatball Sliders (a little salty for my taste), and Bok Choy Stir Fry Rice – but there were two major problems. Before we even received the shipment, for example, I received an email alert and correction of a mistake on the one of the recipe cards; not a big deal but, as the cliché goes, you only have one chance to make a first impression. The other problem was a little more serious. Specifically, some of the produce had started to spoil only a couple of days after receiving the shipment, requiring replacement with fresh from our own pantry.

All told, all four of the meal delivery services did an excellent job. After considering the money and time I would have spent planning meals, shopping for groceries, and tossing out the moldy produce or rotting meat that had been forgotten in the back of the fridge, I do think that the cost of a weekly meal delivery service is also in line with my new found frugality. A quick check of the prices of the ingredients used for the meals provided by Hello Fresh and Home Chef, for instance, found only a $5.00 cost savings for store bought as compared to delivered.

Finally, although I think that Hello Fresh provided the best meals overall, I found that Home Chef provided the best value and the highest quality. They also offered the largest selection of meals and made it easy to sort meals according to dietary preferences.

On Saving Money (or Not) with Thrive

About once a month, I place an order with Thrive Market (Disclosure: if you click on this link and become a member, I will get a small commission for referring you. You do get a free month to try it out first).

For those of you who have never heard of Thrive, it is essentially an online food co-op — or as they call it, a “membership community” — that specializes in organic foods and natural beauty products. I like Thrive because it has a good selection of specialty foods, particularly gluten-free, paleo-friendly and organic foods, all of which are easily browsed thanks to categorical menus. They also have a free healthy living blog that occasionally has a good recipe or three, and the company is committed to sustainable living by being carbon neutral and using recycled packaging.

I spend $59.95/year for a membership, in exchange for which I get access to healthy non-perishable foods, bathroom and cleaning products at reduced prices (you’ll still have to get your fresh produce and meats locally, such as at your weekly Farmers’ Market). I also get free shipping if I spend more than $49 on an order (easily done since I usually batch my orders and also make purchases for colleagues and friends). I usually also wait until Thrive is offering some sort of special, usually free products like granola bars or cooking oil. This time, I got a free box of Primal Kitchen Chocolate Hazelnut Grass-Fed Collagen Bars by placing an order that exceeded $59.

Now, most of the products that I buy through Thrive are available at my local grocery store or food co-op. Alternatively, if I don’t want to drive to the store and can wait a couple of days for delivery, they can be obtained through Amazon (I also pay $99 annually for Amazon Prime, which I consider well worth the cost in terms of the free two-day shipping, access to the Video, Music and Reading libraries, and the Kindle First benefits). I similarly pay for an annual membership to BJ’s Wholesale Club, the cost of which I largely recoup in Diet Coke (as a mixer for my rum) and bacon.

When I logged onto Thrive Market today to place my order, I was cheerfully greeted by a banner that proclaimed that I had Lifetime Savings of $377.17 and Projected Annual Savings of $502.89, the Lifetime being less than the Projected Annual Savings as I haven’t yet been a member for a full year yet. But that got me wondering … does Thrive Market actually help me save money? Is it worth the annual membership fee?

So, figured I’d do a little research. Here’s what I ordered from Thrive this month:

Traditional Medicinals Roasted Dandelion Root Tea for $3.75 a box.

Acure Organics Brightening Facial Scrub for $6.45.

Bragg Organic Apple Cider Vinegar at $2.55 for a 16-ounce bottle.

Mavuno Harvest Organic Dried Pineapple at $7.95 a bag.

Simple Mills Almond Flour Focaccia & Sandwich Bread Mix for $7.55 a box.

Thrive Market Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil at $14.95 for at 24.5-ounce bottle.

Red Boat Fish Sauce Fish Sauce at $6.95 for 8.45 fluid ounces.

Dr. Bronner’s Organic Peppermint Castile Bar Soap at $3.45 a bar (2).

San J International Organic Tamari Gluten-Free Soy Sauce at $6.45 a bottle.

Glutenfreeda Maple Raisin with Flax Instant Oatmeal for $3.95.

As mentioned before, I also got a 6-pack of collagen bars for free. I wouldn’t have bought these otherwise, though, so don’t count them towards any savings. All told with taxes, I spent a total of $68.53. Thrive claimed that I saved $54.69 on my purchase.

When I checked the prices of identical or comparable items on Amazon, I found that I would have spent $97.26. A few things were slightly cheaper, but to get the lowest prices I often would have had to order from third-party vendors that also charged for shipping. Similarly, at my local grocery store and food co-op, it would have been over $100.00 (and not all products were available).

Thus, I did save a decent amount by buying through Thrive Market. For this smallish order, I saved $28.73 over Amazon. Although it wasn’t quite the $54.69 claimed by Thrive on the website, at this rate I will recover the cost of my annual membership in just two months time. So, it turns out that Thrive is worth the money if you are committed to healthy eating and willing to spend a little extra to get sustainably harvested or organic foods.

While I still worry at times about the environmental impact of using an online delivery service (for this, for the meal-delivery services and for my Amazon habit), a friend of mine who is a sustainability expert did point out that in this case the harm of ordering from Thrive is offset in part by the savings associated with the reduction in carbon emissions associated with the delivery of these same goods to my local grocer and co-op (not to mention the gas required to drive to these stores).