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 Going Primal

A lot has been said and written about some of the more common diets that people are pursuing, promoting, profiting from. These include the Mediterranean Diet (which emphasizes eating plenty fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fish and lean meats), the Atkins Diet (which limits consumption of sugars and carbohydrates), commercial diets like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig (which relies on a combination of pre-packaged meals and individual or group support), and the widely popular Paleo Diet.

The latter diet is probably the one that has engendered the some of the most heated and acrimonious debate of late. US News and World Report recently ranked it dead last out of 35 diets that they had reviewed by a panel of dietary experts. On the other hand, there are numerous scientific studies that suggest that adopting a Paleo lifestyle may actually be effective in promoting weight loss, as well as in helping people control blood pressure and plasma cholesterol without medication. Detractors call it dangerous while supporters laud its effectiveness.

As the name might suggest, the idea behind the Paleo diet is that human beings evolved eating only those types of foods that were available during the Paleolithic era, long before the rise of agriculture. Also known as the ‘Caveman Diet’, the Paleo Diet emphasizes eating those foods that would have been consumed by someone living a pre-industrial, pre-agricultural, nomadic, hunting-gathering sort of life. Thus, this approach stresses a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and plenty of meats, along with so-called good fats. The more heavily processed foods that are a large part of the Standard American Diet (or SAD, as it is pejoratively known by Paleo followers) are forbidden, as are sugars, grains, dairy, and alcohol). A variant of the Paleo Diet, known as the Primal Diet, allows for more consumption of saturated fats (like grass-fed butter or coconut oil), the occasional ingestion of dairy (particularly raw or fermented dairy), and even the odd glass of wine or shot of tequila now and then.

There are many pros and cons to adopting a Paleo or Primal lifestyle. Yes, they are better described as lifestyles rather than as diets, because both Paleo and Primal emphasize a holistic approach to living. This includes not only eating a diet low in carbohydrates and rich in nutrient-dense foods, but also a fitness plan that focuses on natural movement and strength building, a wellness plan that includes mindfulness, relaxation, and ample sleep, and other changes that are meant to mimic a prehistoric lifestyle in our modern wired and wireless world.

I’ve been following a Primal lifestyle off-and-on for about two years now, my recent hospitalization not withstanding. It was physically difficult to follow the diet, for example, when you are limited to a surgical or soft-food menu. So, it was eat a sandwich or starve during the 21 days that I was in the hospital. The stress of the holidays and of my mother’s passing made it mentally challenging to get ‘back on the Primal wagon’. But I’m back … and the rest of this post is about my brief thoughts as to the pros and cons of the Primal lifestyle.

So what are the cons? First and foremost, it takes a lot of commitment to make the radical dietary and lifestyle changes that a living a Primal (or Paleo) life requires. It’s hard enough to avoid eating sugars, consuming grains, or avoiding alcohol at home, let along when grabbing a 15-minute lunch at work or going out for dinner and a movie with friends. The recent gluten-free fad has helped make it easier, at least when dining out, and there are plenty of recipes and cookbooks out there, but it’s still tough. There are also a lot of naysayers out there – most often your friends and family — telling you why you are wrong and tempting you with pepperoni pizza.

The diet can also be potentially unhealthy, particularly with regard to overconsumption of saturated fats. Contrary to what some critics (and even promoters) have said, this is not a lifestyle in which you are free to eat all of the eggs and bacon that you want.

That said, there are a lot of advantages to this lifestyle. It emphasizes eating high quality foods, particularly those that are locally and ethically sourced. It gets you back into the kitchen, and focused on preparing healthy meals with your family. It gets you thinking about all of the other social factors that influence your health, including improving the length and quality of sleep, reducing stress and anxiety, avoiding the overuse of electronic media and devices, and regular meditation or mindfulness sessions. For those who can make the change, the immediate and long terms benefits are clear, not only with respect to diet and exercise, but also in the relationships you have with your friends and family. More importantly, the lifestyle allows to you make small changes that reap big results over time.

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).


On Eating Healthier and Exercising Regularly

Despite the title of this blog, I’m actually not overweight. I’m 6 feet tall and weigh 172 pounds, well within the normal range for a nearly 47-year-old man. What I am not is in shape.

I was once. Actually, I was multiple times throughout my life. When I was in my early 20’s, for example, I was a competitive martial artist. Not only did I have visible abs, I was flexible enough to do Jan-Claude Van Damme like splits. That all ended with a severe separation of my left shoulder.

Shortly thereafter, given I could no longer to do the punches, throws, and rolls of my favored fighting style, I took up marathon running. Running over 100 miles weekly ensured that I kept my six-pack while still eating 4,500 calories daily. That all ended with the severe damage to my knees and back. In fact, as a result of the latter, I learned that I suffer from a degenerative disorder that is slowly causing my vertebrae to crumble. A decade and two discectomies later I am an inch-and-a-half shorter than I was in college.

Since then, my weight level has fluctuated widely. At my heaviest, I weighed nearly 200 pounds. At my lightest, shortly after my recent hospitalization, I was a mere 160 pounds. My healthiest was actually right after my wedding, the result of six months of intense workouts and careful eating, although I was in pretty decent shape until my recent bout with peritonitis kept me out of the gym for over three months.

My problem, as you might guess, is not motivation. My problem is time and the fact that I tend to eat like a four-year-old. Savory snacks, in particular, are my downfall and I am still struggling with the temptations of all the chips, crackers, and other salty snacks that clutter our house following the holiday season.

So how to handle this? Starting tomorrow I will be back on the wagon and following a Whole30 diet plan. For anyone who has never heard of the Whole30 plan, it is pretty simple. You simply ditch all of the processed crappy that normally makes up the bulk of the modern American diet. Specifically, you focus on eating only fresh good-quality meats and vegetables while avoiding grains, dairy, soy, legumes, sugar, artificial sweeteners, and alcohol. All of these prohibited foods, according to the theory behind the Whole 30, are linked to systemic inflammation, hormonal fluctuations, and imbalances in your microbiotic flora. That said, I usually continuing eating dairy as I am an not lactose intolerant and I come from an evolutionary background in which these sorts of foods made up a large part of the diet.

I’ve done this in the past and, while I rarely lose (and do not need to lose) a large amount of weight on the Whole30, I usually feel a hell of a lot better once I get over the initial sugar withdrawal. I also find that it is a cheaper way of eating, helping with some of my financial goals for this year. The only downside, as far as I can tell, is wasting all of the food we have in the house that is not Whole30-compliant.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll also be tracking and posting publicly all that I eat in the hopes that this will dissuade any cheating.