BOXED GOURMET: THE NEW FOODIE WAY

Cover Story
2016
May/June

Dinner prepared nightly at home, from peak-fresh ingredients with exotic spices, and served piping hot by 7 p.m., has become a modern day fantasy land populated by human beings whose lives must be unrecognizable to the most of us. WHO HAS THE TIME? Instead, you’re probably cramming a fried chicken strip down your kid’s throat on the way to baseball practice, while you attempt to feed yourself and steer the car safely down the road, all while hollering at your husband over a cell phone to "FIGURE IT OUT YOURSELF!" (He’s on the way home from the office and wants to know what’s for dinner. The usual.) 

As a nation, we are facing a health crisis. The rates of heart and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity have skyrocketed in recent years, and now see exponential growth in younger populations as each year goes by. The medical community agrees that a healthy diet and exercise regime are critical components missing in the modern American lifestyle, and the only paths to improved health. 

It’s so simple and yet so many of us pull our breakfasts, lunches and dinners out of a fast food paper bag. Who has the time, not to mention the expertise, to plan and prepare family meals? 

About a year or so ago, I started noticing a Facebook ad for a service called Hello Fresh. The company promised to deliver farm fresh ingredients, pre-measured and designed to help families prepare evening meals at home. As a person who actually really loves to cook, relishes trips to the grocery store and savors the process of imagining new dishes, I scoffed at the idea and never gave it a second thought. That is until I found out my friend, Jennifer Pierce, was using a similar service called Blue Apron. 

Jennifer is a lot like me. She prides herself on her cooking abilities and her own famous dishes. It’s one of the things we have in common, a love for delicious food and pride in our abilities to deliver good food to friends and family. But during a recent meeting, she and another friend of ours, Nicole Robbins, were so excited to compare their experiences with home-delivered meal services that I couldn’t resist. I ordered my first box from Blue Apron and I was instantly hooked on the idea. I decided to give three services a try, with Blue Apron being the first.

The sign up process was simple, and I chose a combination of three meals selected from the six that were available the week of my first delivery. Tuesday came and went in its normal frenzied way, until the afternoon when I received email confirmation that Fed Ex had just delivered my first box from Blue Apron. I was literally giddy with excitement. When I got home around 6, all the items in the box were still perfectly chilled. Though the package arrived on a Tuesday, the life-changing impact began on Sunday afternoon, my usual trip to the grocery store to try to plan meals that my husband Tab and I would actually want to eat over the next seven days. I still had to go to the store and pick up a few essential items for quick breakfasts, snacks and my go-to lunchtime salads, but I came home with less than half the haul I normally make each week, and spent about one third the money. 

The first dish I prepared was Chicken Cacciatore with Fettuccine Pasta and Mushrooms. The dish was easy to prepare and absolutely delicious. We were thrilled to have enough for leftovers, which is something I should point out – this will not be the norm. One of the key missions of Blue Apron is to eliminate food waste, and for the most part, the portions are designed to truly only be enough for one meal. 

Blue Apron is committed to using products from responsible sources. For example, all meat products are raised without harmful hormones or sub therapeutic antibiotics. The company purchases its produce directly from famers. This is important because it cuts down on transit time, so the produce is allowed more time to ripen at the farm.

Menus from Blue Apron appeal to what I would describe as a broad palate. Many of the meals I cooked from Blue Apron used ingredients that I’d never heard of, let alone cooked with. Since I’m only cooking for myself and my husband, a more adventurous menu is a good thing. But if you’ve got children or you are cooking for more picky eaters, you may find some of the menu options to be undesirable. 

The best meal we cooked with Blue Apron was a Hoisin and Shiitake Burger with Miso Mayonnaise and Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges. The recipe combined typical Chinese and Japanese flavors using hoisin sauce and shiitakes to flavor the burgers. Shredded bok choy dressed in a simple olive oil, salt and pepper dressing added a satisfying crunch, and the miso mayonnaise finished off the unbelievably delicious burger with a rich and creamy finish. The potato wedges were a simple side dish and the flavors were great together. The fresh baked potato buns added a nice bit of sweet to the savory burger. 

Now, I’m not a nutritionist, and I wouldn’t suggest that these meals are perfectly healthy. In fact, I was only able to find minimal nutrition information about the meals. But most of the meals I cooked had a nice ratio of veggie to protein, and the service doesn’t rely too heavily on processed foods. Most of the processed foods are limited to the knick knacks (like hoisin sauce and other seasonings),
breads and pastas. 

Blue Apron also has the best in web resources. If you are a beginner in the kitchen, online tutorials will put you at ease. The printed instructions were excellent and easy to follow as well. To top it off,  all of the materials I received were recyclable. 

Blue Apron:

Cost: $8.74 - $9.99 per meal, depending on the plan you choose

Delivery Schedule: Free, Tuesday through Friday

Skill Level: Beginner to Moderate

Palate: Varied, with international influences and some exotic ingredients

Calories: 500-800 per serving

Average Cook/Prep. Time: 35-50 minutes

I then tried Hello Fresh, the most popular of the three I tried. I see ads for Hello Fresh everywhere, and I can truly understand why this service might be the best for families. 

When I received my Hello Fresh delivery, one of the first things I noticed was the packaging. Blue Apron’s ingredients were individually wrapped and identified by recipe, whereas all the items from Hello Fresh were boxed together by meal. This eliminates the process of finding all the ingredients you need for each meal. 

The first meal I cooked was the Feisty Fiesta Fish Tacos. This dish was a really poor introduction to the program. The tacos were anything but feisty, and the ingredients did not seem as high in quality as Blue Apron. The recipe included a Grapefruit, Avocado and Cabbage Slaw, and somehow the flavors did not come together. The slaw had been pre-sliced, which was a nice time saver, but the edges had already begun to go brown. I was so disappointed, because the menu looked delicious and the recipe should have been good, but it was bland and uninteresting. 

I also had a tough time following the directions. Hello Fresh gives you step by step instructions for each component of the meal, so you really have to read everything first and then go back and figure out how you are going to pace the process overall.  In other words, you have to figure out which items to prepare first and in what order to cook them, and build in time for those things that take longer to cook. Not a big deal really, but it threw me for a loop the first night. 

It wasn’t looking good until we made the Dijon Pork Chops. The pork chops were served with a Dijon-thyme pan sauce that was savory and hearty. The crispy potato cakes were yummy and seasoned well, and the roasted asparagus rounded out the experience with a nice bite of toasty bitterness. This was a good ole fashioned example of stick to your ribs home cooking, and the Dijon sauce made it just the right amount of fancy. 

After a full week of Hello Fresh, I was content. The meals are good - flavorful without being intimidating or pretentious. The portion sizes were slightly larger than Blue Apron, and I felt that the options would appeal more to whole families. And although two of the dishes I prepared were a little bland for my tastes, the recipes could easily be adjusted to suit what you and your family likes. Hello Fresh also has detailed nutrition information printed directly on the recipes cards, so that you are in the know with what you’re eating and the nutritional impact it will have.

Hello Fresh:

Cost: $8.75 - $9.90 per meal, depending on the plan you choose

Delivery Schedule: Free, Monday through Saturday

Skill Level: Beginner to Moderate

Palate: Mostly American dishes

Calories: 400-800 per serving

Average Cook/Prep. Time: 35-50 minutes

The last to arrive was a service called Plated. Reviews of Plated prepared me for a more difficult ability level, and just a glance at the menus left me anticipating longer evenings in the kitchen. 

Fair warning, my review of Plated is admittedly biased because it was easily my favorite of all three. The quality of the ingredients was superior, and the flavor profiles were off the charts. I liked the variety of the ingredients used. Plated relied almost entirely on whole, unprocessed foods during the week I cooked from it. One dish used whole wheat udon noodles, but otherwise the meals were comprised of lean, beautiful proteins and loads of garden crisp vegetables. 

The first dish I prepared was a Red Thai Curry with Tilapia and Cauliflower. The aroma was amazing, that our mouths were watering before we even sat down. The ingredients included fresh ginger, red curry paste, coconut milk and fish sauce, combined to create an unbelievable broth. Cauliflower, Chinese broccoli and asparagus, along with the tilapia, made for a satisfying dish that left us feeling full.

And to my genuine surprise, it was stunningly easy to prepare. From start to finish, I was in and out of the kitchen in about 25 minutes. This had to be too good to be true. 

Even on night two, I was out of the kitchen in under 30 minutes. The Pork Patties with Lemongrass and Crunchy Tahini Slaw was hearty without being heavy. This dish used some pretty exotic ingredients, like Kaffir Lime Leaves, which were thick and shiny and made me think of holly leaves. 

All of the processed ingredients used were low or no sodium and gluten free. Although the only nutrition information printed is the calorie content, these meals seemed to me to be the most nutritious, low fat, low sodium and low processing of the three services I tried. 

Plated does come at a price though. The meals are $12 each, making it the most expensive of the three. The portion sizes were the smallest, however, the meals were just as satisfying to both me and my husband. As far as the collateral materials go, the recipe cards are beautifully designed and the instructions are very easy to follow. The website has some great resources including some higher level educational videos and blogs that can really help you refine your cooking skills. And as with the other services, all materials are easily recyclable.

Plated:

Cost: $12 per meal

Delivery Schedule: Free, Tuesday, Wednesday, &  Saturday

Skill Level: Beginner to Moderate

Palate: Varied, with international influences and some exotic ingredients

Calories: 500-800 per serving

Average Cook/Prep. Time: 20-30 minutes

Which service would I recommend? 

After all is said and done, I think that the two most important factors to consider when choosing a service are your personal tastes and cost. Having tried three services, I would strongly recommend exploring. Most of these programs offer some type of introductory discount, and many offer a week of free meals. Customers are able to easily pause service indefinitely, and it’s easy to cancel at any time. 

My personal opinion is that Blue Apron was the best overall value, because I loved the food, thought the ingredients were among the most fresh and highest quality, and the accompanying materials and web support were superior. 

I thought Plated had the best food. Hands down, the quality and flavor was just better, and the meals took me the least amount of time to cook. Plated was a true joy and my favorite experience of the three. 

But Hello Fresh will appeal to a lot of people because of its straight forward flavors, wholesome selections and comprehensive approach to meal composition. If you grew up envisioning dinner as a protein, a vegetable, and a starch, Hello Fresh will probably be your choice. The meals often have a hint of comfort food to them without being overly fattening or high in calories. 

Overall, I have enjoyed several unexpected benefits to using these services. One, I don’t buy condiments and random spices anymore. That may not seem like a big deal, but typically I choose a couple recipes to prepare each week. Oftentimes, that forces me to buy herbs I’ll never use again, and strange vinegars and random items that will take up space until they spoil in my fridge. Next, I have no more food prep anxiety. Usually by Wednesday, I’ve cooked the things Tab actually wanted to eat, and we are left dreading the rest of the food I thought sounded good on Sunday. Now, we look forward to what’s left from the box. 

I plan on trying a few more services, such as Home Chef, Green Chef, and the latest to appear on my radar, Peach Chef, which hails from none other than Altlanta, Georgia, and offers southern comfort options like Zeb Stephenson’s Chicken and Dumplings. 

 

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