Dinner on Your Doorstep

Above Image | Tom Schierlitz

Meal kit services such as Blue Apron and Purple Carrot are starting a quiet revolution in the way Americans make dinner. We put their easy, fresh, and tasty claims to the test.

By Janet Lee

THERE YOU ARE, at the end of a long workday, standing in front of an open refrigerator that’s crammed with unappealing leftovers and some past-their-prime veggies, wondering “What in the world am I going to make for dinner?”

For a growing number of Americans, meal kit delivery services provide the answer. Every week, you pick several meals from an ever-changing list of offerings on a company’s website, and a few days later a box packed with chilled, premeasured ingredients and detailed cooking instructions arrives on your doorstep.

It’s a trend that began in 2012, then took off. These services are now a $400 million market that’s projected to increase tenfold in the next five years, according to Technomic, a research and consulting firm for the food industry. Today there are more than 100 meal kit companies in the U.S., and new ones are springing up all the time. Just recently, Martha Stewart and then Ayesha Curry (wife of the NBA star Stephen Curry) announced they were getting into the business. Even The New York Times offers one where you can get the ingredients for recipes on its cooking website.

What’s the appeal? “The convenience of these kits is attractive, but freshness is also very important,” says Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst at the NPD Group. “Some consumers, especially millennials, are willing to spend more time preparing food because they value freshness, but they still want to get out of the kitchen fairly quickly.”

So do the kits deliver on the easy, healthy, and fresh fronts? Our food and nutrition experts, admittedly experienced cooks, ordered from five popular services to try them. We also asked 57 meal kit users (some of whom describe themselves as beginners in the kitchen) to tell us about their experience.

Are They Healthy?
“A lot of the marketing for these kits focuses on ‘freshness,’ so there’s a perception that the meals are also healthy,” says Kimberly Gudzune, M.D., M.P.H., an obesity-medicine expert and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The ingredients we got were indeed fresh , but not all of the services provided enough nutrition info for their meals. HelloFresh listed the most—calories, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, sodium, and sugars—on their recipe cards. Others provided only calories. (See “Our At-a-Glance Guide,” on the facing page, for details.) In determining how healthy the meals were, our experts looked at calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium. If a company didn’t provide data for one of those nutrients, we calculated it using a nutritional database program.

Most of the meals included a generous amount of vegetables. For example, Green Chef’s recipes had 2 ½ to 4 ½ cups (before cooking) per serving. But that wasn’t a given: Blue Apron’s Pork Tteokbokki Asparagus with Spicy Black Bean Sauce had just five spears of asparagus for two people. Plant-food based Purple Carrot included only 4 ounces of raw spinach for its Spinach Risotto. Lesson learned: When ordering meals, choose those that supply a good amount of a variety of veggies.

Our biggest concern was the high sodium content of many of the meals. “That’s what I worry about,” Gudzune says, “especially for people who are 50 and older, who are at greater risk for heart disease, hypertension, and stroke.”

Almost every recipe we tested called for seasoning the ingredients with salt several times—as many as five times for one recipe. It’s no wonder, then, that we found that half of the dishes had more than 770 mg of sodium, or more than a third of the maximum recommended daily intake of 2,300 mg. Ten of the dishes had more than 1,000 mg per serving. We also found that using the salt shaker less didn’t make the meals any less tasty. So don’t add salt every time a recipe calls for it, or use just a dash or two.

Of course, how much you eat of each meal changes the nutrition profile, too. If you can squeeze a third portion out of a meal for two, you’ll certainly cut calories, fat, and sodium. We found that some of the meals were large enough to allow for that, and most of the kit users on our panel said they were satisfied with the amount on their plates. But there were a few men who thought the meals were on the skimpy side. “The portions are just right for me but a little light for my husband,” said a woman on our user panel.

Do They Taste Good?
Yes! Twenty-four of the 27 recipes we tested received an Excellent or a Very Good score for taste. What’s more, they may be a smart way to broaden your family’s palate.

“A meal delivery service is a great way to try new things,” says Amy Keating, R.D., who oversaw our testing. They offer several recipes with ingredients that may be unfamiliar to some people, such as Korean rice cakes, hemp herb dressing, udon noodles, and poblano peppers.

Some consumers, especially Gen Xers and baby boomers, are driven to use the kits to escape a cuisine comfort zone, according to Michael Joseph, founder and chief executive of Green Chef, one of two services with an Excellent Rating in our testing. “They’re going to the same restaurants and making the same meals at home,” he says. Practically every person on our user panel said they liked being able to explore different flavors.

What’s the Cost of Convenience?
All things being equal, you’ll usually pay much more per portion for a meal from one of these services than you would if you cooked the same meal with ingredients you bought yourself at a supermarket.

But all things may not be equal. For example, if you have a cabinet full of spices you’ve used only once or you often throw away most of a bunch of parsley because a recipe calls for only ¼ cup, these kits may actually be a good financial deal because you aren’t buying more of an ingredient than you need. (Americans discard $165 billion in food annually.)

In fact, a member of our user panel claimed that the meal kit service she subscribed to helped cut her grocery bill in half. And most of our panelists, whose annual income ranged from less than $25,000 to more than $150,000, considered meal kits to be a good value.

In some cases, that value was linked to other factors in addition to a dollar-todollar comparison. One woman noted, “It’s very pricey but worth it because I don’t have the time or the energy to plan meals out every week and grocery shop.” Another said, “I could get some of the ingredients for about $10, but the fact that I had never known about some of them made their discovery worth more.”

Perhaps the best news of all is that it’s pretty painless to check out one of these services. All of ones we tested had introductory offers. Terms change frequently, but as we went to press we found specials such as $20 off, six meals for the price of two, and even a free week of meals.

The services are flexible, too. Most allow you to suspend a subscription for a week or more, or cancel it for any reason, provided you do so by a deadline. That flexibility means you can order every other week, just one week per month, or on any other schedule that fits your lifestyle.

Our At-A-Glance Guide

All of the factors below, except characteristics of note, were taken into account in determining our overall scores. The information in each section is based on each service’s basic plan for three meals per week for two people.

How We Tested

Consumer Reports evaluated five meal kit services that deliver nationally: Blue Apron, Green Chef, HelloFresh, Plated, and Purple Carrot. Using our secret shoppers, we ordered every meal* available in each service’s two-person plan during a week in May, for a total of 27 meals. The weeks were chosen randomly.

Our food-testing team then prepared the recipes in our test kitchen without using any special equipment. A panel of professional tasters sampled every dish. Our dietitians scrutinized the nutritional content for the dishes and reviewed the nutritional information for a month’s worth of each service’s meal options. Meals that were at or below 670 calories, 22 grams of fat, and 770 milligrams of sodium were considered to be healthier based on one-third of a day’s nutrition for a 2,000-calorie diet.

Because budgeting is important to every family, we also wanted to compare the meal kit costs vs. supermarket pricing if you shopped for everything yourself. So we bought the ingredients for five meals—one from each service—and calculated the cost of the amount of each ingredient used for one portion of a recipe. You can see the comparison at the bottom of each page.

Price Comparison: Blackened Tilapia

Supermarket Estimated Cost Per Portion: $5.37
Meal Delivery Service Cost Per Portion: $11.50

Notes: Nutrition information was based on one portion of a recipe. Nutrition information for HelloFresh, Green Chef, and Plated was from the manufacturers. Calorie information was provided by Blue Apron; all other values were calculated using a nutrient database. Calories, carbohydrates, fat, and protein were provided by Purple Carrot; all other values were calculated using a nutrient data base.

Price Comparison: Greek Chicken Bowl

Supermarket Estimated Cost Per Portion: $10.94
Meal Delivery Service Cost Per Portion: $13.49 includes per portion cost of shipping.

Price Comparison: Vietnamese-Style ‘Shaking Beef’

Supermarket Estimated Cost Per Portion: $5.10
Meal Delivery Service Cost Per Portion: $12

Price Comparison: Chinese Broccoli and Tofu

Supermarket Estimated Cost Per Portion: $3.46
Meal Delivery Service Cost Per Portion: $11.33

Price Comparison: Spring Chicken Fettuccine

Supermarket Estimated Cost Per Portion: $4.88
Meal Delivery Service Cost Per Portion: $9.99

Food Styling: Brian Preston-Campbell
Prop Styling: Megumi Emoto