June 1, 2016 -- The ads kept popping up on Quint Daulton’s computer as he logged into Facebook. “Make dinner memorable.” “Click here: four free meals for two.”
Daulton enjoys cooking, but he was hoping to get a bit more adventurous in the kitchen. “I would watch the Food Network and say, ‘Hey, that’s incredible. I want to try that. Why couldn’t I do that?’”
But finding some of those Food Network-type ingredients wasn’t easy with the limited grocery selection near his small town of Heflin, AL. And Daulton felt like he needed some “training wheels” to become a more skillful chef.
So he signed up for a two-dinner-per-week membership with the meal-kit delivery service Plated, and every week, his front porch overflowed with a new set of recipes and curated ingredients, like a salmon stew with coconut and lemongrass or pan-seared sirloin steak with Swiss chard.
Over the past 3 years, services like Plated and its competitors, including Blue Apron and HelloFresh, have gone from unknown to everywhere. About 21% of people surveyed by the research firm Mintel in September 2015 reported using one of these services at least once a month; among millennials, the figure was 40%. According to market research firm Technomic, the global “meal kit” market topped $1 billion in 2015.
The kits offer fresh ingredients and a variety of foods, which they say may provide customers with healthier meal options. They also encourage cooking at home and eating as a family -- an alternative to fast-food meals on the run.
Many of the services feature plant-based foods in most of their recipes, which is a plus, says Plano, TX-based dietitian Angela Lemond, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“They're also offering people the ability to have a home-cooked meal without having to go through all the legwork, and we know that one big reason why people don't make dinner at home is time," she says.
Each of the services has its own twist on the model, but the basics are similar: for a monthly fee, you browse a website full of tantalizing recipes and choose the ones you want to make each week (usually two or three meals). A box appears on your doorstep, with step-by-step recipes and pre-portioned ingredients to make them.
Prices vary by company and plan, but for two meals a week for a family of 4, you'll spend about $69.92 at Blue Apron and $59.95 at HelloFresh. Three meals a week for two on Plated runs about $72 per week.
“I’ve kept all of the recipes and still use many of them, but I haven’t used the service in a while now, because I’ve learned to be more inventive and adventurous as a home cook,” Daulton says.
Convenience, access to a variety of foods, and trying something new top customers’ reasons to try the plans. But what about nutrition? One expert cites concerns about the amount of fat and sodium in meal kit recipes, as well as portion sizes.
Food freshness and quality is a plus to meal kit services, says Tim Harlan, MD, a former restaurateur who is now associate chief of general internal medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans. He launched a culinary medicine program at Tulane that trains doctors to teach their patients healthy eating habits.
He asked panels of fellow foodies to taste-test recipes from several of the major services.
“The ingredients can be very good,” he says. “We got some shrimp that were remarkably fresh and beautiful, for example.”
But he also found a few drawbacks. Those included:
- Cost. “We broke it down by the per-person cost and the value of the food items, and on average, you’re basically paying someone $70 an hour to shop for you,” he says. “Of course, if you don’t have time to shop, that could be worth it to you, depending on the quality of the ingredients.”
- Nutritional value. “Most of the recipes are tremendously high in sodium, fat, or both, and the portion sizes are often too large.” If you turn each two-person meal into a three-person meal, you’d be better off, he suggests.
- Waste in packaging. “A big box, lots of insulation, three ice packs, none of which you’re ever going to use again,” he says.
Rebecca Lewis, RDN, who sets nutritional standards for HelloFresh, says the company provides nutrition information with its recipe ingredients.
"It's not our stance that we are a health food company, but we really care about health and wellness,” Lewis says.
HelloFresh also identifies “all eight major allergens and let you know which specific ingredients in recipes contain those allergens,” Lewis says.
Some other companies, such as Plated, offer nutritional information on their websites.
Blue Apron offers calorie information for its recipes, but says on its website that it doesn’t provide full nutritional information since the exact nutrient amount depends on produce sizes and how much olive oil and salt are used. Company representatives declined to comment further.
Sarah Null, a mom of preteen twins in Huntsville, AL, tried both HelloFresh and Blue Apron. Her family has stayed with Blue Apron for almost a year.
“Some of these ingredients are not easy to find here, and it’s so much easier to have them arrive on our doorstep every week. I’m not having to run around from store to store to find the one ingredient I’m missing,” she says.
It’s also helped her introduce her children to new foods. Recently, she says, “Everybody went wild” for a recipe of oven-roasted chicken with adobo sauce and mixed mushrooms.
“My kids don’t ordinarily like mushrooms,” she says, “but they raved about these!”
Stasia Ward Kehoe, a writer and mother of four in Woodinville, WA, tried Blue Apron but didn’t stick with the service for long. “The ingredient quality was great, but the recipes just took too much time. And while the kids liked some of the recipes, others were just too much. The boys want the same six things every week.”
With some tweaking, Harlan believes customers can also improve the health benefits of their home-delivery meal kit services.
“These services might make sense if you want to cook nicer food and you can’t get some ingredients in your area, the high-quality fish, or certain vegetables like Swiss chard, or udon noodles,” he says. “If you do that, just cut down on some of the salt and the oil they tell you to use.”
Harlan says he thinks there’s definitely something to the meal service plan model, but the execution needs improving. “Still, people can certainly learn from this,” Harlan says. “If you use the service for a couple of months and figure out the techniques, and find a half dozen or so recipes you want to keep using on your own, it can be worth it.”