The idea to subscribe to a meal delivery service did not dawn on me until one night when I was browsing the New York Times Cooking website one Saturday in early September. I came across this Spring Ramen Bowl with snap peas and asparagus recipe, and was excited for a moment — until I opened my kitchen pantry to find there was nothing but ramen. No snap peas, no asparagus, no ginger and no lemons.
It was disheartening to find out that I was in no position to see any of the amazing recipes morph into a beautiful dish, for, as the Chinese saying goes, “A good housewife cannot cook without rice.”
Week 1, Chef’d: First Foray
There are a slew of meal box delivery services in the market now, which at first glance seems contrary to the perception of the slow death of home-cooking. Research shows that 2015 is the first time in 25 years that Americans spent more money in restaurants and bars than in grocery stores.
But do you have to follow food blogs and watch Jamie Oliver shows every day to cook well? As someone who has never possessed a good-looking set of acrylic prep bowls nor felt the need to, I know I used to believe the answer is yes.
Ever felt that itch for a dinner date at home? Chef’d is your answer. Unlike other meal box services, Chef’d does not feature a subscription. What it does is the same: sending timely, pre-proportioned fresh ingredients to your door based on recipes developed by renowned chefs and culinary experts.
Pictured above: package from Chef’d:
Cost and Selection
Chef’d is a platform for a myriad of subscription meal plans as well as recipe-based, pay-as-you-go meal delivery services. For subscription plans, you can opt out of any protein — say, poultry — and many offer gluten-free options as well. For individual dishes, they give recommendations for weight-conscious customers, those with diabetes, etc.
I selected two beef recipes because they seemed popular based on success stories from old customers online. Each recipe (with two servings each) cost me $29 (since it was my first order, I got a $10 discount).
However, price for subscription meal plans creeps up really quickly if you are a regular subscriber — frequently up to $40. Would a college student spend an average $15 on a meal that he/she has to spend an hour to cook from scratch? I think not.
I was pleasantly surprised when I received my first box. Delivery was timely. All ingredients were neatly packed in plastic bags, with proper labeling and carefully layered. At the bottom were ice packs that kept the meat cool. The inside of the box was lined with insulated packaging. The origins of the ingredients were printed and conspicuously shown: The Russet potatoes were from Idaho, the peeled garlics were from China and all others from different locales in California. Everything was tidy when I took them out: no spillovers, no soggy veggies, everything fresh, with the right looks and textures.
Pictured above: packaged ingredients for Beef Bourguignon, one of Chef’d’s most popular recipes.
Each recipe comes with a recipe card that details each step. Following it was easy enough, given my cautiousness. However, as one online comment points out, cooking the recipe took way more than the specified “50 minutes,” and it was not clear if it was only the cooking time or if it included prep time.
The recipe card had a clear layout, though pictures were not particularly helpful because there was one for each step but each step included as many as eight sub-steps. The recipe was complex, but I liked that the ingredients’ names, size, cooking time and degree of doneness were bolded to ensure I made no mistakes. The last thing I wanted was to accidentally lay my precious ingredients to waste due to misreading the recipe, which brings me to my next point.
Speaking of waste, I couldn’t help but observe how a tiny clove of garlic and even a small pinch starch had its own packaging. I was given all I needed (except pantry items like salt and oil), no more, no less, which eliminates food wastage. On the other hand, the amount of plastic used is atrocious. My garbage can quickly filled and I had to recycle a whole bunch of extra packaging from the ice packs.
The two dishes I ordered both tasted great. I especially liked Carne Con Papas, which proved to taste even better as leftovers (of course, there were none left). The beef in beef bourguignon, braised in rich slurry and cooking wine, had a complex flavor that made the complications worth it. I loved that it also came with wine pairing suggestions, showing a level of sophisticated understanding on flavors and taste.
Pictured above: Chef’d’s Beef Bourguignon with Mashed Potatoes and Herbed Green Beans.
Weeks 2 & 3, Blue Apron: Ready for a New Challenge
My positive experience with Chef’d spurred me to try new delivery services that involve more regimented, albeit still flexible cooking routines. I figured it was time to stretch that cooking muscle I didn’t know I had. My kitchen started bursting with energy again: My stove is warm half of the day, my fridge is full and I start having faith in my ability to cook.
Cost and Selection
Blue Apron has a two-person plan and a family plan. The two-person plan costs $9.99 per serving and delivers three recipes (two servings each) per week on a day of your choice. The family plan costs $8.74 per serving and delivers two or four recipes (both four servings each). To help you ease into the financial commitment, they offer three free meals for your first order.
Like Chef’d and most other meal box delivery service I researched, Blue Apron offers opt-out options for different dietary needs. For the two-person plan, you can choose three out of six recipes they have for a given week and you can take a peek at the recipes for weeks ahead and choose to skip a week if you want to. You can even change the day of delivery. All viewing and selection can be done on Blue Apron’s app.
Nevertheless, each delivery is only changeable a week ahead of the time, which makes time management a crucial determinant of your experience with Blue Apron. Besides, you can’t really choose any three out of the six; often the website prompts that a certain combination is unavailable. I hesitated for a moment but decided to give it a try.
Delivery was prompt and the packaging looked more or less the same as Chef’d. I did notice that despite having more items than the Chef’d box (after all, it has two more servings than my Chef’d order), the Blue Apron box is not layered and everything sort of lie on top of each other in a haphazard way, though most ingredients were intact, except occasionally the boxes with aromatics and herbs would pop open.
The ingredients seemed very fine and in season, though I would like to see a detailed list of origins for the ingredients like the one Chef’d had, since Blue Apron claimed to select the freshest ingredients from local farms.
What I especially loved was the flyer that provides you with tidbits of knowledge on that week’s “star ingredient.” For example, last week’s was radish: I learned that the radish’s piquancy is due to “the presence of mustard oil,” and that the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, celebrates the Night of the Radishes, a radish carving competition every year. This served as a vivid reminder to me that food connects the home to nature.
Compared to Chef’d, the directions on Blue Apron’s recipes are much more succinct and straightforward due to the fact that they are designed to be beginner-friendly and easy to follow. Each step helps you finish one stage of cooking, and it goes in a slightly formulaic manner: prep the ingredients, make the slaw/salsa/salad, etc., make the meat, finish and plate, etc. Cooking time is accurate and includes a separate estimated prep time.
However, I sometimes find Blue Apron’s recipes lacking in depth, especially in the cooking style that I’m relatively familiar with. Still, this is tied to another great strength of cooking with Blue Apron — I felt more confident with my cooking skills and was emboldened to experiment, while with Chef’d I felt lost if I missed a small step in the recipe. After cooking the Cuban blackened chicken, I made my own blackened chicken with chili I brought from China and made myself a weekday meal with the cherry tomatoes and mushrooms I bought on my way home. After gaining experience cooking baked egg potato hash with Blue Apron, I often made my own breakfast hash with ingredients that weren’t included in the original recipe — heirloom tomato, butternut squash and zucchini.
I learned the use of herb seasonings, and the short videos in the app taught me how to zest a lemon, mince garlic efficiently, separate kale leaves from stems, etc. Over the two weeks I gained knowledge I’d always wanted to know, and gained proficiency in skills I never knew I lacked.
Pictured above: package from Blue Apron:
Pictured above: Blue Apron’s Crispy Catfish with Kale-Farro Salad & Warm Grape Relish.
Pictured above: Blue Apron’s Blackened Chicken with Zucchini Rice, Corn & Cherry Tomatoes.
Pictured above: my own chili blackened chicken with cherry tomatoes and bella mushrooms.
Again, overuse of plastic packaging was an issue, though Blue Apron did offer free recycling services. One sad thing was that Blue Apron missed ingredients twice out of the three total deliveries I received. Once they did not include the “knick knacks” bag with Mexican Crema and the Ancho Chili Powder for the blackened chicken dish, and another time they missed the baguette for the Beef and Shishito Open-Faced Sandwiches. To be fair, I received a prompt response from customer service team and got refunds on both occasions. I guess this is a result of the enormous logistical difficulties Blue Apron faces: Hundreds and thousands of ingredient units are packaged, boxed and delivered each week all over the US, which poses a nightmare if any link in the chain is broken. There have been discussions about the troubles Blue Apron faces with its warehouses and workers on Henry-Ford-style assembly lines. In a word, be prepared to fly to your local grocery store for missing ingredients.
Pictured above: Blue Apron’s Korean Pork Tacos with Spicy Red Cabbage Slaw.
Week 4, Purple Carrot: A Tortuous Road to Commitment
The week I started receiving packages from Purple Carrot was the week I started having trouble. Cooking is rewarding but laborious, a habit that once forgone cannot be picked up again easily, though your frame of mind still lures you to keep it up.
Cost and Selection
Purple Carrot is purely vegetarian and I decided to give it a try despite being non-vegetarian myself. The pricing plans are $11.32 per plate for three meals for two people per week and $9.25 per plate for two meals for four people per week (first order gets $20 off). At this point it becomes obvious that for all these services, families plans are a better deal than two-person plans, and after three weeks I was already finding myself caught in an impossible cycle: If I go away for fall break, what do I do with my delivery? If I stay, can I keep up with all the work?
Purple Carrot does not allow you to choose your weekly menu, though you can still skip a week or cancel entirely as long as you do so at least one week beforehand. In fact, as I’m writing this, I realized I already missed the “skip” deadline and that the next shipment will contain a corn chowder for which a blender is needed to make the purée, which is something I don’t have.
Delivery was timely and on par with the other services. Like Blue Apron, the “knick knacks,” small ingredients like spices, were packed together and easy to identify. Because there were no meat items, only a small quantity of ice was needed, which saved me some heavy-lifting.
So far I’ve only cooked one recipe — a black bean and kale bowl — because I was caught in a slew of exams before fall break. When I finally turned around to check my fridge, the packets of ingredients seemed daunting after becoming accustomed to take-out food and quick stir-frys. I was not confident with cooking only vegetables, and I was lukewarm about the idea of making my own guacamole and peeling a plantain.
But really, this recipe is insanely easy to follow (much like Blue Apron’s recipes) and fun to do. I invited a friend over to cook it with me: We smashed the black beans with the clean bottom of a mason jar; we sliced open an avocado and licked the knife and squeezed a lime with our bare hands. You can never feel jaded with these simple activities that ultimately become the highlight of your evening.
Pictured above: Purple Carrot’s Black Bean and Kale Bowl with Roasted Plantains and Guacamole.
Pictured above: package from Purple Carrot:
- Thai Tofu Salad with Asian Pear and Ginger-Lime Dressing
- Black Bean and Kale Bowl with Roasted Plantains and Guacamole
- Miso-Chili “Meatballs” with Brown Rice Spaghetti
After carefully evaluating all my experiences with meal box delivery services, I still found Purple Carrot refreshing because vegetarian dishes are harder to come by for a weekday meal than, say, pre-prepared stew. Purple Carrot gave me a “kale yeah” moment and helped me reclaim my love for kale. Still, I would like to see more options each week and a shorter modification window for the next delivery.
A week ago, I was drooling over an online recipe I found but couldn’t do anything to realize it. Exactly one week later, I was hunched over my tiny kitchen sink. Knife in hand, I carefully sliced up a green bell pepper while the beef was marinating on my dining table. Meanwhile, a stew starter was simmering in my sauce pot and with an iPhone in my apron pocket counting down three minutes, I was apparently almost there. All these were thanks to meal delivery services.
If you are okay with the cost and some occasional hiccups, try these out for yourself! You’ll be surprised at how much you can accomplish with a little help.