Now that the meal kit delivery business has sautéed into a $1.5BN industry, with room to rise threefold in the next few years, it’s no surprise that every few weeks another cook enters the already crowded kitchen. The first pioneer was Blue Apron, and then in less time than it takes to slice a hot knife through soft butter, we have Home Chef, Green Chef, Chef’d, Peach Dish, Purple Carrot, Takeout Kit, Terra’s Kitchen, Just Add Cooking, Sun Basket and of course Martha Stewart’s Marley Spoon. They all follow a similar premise: For around $8 – $12 a serving, you’ll receive a weekly kit with step-by-step photographic recipes and all the necessary fresh ingredients, pre-measured and portioned out (except for salt, pepper and oil).
No shopping. No schlepping. No waste (aside from disposing of a deluge of packaging). And for 30+ minutes of deliberate action, virgin cooks have sprouted up all across the country. Some say it’s the choice of a new generation who want to be empowered to cook with confidence. But perhaps these kits are just as appropriate for any knife-skill-deprived newlywed as they are for every empty nester, or for those suffering from terminal recipe rut or incurable ordering-in-fluenza.
In my case, it was the thought of pruning back my Saturday morning chores (planning the week’s menus, compiling a lengthy list, schlepping to two or more grocery stores, making on-the-spot compromises due to inventory issues, standing in endless check-out lines, schlepping everything home, packing it all away…) and my curiosity for how well these services deliver on what I refer to as the EFR: the effort-to-flavor ratio. Did all the chopping, stirring and zesting actually yield a delicious dish, or have I just spent the past half hour trashing my kitchen for a ho-hum prison yard meal?
While some of the other services were still being conceived of, Blue Apron cartons were already showing on doorsteps all across the country. Starting from a perfect score, big blue lost points in my book for burying steps within other steps. Just after I’d doused the entire contents of a perfectly darling little bottle of white vinegar onto the salad I was assembling, did I read further to notice that I needed to save half of it for step 8. Really? They lost another point when the spinach I was sautéeing shrank and shrank until I was left with a portion scarcely big enough for a Barbie picnic. And I found it more than irritating that my end-product didn’t come close to resembling the mouthwatering photograph on the recipe card. Two more points gone after taking well over 45 minutes to complete a 30 minute recipe, and the near-divorce inducing cleanup for requiring a pot, a frying pan, 2 chopping boards, a zester, a grater, a strainer and a handful of mixing bowls. (Not surprisingly, Blue Apron quickly put up a kitchen appliance microsite as an added revenue source. Duh.) The final straw was due to my own boredom with the über-reliance on lemons as the main (and sometimes only) flavor ingredient for meals 1 through 8.
EFR (Effort-to-flavor ratio): 8:3. Moving on.
Responding to a promo coupon in the mail, I tried the more flexible alternative to Blue Apron. Plated permits more of a say in terms of what you prefer to cook and how many meals you might need per week. We also enjoyed the superior quality of the proteins, but once the newness (and the initial promo offers) wore off, reinforcements were sent in, in the form of an armada of carbs to crowd the plate, fill the stomach and grow the bottom line. Still way too many steps, with not much more than a limp handshake of a flavor profile.
EFR: 8:4. Next!
So the big attraction with Hello Fresh was that Jamie Oliver was supposedly behind this service. Turns out, only some of his recipes materialized – nearly none of the time. But the upside was a larger variety of menu options with a 3-point sliding scale of difficulty, (i.e. mess, more mess and most mess!) Good news on the packaging though, these guys inserted all the ingredients required for each recipe into a single carton, reducing some of the environmental threat. But the only adjective I can call to mind that best describes the taste would be “unmemorable”.
EFR: 7:5 B’Bye!
Although many of the other services claim to deliver pesticide (friendly), hormone (lite), (virtually) free-range and (scarcely) GMO produce – only Green Chef offers a guarantee that every single ingredient is USDA certified Organic. Here the meal options are for Ominvores, Carnivores, Vegevores, Paleo’s, Vegans or Gluten-freebies. Most of the packaging (and there is still a monsoon of it) is either compostable, reusable, recyclable or chewable. I was initially intimidated by the sheer number of ingredients I kept unpacking from the box, but when I started reading the labels, I realized that Santa’s little green helpers had taken care of a ton of the prep work for me already. Sauces, dressings, infusions, drizzles, toppings and dips arrive ready to cook. The various grains, flours and breadcrumbs all have secret spices included. The edamame are already steamed. So is the corn. The sweet potato turns up mysteriously diced, and the cabbage and carrots have already been shredded and wedded together. With less than 5 minutes of chopping, and a brilliant utensil re-use strategy, the entire ordeal is well under 25 minutes to dinner. We decided to start with the vegetarian meals, and will probably stick with them due to the incomparable dimensions of flavor, inventiveness and originality, (and to give my cardiologist a better night’s sleep). I had no idea how little I’d miss lamb after tasting a Portabella Souvlaki, or a Meatball made entirely from beets and bulgur wheat. The only downsides are the variety of fritters that require deep-frying, and the fact that none of the recipes reveal the actual measurements of each ingredient – keeping the recipes shrouded in unrepeatable secrecy.
EFR: 4:10 Now we’re talking.
Not sure what my next step will be after this, but if I was pressed to pick an Act 5, it would probably be Martha’s Marley Spoon. After that…I’ll probably resort to the old school of sweating over a hot phone until I get my hands on that prime-time four-top at Le Coucou.