I’ve been intrigued by the rapid growth of meal delivery services like Blue Apron, Plated and Hello Fresh, companies which deliver ingredients and recipe cards straight to your door, leaving only the cooking to you. No more grocery shopping or figuring out a week’s meal plan and, because the food is carefully portioned, you’re left with fewer wasted ingredients.
Given that I do have the time to shop for and and plan my family’s meals (even if I’d sometimes love to offload those tasks), I could never justify paying for one of these services. But last week I was treated to two free meals from Blue Apron, referred by a sweet friend who’s a current customer. At last, a chance to see how this whole meal delivery concept works!
For those of you who share my curiosity, here’s a recap of my experience and some thoughts about it:
My box contained the makings of two meals – Cheesy Broccoli Calzones with Tomato Dipping Sauce and Chicken Khao Soi with Crispy Wanton Noodles – which met my stated preference of one poultry-based entree and one vegetarian. But as soon as I saw that calzone recipe, I realized we were going to have some problems with this whole concept of Meals Dictated from On High.
First, I have one child who would rather skip dinner entirely than have his calzone corrupted by a green vegetable. I have another child who’s temporarily avoiding dairy but who likes most vegetables – with the exception of broccoli! And, as a small woman of a certain age, I’d much rather indulge in carbs and cheese at my favorite pizza place than blow those calories on a random weeknight meal.
Nonetheless, the next night we came home late from a school event and I had no choice but to turn to my Blue Apron box and forge ahead. So I got creative: I subbed out some spinach for the broccoli and sauteéd it with onion; I created one calzone with only onion and cheese; I skipped the step of mixing the mozzarella cheese with the vegetables so one spinach-and-onion calzone could be left dairy-free (and in that calzone I sprinkled a little nutritional yeast, a vegan trick for creating cheesy flavor); I created two spinach, onion and mozzarella calzones; and then I used the leftover broccoli in a stir-fry which I ate instead of a calzone, along with some seitan. Here’s what our meal looked like – not quite what the Blue Apron people had in mind!
But despite the fact that we couldn’t work with a one-size-fits-all meal, the calzones – in all their many iterations – were a definite hit:
The next night, though, I vowed to stick to the Blue Apron recipe for Chicken Khao Soi as closely as possible. (Since I’m a pescatarian, I had to come up with another entree for myself, but that’s par for the course whenever I serve a one-dish, meat-based meal.) Here’s what that meal looked like:
This dish involved soft wanton noodles, crispy wonton noodles, chicken and kale in a lime-coconut-curry broth sweetened with a bit of coconut palm sugar. I took a sip of the broth before serving and let me tell you, it was delicious. The family agreed – not a drop leftover!
So, here are the pros and cons of my Blue Apron experience:
My photos don’t do justice to the huge amount of packaging these services require. Every individual item for both meals, right down to the two tablespoons of soy sauce needed for the soup, came in its own labeled plastic bottle, bag, zipper pouch or other container. Similarly, the box itself came with several plastic ice packs, and of course there’s the cardboard box itself. True, all of these items can be recycled if the requisite programs exist in your community, and Blue Apron even allows you to ship the waste back to them for free, though that program isn’t yet available in all areas. Still, knowing that many people will likely just toss these items in the trash, it’s hard not to consider the environmental impact here.
Portions May Be Skimpy
My family doesn’t typically eat to excess, yet those four calzones were barely enough for our dinner – and that’s only because I passed up one of the calzones for my stir-fry. Similarly, I’ve seen on the Blue Apron website complaints that a recipe for four people might include, e.g, just four chicken thighs. So if you have big eaters in your family, portion size could be an issue.
Someone Else Is Doing Your Shopping
As a general rule, I never buy non-organic poultry and rarely buy non-organic produce. Similarly, I try to avoid products with artificial additives, especially when there are good alternatives available. But as far as I could tell, the produce and poultry from Blue Apron were conventionally-raised, and I noticed that the wonton noodles contained artificial yellow dye, which would be a deal-breaker for me in the supermarket. So while it’s nice to have someone else do your shopping, the downside is losing all control over the nature and quality of the ingredients.
You Have No Say In the Meal Selections
Other than being able to generally select for, say, beef and fish entrees, using a meal service means dutifully following recipes you might not have chosen on your own. So even though the modified broccoli calzones were a hit, I probably wouldn’t have chosen that entree to start with, given my family’s unique constraints.
You Have No Say In the Meal Selections
Wait, isn’t that a “con?” Well, as I discovered with the Chicken Khao Soi, it can also be freeing and educational to let someone else take over meal planning. What better way to get out of a recipe rut than have someone nudge you into preparing dishes you’d never think of on your own?
You Can Try Novel Ingredients Without Risk
One reason why I might not have chosen that Chicken Khao Soi from a cookbook is the need to buy a bag of coconut palm sugar and a jar of yellow curry paste, neither of which I might use again. But because every Blue Apron ingredient is carefully pre-measured, you never have to figure out how to use up the excess. And Blue Apron takes full advantage of this feature to expose its customers to all kinds of exotic foods, everything from freekeh and saba to tatsoi and labneh. For anyone with an adventurous foodie bent, that kind of risk-free exploration is really fun – and a great way to expand your cooking repertoire.
“Cooking Lessons in a Box”
My blogging friend Brenda Thompson of Meal Planning Magic said on Facebook that Blue Apron is like “cooking lessons in a box,” and I totally agree. Even if you lack confidence in the kitchen, you’re going to learn to cook despite yourself after a few weeks of following Blue Apron’s step-by-step photos and recipes. (The company also has video cooking demos on its site.) And that’s a great thing these days, when too many people feel they lack the skills to feed themselves well at home.
For me, the best part of the Blue Apron experience was trying out two new recipes as well as some new ingredients, but it also reaffirmed my belief that I don’t really need an outside service to do my shopping and meal-planning. But for a family that’s too busy to handle these tasks during the week (and which can afford the service), a company like Blue Apron could be just the thing.
Meanwhile, I was delighted to see that Blue Apron freely shares many of its recipes, which I’d assumed it would provide only to subscribers. So while this probably wasn’t the result the company hoped for when it allowed my friend to sign me up for two free meals, I do plan to cook from Blue Apron recipes quite a bit on my own!
Have you used a meal service like Blue Apron or Plated? What’s your experience been like? Let us all know in a comment below.
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