Meal Kit Delivery Services, Useful or Not?

I've read any number of blog posts and articles about the utility of Blue Apron and other meal delivery kit services. Many people love them and the articles I've read have generally been positive. Even the Grey Lady, the New York Times, has announced that it is getting into the meal kit delivery business. 

I've spent a bit of time trying to understand what the real benefits are, if any, to these services. My gut feeling  as a home cook and culinary instructor, was that they don't actually save enough time. I would question people who'd used them about what they liked, and why, and what they didn't like. I believe strongly that cooking at home is a skill that helps us all, and there are many ways to achieve that . For some, it's second nature. For others, it might mean a personal chef for weeknight dinners. For those who want or need to learn, there are resources from web based learning, cooking schools and private instructors like me. I was grappling with what this kind of service added to the mix. To really evaluate a thing, I figured I'd better try it out for myself! So, earlier this month, I joined Blue Apron for two weeks. 

The upshot was that while I found the delivery process convenient, the ingredients fresh, and the dinners tasty, my overall impression was that there wasn't enough time saving and that the food was not as good or as healthy as I could cook for myself in less time and for less money to really have a value added. In terms of health, I found the meals too heavy on the carbs and even the vegetarian meals could have contained more vegetables. And, as the food arrived on a Monday, I felt that these had to be cooked before the weekend, and so, felt locked in to cooking what they sent even if I'd had a late night working and really would have just preferred to make scrambled eggs and a salad that night. I think these meal kits feed into the perfectionism we feel about home cooked meals -- that to qualify as home cooking they have to be restaurant quality. I think the sweet spot for successful home cooking (taste, ease, cost, health), is larger than we think, with plenty of room for short cuts on weeknights still producing delicious meals that our families will love. 

To conduct a proper test, and in a departure from my usual adaptive method of using savory recipes as a guidepost only, I tried to use the kit as presented. I followed the recipes exactly and did not do any advance preparation. I had signed us up for the 2 person omnivore plan, which provided us three meals per week. The box arrived early in the day on Monday (they only guarantee a 9 pm delivery on Mondays, so its earlier arrival was a very pleasant surprise) so that I could make one of the dinners that very night. 

The week's meals arrived in one box with the recipe cards sitting on top, so the first task was to break down the ingredients into three piles on my counter, one for each recipe. I then put the perishable ingredients into the refrigerator in separate sections so that I wouldn't miss one when I went to cook that recipe. Then I did the same on a corner of the kitchen counter with the packaged items that didn't require refrigeration. One thing I did really like was that in each box I had a card called "from the farm" that featured a less common vegetable included in my kit.

I probably spent a half hour organizing the ingredients and then I was left with a box to recycle, as well as two enormous ice packs and a multitude of plastic bags and containers. Almost all the criticisms I've read of Blue Apron mention the amount of packaging so I won't go into it here, and I did recycle much of it, but found the instructions on what to do with the ice packs surprising and hard to envision doing. I also took a quick look at the expected preparation times for the three recipes to decide which I'd make on which night, depending on the estimated time and my schedule.

That night, I got out the ingredients and recipe card for the first recipe and took a glance at the clock. Each night that I cooked a Blue Apron meal, I took note of how long it took to prepare from the time I got out the ingredients, until the time I plated the dinner. For all but one, my time was within the range of the preparation time they provided. One took me longer. None took me less time and I cook for a living. All took between a 1/2 hour and an hour, which, in a vacuum, is not an unreasonable amount of time. 

But, while it's nice to make a recipe that seems more restaurant like and learn about some new ingredients, I found that some of the recipes made the work harder and slower than it needed to be and I found the recipes to be confusing at times, which meant I had to slow down and take time to figure out what they meant. In a couple of instances the first week, before I figured out their system, the photos didn't match up with what I thought I was reading and since I'm visual, I followed the pictures and later realized that the instruction wanted me to do something else. For example, in cooking potatoes and peas in the same pot, the photo shows them in a strainer in the pot together. Of course if I was cooking on my own, I might realize that peas and potatoes take different amounts of time to cook and put the potatoes in first, but on autopilot I put them in together as in the photo and later realized the instruction was to put the peas in after the potatoes had cooked for 6 - 8 minutes. Not a disaster, but it did make for less bright peas. 

The next night, I tried a vegetarian enchilada recipe, which was delicious, but took me one full hour and had me making a modified salsa verde (green enchilada sauce). In real life, this is not something I would do on a weeknight. Making a salsa like this is wonderful, but it's a project that I'd tackle on a weekend or a less busy day and make enough to freeze for another meal or two too. In fact, the lack of leftovers or economies of scale really bothered me. It's incredibly inefficient to make salsa verde in an individual serving and inefficient to make enchiladas for just one night and not enough for a second meal or at least a couple of lunches. The weirdest part of this recipe was the serving size. They provide four tortillas and the meal was for two people. When it came to plating, they advised using 2/3 of the baked enchiladas for the two plates. Seriously? 2/3 of 4? Why? If the reason was to keep the calorie count under some particular number, why not cut back on the very generous amount of cheese provided. I ended up serving P two of the enchiladas, and myself one, and then later ate another half and had the other half for a light lunch the next day. So, we both ate more than their suggested serving of 1 1/3 enchiladas, which might have been appropriate if served alongside a nice salad, but would have left us snacking all evening. 

I will say that we liked the General Tso's chicken, but it called for about 4 times as much cornstarch as needed for a home version and a whole lot of white rice and only a small portion of snow peas. If making this kind of meal at home, I'd probably have doubled the amount of vegetable and cut back the starch. 

I think my biggest complaint as a cooking teacher, is that these meals didn't really teach me methods and techniques that are applicable to many dishes and which would allow me to improvise with what I have on hand. They provide everything in a box, which isn't how we find our pantries day to day. There is much we can do to keep our pantries, refrigerators, and freezers ready to make weeknight meals, and simple skills we can learn so that we can quickly scan our supplies and figure out what to make. I felt that some of the time I was cooking a more complicated meal with Blue Apron I could have used more efficiently to make up my own meals and plan my shopping. 

Plus, while it's nice for family members to get to eat something different and prettily presented every night, it seemed like a big burden on the cook to make a completely different meal each night, with no crossover ingredients and nothing prepared ahead or packaged. To me, some of these were weekend dinners and not really weeknight friendly. 

For those of you who would like to exercise the cook on the fly muscle, here's an article by my friend, Christine, a chef and food writer, with some handy substitutions for common ingredients you might not have on hand.