Are Meal Kits Worth It? A Dietitian’s Experience Testing 4 Meal Kits So You Don’t Have To
By Avance Care’s Registered Dietitian Christina Dauer, MPH, RD, LDN, CDE Are you very busy with work or other life priorities and meal planning is tough to fit into your schedule? Or maybe you are just looking to mix things up in your weekly meal routine. If this resonates with you, home-delivered meal kits may be a convenient way to add variety to your weekly meal plan while taking away the weekly grind of meal planning. Even as a registered dietitian, I decided to get some outside support with meal planning for my busy weeknights. Experimenting with different meal kits has decreased the time I spend meal planning — affording me extra time on the weekends — and has increased the variety of my meals. I love to cook, and I still meal plan for a few lunches a week and dinners on the weekends, but thankfully, my weeknight meals are already accounted for! Meal planning is a core habit to develop for health and wellness. It gets rid of the food decision fatigue that can drain us and lead us to make less healthy choices by the time we get home at night. There are many ways to meal plan, and meal kits are just one of the ways. In this blog, I will review 4 of the most popular meal kits, discussing the pros and cons of each, and suggesting ways to optimize the nutrition of these meals. Here we go!
Hello Fresh arrives conveniently packed, with the ingredients for each meal entirely contained in their own paper bag. This box was Korean Beef Bimbimbap and Pulled Chicken Rice Bowls. I found that Hello Fresh was the easiest to cook of the 4 kits reviewed. The portion sizes recommended for most of the meal kits are not personalized to an individual’s nutrition needs, so adjustments may be needed to meet your personal health goals. In this case, there were plenty of leftovers for lunch, making the kit even more cost effective!
- Easy, appropriate for beginner cooks, and most recipes are 30 minutes or less. It is also easy to replicate recipes on your own.
- Offers a meal kit option that shows you how to have lunch leftovers for the next day
- Cost effective option at $9.99 per serving for 3 meals/week (2 servings each). Shipping is free if ordering 3 or more recipes per week. Otherwise, shipping is $7.99.
- Among the lowest variety of options—9 choices per week
- Less accommodating of dietary needs—minimal gluten free options or vegetarian/vegan options available. Does list nut free and egg free options. Has a Veggie Plan, however, only 3 recipes are available to choose from. Vegetarian options rely primarily on cheese as the source of protein.
- Lower produce quality, based on kits received.
Blue Apron arrives in an insulated box; however, the ingredients are not neatly packed into their own containers. This box was Peach Coconut Chicken Curry, Chipotle Sweet Potato Quinoa with Marinated Vegetables, and a Mushroom Beef Burger. As you can see, the ingredients all come separated from the recipes, crowding 3 levels in my refrigerator. Once again, the portion sizes recommended for Blue Apron are large for most people, so I got a few lunches out of these as well.
- Options are more gourmet, this is a pro if you are someone who appreciates cooking
- Cost effective option at $9.99 per serving for 3 meals/week (2 servings each). Shipping is free if ordering $50.00 or more per week, otherwise it is $5.99
- Good produce quality, especially considering affordable price.
- The lowest variety of options among kits compared—8 choices per week
- Not very accommodating of dietary needs—poor identification of allergens in foods. Not a great choice for those with gluten intolerance or Celiac disease.
- Ease of preparation is moderate and may be too involved for some home cooks. Can be difficult to recreate recipes due to some specialized ingredients.
Sunbasket arrives in an insulated box, with the ingredients for each recipe enclosed in a paper bag, making it easy to store in the fridge and grab when needed. I’ve tried Sunbasket quite a few times and I find it to have among the quickest and easiest recipes to prepare. Some options include Quinoa Cakes with Peach and Tomato Salad, Yucatan Chicken Tostadas, and Pesto Feta Pasta Salad with tomatoes. I often add some extra produce from my garden to my meal kits in the summer to add extra nutrition. I’ve noticed that the calories in Sunbasket meals are typically lower than other kits and they offer recipes for specific dietary needs, such as heart healthy recipes.
- Easy preparation of meals — offers many 20-minute and One Pan meals. The sauces are pre-made for ease of preparation and fewer ingredients. Although this is helpful, it can be difficult to recreate recipes due to some specialized ingredients and pre-made sauces.
- 18 recipe choices weekly — offers organic options for those looking to reduce exposure to harmful pesticides. It is tailored towards those with food allergies and sensitivities, offering a large variety of gluten free, dairy free and soy free options. It also offers a variety of vegan and vegetarian offerings weekly and includes healthier sources of vegetarian protein such as tofu, tempeh and beans.
- Highest nutritional value of the meal kits tested—many meals are plant-based and use a wide variety of fresh produce. Each week also includes a Sunbasket cookbook highlighting all 18 meal options for that week, and includes extra educational information, such as a healthy smoothie guide and how to make your own trail mix.
- Most expensive of the meal kits, at $11.99 per serving, with an additional $.6.99 charge for shipping at all price points.
- Some concerns with quality of produce based on meal kits received. Produce does not come individually wrapped within the brown bags, which does decrease packaging waste; however, if one produce item is going bad, the other vegetables are more likely to be affected.
- More difficult to cancel Sunbasket, customer service requires you to call them directly to cancel, instead of being able to cancel online or in-app.
Plated comes with each meal contained in a clear plastic bag, and within that, individual ingredients may be contained in their own bag. This leads to more packaging and waste; however, I found that Plated has the freshest produce of the kits tested. Options have included Peruvian Style Grilled Chicken with Avocado Salad and Aji Verde Moroccan Spiced Meatballs and Smashed Sweet Potato with Feta Butter, Spinach and Quinoa. Plated is the most gourmet of the kits I’ve tried.
- Excellent quality produce
- 20 recipe choices weekly–offers gluten free options weekly, and a few vegetarian options. Also includes 2 dessert options weekly for an $8.00 add-on fee.
- Excellent customer service. One of my boxes arrived late, about an hour past their 8:00 PM deadline. I signed on their app and immediately live chatted with a representative, who gave us a free meal box to make up for this, and an $8.00 dessert credit!
- Higher price point, at $11.95 per serving. Shipping is only free if you are ordering $60 or more each week.
- For those looking for quick and easy, Plated might not be for you. However, if you enjoy cooking, the recipes are gourmet and highly flavorful, so the extra preparation time is worth it.
- Repeats recipes more often than the other kits. This is not necessarily a con if you find a great recipe and you want to add it to your rotation regularly; however, if you crave infinite dietary variety this could be a drawback.
Meal kits can be a convenient option for those who enjoy cooking but want to decrease the time spent meal planning and shopping. You still must spend 20-40 minutes a night cooking these meals, but many of them can be made ahead or used as leftovers another night or at lunch, making them more cost effective than they may seem at first glance. For all these kits, you can skip weeks with no charge if your schedule isn’t conducive to a meal kit that week.
Bottom Line: my top choice from a nutrition perspective is Sunbasket; however, I find Plated to be the best tasting and highest quality kit. There are ways to make meal kit recipes healthier, such as reducing the portion sizes, especially of the starches, using less oil and salt than the recipe calls for, and adding some extra fresh produce into the recipes. If you are looking for a budget option, I recommend Blue Apron for taste and quality. Have you tried a meal kit? Share your experience in the comments!