Food Biz

Getting the Lay of the Meal Delivery Service Land

April 20, 2016

At first, there was nothing. And by nothing, I mean that the closest thing to a "meal delivery service" was contained in takeout menus and, later, in Seamless. It was the alternative to cooking, rather than a stepping stone towards it.

Now there are posters for new meal delivery services splashed up on the walls of the subway as often as we ask, "What's for dinner?" And they have us asking what exactly makes them all different. Don't they all do the same thing, i.e. eliminate the trip to the grocery store, the meal planning, et al?

Yes—but they've found other ways to diversify (dessert! ethical sourcing! chef-written recipes!). Here's a guide to the topography of the meal delivery service landscape, from the simply-reheat to the some-chopping-required.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Everything but the Grocery Store

A good choice if: you want to learn cooking techniques; if your kitchen is well-stocked with kitchen tools. This seems to be the most common kind of service.

Blue Apron

Ingredients: Pre-portioned, per the included recipe card. Some ingredients, like produce, arrive wrapped.
Sourcing: "We [...] work directly with over 100 family­-run farms who use regenerative farming practices that help build healthy soil for future generations. [...] All of our seafood comes from sustainable fisheries rated “green” (best choice) or “yellow” (good alternative) by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch [...] Our meat is raised with care and respect, and without added hormones or sub-­therapeutic antibiotics."
Amont of involvement: Chopping and cooking, but no measuring.
Pricing: Starts at $8.74 per serving.
Extras: Each recipe suggests a wine to pair with it; you can add a 500-milliliter bottle to your box for $10.
Availability: All of contiguous USA.

Plated

Ingredients: Pre-portioned, per the included recipe card. Some ingredients, like produce, arrive wrapped.
Sourcing: "Our ingredients are sourced locally whenever possible, and are always carefully curated from responsible providers. While we don’t exclusively source organically, we use 100% domestic and sustainably sourced seafood, 100% antibiotic-free meats, beef with no added hormones, and produce that is fresh, seasonal, and hand-packed."
Amont of involvement: Chopping and cooking, but no measuring.
Pricing: Starts at $12 per serving.
Extras: Recipes are recommended to you weekly based on the "taste profile" you build. There are also weekly featured dessert recipes ($4 per serving).
Availability: All of contiguous USA (save for a few cities in Texas).

Peach Dish

Ingredients: Pre-portioned, per the included recipe card. Some ingredients, like produce, arrive wrapped. The recipes are Southern-inspired.
Sourcing: They have a nifty map of all of their suppliers, and "work directly with many local farms."
Amount of involvement: Chopping and cooking, but no measuring.
Pricing: Starts at $12.50 per serving. (Price decreases slightly the more servings you order—up to 12.)
Extras: They have an online store where you can buy "Southern favorites" like Mississippi-made hot sauce.
Availability: All of contiguous USA.

Others include...

Chef'd (the recipes are written by chefs, restaurants, and companies like the James Beard Foundation and Vegetarian Times), Hello Fresh, Marley Spoon, Home Chef, The Purple Carrot (vegan), Just Add Cooking.

Prepped but Not Prepared

A good choice if: you have one pan; you dislike doing dishes; you don't have any knives; you want one step above takeout.

Photo by Mise En Place

Mise En Place

Ingredients: Pre-portioned, pre-chopped, individually packaged.
Sourcing: Unknown.
Amont of involvement: The equivalent of "dump and stir."
Pricing: Starts at $15 per person.
Availability: Manhattan only, with plans to expand to the other New York boroughs soon.

Gobble

Ingredients: "Fresh pre-chopped and par-cooked ingredients," individually wrapped.
Sourcing: Not much information, but the FAQ explains that their "chefs take pride in sourcing truly local and fresh ingredients."
Amount of involvement: "10-minute dinner kits [...] with foolproof three-step recipe cards."
Pricing: Starts at $11.95 per serving.
Availability: All California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Idaho, and Utah.

Others include...

Din ("Recreate restaurant dishes at home in about 20 minutes").

Fully Prepared Meals

A good choice if: you don't want to do the actual cooking; you have a microwave and ample freezer space.

Photo by Umi Kitchen

Sprig

Ingredients: Pre-made meals—like takeout, but not tied to a restaurant.
Sourcing: "We support sustainable, local and ethical growers, choose organic produce as a high priority and opt for meat that is sustainably-raised." They share "sourcing info for many of our ingredients, right in the app."
Amount of involvement: Order meals, drinks, and snacks from the app and it's delivered about 20 minutes later.
Pricing: About $10 to $14 per serving.
Extras: All orders are placed through their app; it seems geared mostly towards the lunch crowd. Availability: San Francisco and Palo Alto, California; Chicago, Illinois.

Umi Kitchen

Ingredients: Pre-made meals made by a home cook that you choose, delivered to your house.
Sourcing: Unknown.
Amount of involvement: Order meals from home cooks who live in your city, and they deliver them to you.
Pricing: Under $20 per serving.
Availability: New Haven, Connecticut; Brooklyn, New York.

Others include...

Veestro (Order up to 3 frozen, prepared, vegetarian meals for 21 days; there's also a bit of a weight-loss focus.), Provenance Meals (organic, dairy-free, gluten-free prepared meals)

Shop the Story

Have you used a meal delivery service before? What did you think? How do you feel about them? Tell us in the comments.

8 Comments

Hallie M. April 25, 2016
So happy to see Umi Kitchen mentioned here! We just launched our app with delivery in Brooklyn (https://itunes.apple.com/cg/app/umi-kitchen/id1078056425?mt=8). Sourcing is up to each individual home cook but our selection process leaves only the most discerning home cooks on the platform. We work with a grass fed beef partner, Happy Valley Meats, to provide our Umi Kitchens with great beef and lamb when they're cooking meals with those ingredients, and local Brooklyn urban farms supply our kitchens with greens and other produce. I hope friends in the Food52 community give us a try!
 
MRubenzahl April 25, 2016
As a cook, I didn't think any of these would make sense. After all, I already know how to cook. But when a fellow foodie-cooking-enthusiast suggested I try Blue Apron, I did. Surprise! The recipes and techniques are claver and sophisticated. It's making me a better cook. <br /><br />For instance, oranges and collard greens with fried rosemary -- such an interesting idea that I've done it, and variations, several times. <br /><br />Not sure how long I will keep using Blue Apron but am pleasantly surprised so far.
 
Maureen K. April 25, 2016
We've been using Luke's Local in the SFBay Area for over a year. I'm very please with the quality and variety of the prepared meals they offer; I haven't got tired of them yet. I highly recommend them.
 
Amy April 24, 2016
I agree with everything "dmedesha" said. We have been doing HelloFresh for about a month and a half. We get 3 meals a week for 2 people and they feed me, my husband and son (17 yrs old) well. It is a light dinner, but really all we want by that time of day. Some of the recipes I have really loved and the rest are very good. I really appreciate the new recipes and using ingredients that I would never normally use. It has helped stretch my repertoire of easy fast meals. <br />I have to say that I'm a bit disappointed with the Jamie Oliver partnership that they have and find a lot of his recipes overly complicated and time consuming for an unimpressive result. Their regular chefs do a much better job of producing flavorful sauces and simple, satisfying recipes. We will be customers for a long time.
 
dmedesha April 20, 2016
The two of us have been subscribed to Hello Fresh for about 6-months now, and are pretty happy with the service. The produce is "fresh" (about two days from San Francisco to Phoenix, on big ice packs) and the proteins are high quality. Have not seen any farmed fish so far. Processed ingredients, usually bear the manufacturer's label, are high end and are sufficient quantity for the recipe, and then some. I may never need to buy tubes of imported tomato paste again. <br /><br />Practically all the packaging is recyclable (we do not compost) and if I was more recycling aware, it might all be welcome in the big blue bin.<br /><br />There has been zero waste. While the sides can be a bit large for two, the excess has made great leftovers. We buy three meals per week, which encourages us to eat at home more than we have in the past. And that is were we see the biggest savings. And my impulse buys in the local market are just about zero.<br /><br />There is a certain amount of similarity to the meals. My sheet pan, large frying pan, two nesting bowls, zester, and small plate rarely see the inside of the kitchen cabinets these days. I am pretty safe setting the low profile oven to 400F before I start. And a 30-minute lead time to eating is about standard. I keep the recipe cards, and there are no repeats in the growing stack.<br /><br />While the mise en place and cooking techniques do not vary much, the variety of ingredients make for three days of enjoyable dining every week. There have been a couple problems: containers of English peas that popped open in transit, undocumented produce substitutions, a missing important ingredient (only one time, and we had some in the fridge already), and a blank label on one ingredient box (pretty easy to figure out, we had it for lunch today.)<br /><br />In all, "Hello Fresh" has been successful for us, and I am sure we will be sticking with the service for the time being.
 
Niknud April 20, 2016
We started doing Blue Apron occasionally during what I fondly refer to as 'Soccer Hell' when we're literally juggling three different team schedules. I understand all the arguments about packaging waste (although I've found our actual food waste to be drastically reduced) and I've read more than my fair share of commentary about whether this is a good approach for feeding your family. However, if I can manage during this trying time of year to get my family to sit down at the table and eat together at least half the nights of the week, I'm calling it a win. No, the meals aren't super adventurous and they have an annoying habit of calling for olive oil in every circumstance (even in high heat sautéing scenarios), but the kids look at it like an adventure in each box and they like being able to help with the cooking while I'm hollering at them to get their cleats on. And I like being able to get my family to sit down and eat together when I don't have 90 minutes to shop and prep for a meal during the week. And it means I have more time to cheer on the sidelines and play yahtzee (well, lose at yahtzee most nights - the 8 year old has freakish good luck).
 
HalfPint April 20, 2016
In the San Francisco Bay Area, we have Munchery which is similar to Sprig. All the food is cooked and boxed like takeout. You just need to reheat when needed. Entrees run about $11-15 on average. Portions are reasonable, though dessert is a bit pricey (e.g. $4 for a 4" cookie). Everything that I've ordered so far has been excellent. The food containers are either recyclable or compostable. I was amassing a lot of carrier bags, but I was told that those too could be recycled. It's more expensive than the prepped ingredients service (like Blue Apron), but cheaper than eating out. Considering that you don't have to shop or cook, it's good bargain given the quality ingredients.
 
Ali W. April 20, 2016
I tried HelloFresh once because I got a $35 off coupon for the first order. I do a lot of meal prep and grocery shopping at least once a week, so I found it a bit pricey if the purpose is to substitute all your grocery shopping. I tried out 3 meals for the week and one recipe was pretty good, the other 2 were meh, but nothing that I wouldn't be able to cook by myself. It's important to mention that there were a lot of boxes, bags and packages that I had to unpack.. Talk about sustainability