What—and Who—Are Meal Delivery Services Good For?

April 28, 2016

It's easy to be skeptical of meal delivery services: Meal delivery services can be expensive, more expensive than buying organic or going to the farmers market! They remove the creativity from cooking by shipping formulaic, recipe-prioritized meals rather than allowing cooks to be inspired on their own! They're a crutch for home cooks! And all that packaging!

And ever since Blue Apron and its look-alikes slid onto the market, I have had those thoughts, too—and some of them I maintain (especially about the packaging). I also wish that I knew more about the production on the other side of the shipments—the people who carefully measure the chives into baggies and the vinegar into mini squeeze bottles. Are they treated well and paid fairly? (What do they cook for dinner?)

Photo by Bobbi Lin

I also find that some of the marketing around meal delivery services obscures the very real good in them. No one wants to be spoken to like they're unintelligent, and some companies could do better on that front. One company I found when doing research for this piece maddened me with its promotional video, which features various 20- and 30-somethings mispronouncing the name of the company—Mise En Place—incorrectly over and over again. Mee-zee en ploss. Mize in playce. (That, plus lines like, "No more chopping, dicing, or whatever julienne is.") Respect your audience, guys! C'mon! Encourage us to be curious!

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But overall, I'm beginning to think I'm wrong on the topic of meal delivery services. I'm beginning to think—in the wake of researching a piece I wrote last week, "Getting the Lay of the Meal Delivery Service Land"; hearing what our community had to say in the comments; and just sitting with the idea of them—they do a lot more good than otherwise.

Photo by James Ransom

It is easy to forget, when you work at a website that aims to inspire home cooks, that cooking isn't fun for everyone. It's not fun for a lot of people. And the added jumble of making it to the grocery store and doing a lot of prep work does make dinner feel a lot farther away (one of the most common claims meal delivery companies make is that they eliminate the need for trips to the grocery store). I hear that: I genuinely love shopping for groceries and cooking, and I still don't always want to cook. I eat eggs for dinner a lot, sometimes too late for it to even be called dinner. Would a box of groceries and a recipe to cook with them make eating a true dinner (i.e. not scrambled eggs in a bowl) at a reasonable hour easier? You bet.

Commenters on "Getting the Lay of the Meal Delivery Service Land" made a lot of good points, too; I was admittedly surprised—and heartened—to hear their positive feedback and successes:

Niknud wrote of the appeal of these kinds of services for folks with families. She explained in a comment that, even while she'd read a fair amount of criticism of meal delivery services like Blue Apron, she started using it periodically during her kids' hectic soccer season: "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."

Photo by James Ransom

Others, like dmedesha, said that they've noticed that they're actually saving money, since they're eating out less frequently, and wasting less food. "There has been zero waste," dmdesha, who subscribes to the service Hello Fresh, said. "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." Yes, maybe ideally there wouldn't be as much packaging, but a drop in food waste (and an increase in savings) is encouraging to hear.

Others still explained that they really did feel as though they were becoming better cooks, and were expanding both their skill and recipe repertoires: "For instance, oranges and collard greens with fried rosemary—such an interesting idea that I've done it, and variations, several times," said MRubenzahl. It's encouraging to hear that a service that could be seen as hampering cooks' natural creativities by removing grocery shopping, finding a recipe, and ad-libbing from the equation is actually stimulating them.

I am guilty of having thought that subscribers to meal delivery services—especially services that do all of the prep work for you, including the chopping—were being lazy. This wasn't fair of me; it merited a slap on the wrist, and I got one: I was also among those maddened by the whole Whole Foods pre-peeled orange debacle, in which Whole Foods drew the ire of many after a writer posted a picture of pre-peeled oranges packaged individually in plastic clamshells on the market's shelves. But then NPR reported a story titled "Pre-Peeled Oranges: What Some Call 'Lazy' Others Call A 'Lifesaver'," which raised that, for people with limited mobility (like poor hand strength, for example), pre-peeled oranges and other prepared foods are a godsend.

You could easily substitute "meal delivery services" for "pre-peeled oranges" in the piece's headline and it would still be true: "I have stopped cooking anything I have to chop or slice first," Jennifer Hacker told NPR in the story. Meal services that cut out some of the additional steps—whether it's the grocery shopping or the actual prep work—makes cooking a lot more accessible to people who do have limited mobility, keeping cooking at home an viable option where it otherwise might not have been.

Do I still reserve judgment on a few things? Yes—the services are expensive, about $10 to $15 per serving; there is a lot of paper and plastic waste; and, though many companies have trumpeted their ethical food sourcing, I wonder about the ethics of the labor that goes into producing the boxes. There's the occasionally condescending marketing. But, but, but, if the companies' goals are, as they often claim, to get more people into the kitchen and eating together, they're clearly working.

What's your stance on meal delivery services? What are some of the best arguments for it—or against it? Tell us in the comments.

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Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


Katey July 21, 2017
I love to cook, but I'm a single adult. I tried the meal kits for the portion perfect meals. I enjoyed what I tried, but there was not enough variety. If you're new to cooking I think these are great tools to get you started.
Paula April 28, 2016
I am a personal chef, and for about $20 per serving, I buy fresh groceries the day they are cooked, chop, cook, package the food and clean up the kitchen. Charging $15 per serving and expecting the customer to do the cooking and clean up seems overpriced to me.
lloreen April 28, 2016
I think I'd only use these services if the veggies came pre chopped. Meal-planning takes me less than 5 minutes since I keep a well-stocked kitchen - I open the fridge and cupboard and see what is there. When I don't want to cook, it's usually because I'm too tired to do all the chopping and prep work. I don't see the point of these boxes if you still have to chop and peal.
Dina April 28, 2016
We did Hello Fresh for a couple of weeks under a groupon, and the meals were actually really tasty. But...the portions weren't big enough for leftovers, and there was still all the chopping/peeling/etc. so it didn't really save a lot of time. And, it was way too expensive without the discount. It costs something like $70 for three two-person meals a week, which leaves you still having to shop and prepare the other meals for the week.
Loves F. April 28, 2016
I wanted to like meal delivery. I think it would be great for my husband, who can follow a recipe, but could definitely use help with the grocery shopping and planning a meal. My problem (when I tried Blue Apron) was less around any of the issues you mentioned above, and more about the actual recipes... they weren't good! Ours came with: a tiny nibble of steak with a raw onion salad... that was so fiercely raw-oniony we couldn't eat more than a pinch on top of the steak (it was basically a bowl of sliced onion)... but it made enough that it was considered the side. So... we went hungry that night. The next was a chicken pasta that was essentially a recipe for chicken noodle soup, without the broth (it was literally mirepoix, chicken, pasta)... and made enough to feed a family of 8. After that, we skipped the 3rd and used the ingredients to just make something else. So, in my limited experience with meal delivery--the recipes were just not good, from very random serving size to awkward flavors.
Jennifer April 28, 2016
I'm probably not the target audience for meal delivery services, as I'm obsessed with provisions, cooking, etc., but at the same time, I can imagine circumstances where that might change--if I were facing a chronic illness, for example, or undergoing chemotherapy, or lost my husband (cooking for two is more fun than cooking for one). For those who can afford them, I think they're a great alternative to take-out or restaurant dining (wine at home is cheaper than wine in restaurants). A week's subscription would be a great gift to new parents. But please, please, please--a bowl of scrambled eggs is a perfectly respectable meal, at any hour, and a classic late night supper!
Caroline L. April 28, 2016
:) There's nothing more comforting than an egg.