On Food, Cooking & Meal-by-Mail Services

Ooo…that last one got your attention, didn’t it? Meal-by-Mail, you say? What the heck is that?

Allow me to enlighten you…

I love food. I love eating, and cooking, and fresh ingredients that are local when I can get them or fit it into our lifestyle (note: we live in Montana, so if we *only* ate local, our diet would be pretty limited/boring after awhile, especially in the winter). I’ve mentioned that I hate menu planning, and I’ve finally made peace with the fact that I’m never going to just sit down and plan out a full week’s worth of menus the week before. And definitely not before going grocery shopping – how would I know what produce looks good on any given week if I don’t go to the store first?

Oddly enough, I like to grocery shop (about the only kind of shopping I actually enjoy). When you enjoy grocery shopping, and don’t enjoy menu planning, it’s kind of a recipe for regular budgetary indiscretion and seriously overstocking the fridge with perishables.

I should probably mention I’m not all that fond of budgeting either. Though I am rather fond of paying off debt…but that’s a whole ‘nuther post. The fact is I *can* budget, but I often don’t unless I’m working to pay off or save for something specific.

In any case, I spend a lot more on food than I need to, and considering there’s only two of us, I end up wasting a lot more than I should. Fresh produce, mainly – meat never goes to waste since I can pop it in the freezer, but fresh fruit/produce often goes bad before I can freeze it (and some can’t really be frozen with good results, obviously). No, I don’t have a good composting solution in place. That’s a whole ‘nuther post too.

Enter companies like Blue Apron, Home Chef, and a plethora of other new/trendy “meals-by-mail” services. The geniuses who started these companies decided they could get people cooking and fix the problem of too much food waste all while making restaurant-style profits for themselves. They basically do the meal planning for you (like any of several meal-planning services out there), but they take it one step further and send you all the ingredients – exactly the amount you need for each meal depending on how many people you’re cooking for – and charge you an average of $9.99 per meal to do so. You get the box with the amount of meals/recipes you signed up for, follow the recipes, and voila! You’re cooking at home, eating healthy (depending on what you get), and paying…well, quite a bit more than you would buying in bulk for the same meal, but without the potential wasted extra food from bulk.

As I said, it’s around $10 per meal, per person, so it’s not cheap, but it’s no more than going out to eat either (less in many cases). I wish one of these services would have it set up so that you buy the meat, and they just send everything else, as I prefer to buy/eat local meats (Montana = excellent home-grown meats). And there are the ever-present philosophical arguments about supporting your local stores over a mail service, carbon footprints for having things shipped in (if I were going to worry too much about that, my Amazon Prime membership would be the bigger issue), and the extra packaging for the bits and drabbles of things sent with the orders. All of which are good arguments, but I think sometimes depending on your personal situation, things even out in the end.

Typical three meal Blue Apron delivery.

                       Typical three meal Blue Apron delivery.

I ordered boxes from both Blue Apron and Home Chef, so I could compare the services. I have to say, I’m impressed with both of them. Blue Apron is more of a “foodie” service…they’re not so concerned with health as much as good, tasty meals (though they are very concerned with sourcing things responsibly, and they’ll take all packaging back for recycling too, which is excellent). I have to say, I’ve made four meals from them so far, and the only one that was just mediocre included couscous (which I’d never made before), which neither of us had tried, and it wasn’t bad tasting, it just sat really heavy on the stomach. Everything else has been very good, and they pride themselves on never repeating a recipe in a year. That’s a pretty big departure from my limited weeknight repertoire. Their smallest order is three meals for two people, but of course you can order more for larger families.

We’ve gotten just one Home Chef box so far, but both meals were simple and very good. The packaging is a bit nicer with Home Chef, as everything is packaged together for a meal rather than separate plastic bags for each item – which means less packaging waste. Also super-easy to find in the fridge – just grab the bag marked with the meal you’re making, and the meat (if there is any) and you’re good to go. Blue Apron’s ingredients are a bit more segregated, but still, no big hardship to grab, by any means.

Home Chef two-meal delivery.

                             Home Chef two-meal delivery.

Home Chef’s smallest order is two meals for two people which is nice (though you will pay shipping for anything under $50), but they also offer a smoothie-per-week add-on that’s $5 per person, and a breakfast option as well, which is kind of fun (haven’t tried that yet – might later though). Our first box was just the 2 meals option, but I added the smoothie pack on for the next orders, as that will be a nice change for one breakfast per week.

Both companies send big, full-color recipe cards that not only have pictures of each step of meal preparation, but also includes the nutrient and calorie information. We’ve been keeping pretty careful track of our calories lately (and losing weight – hooray!), which requires a lot of math and estimation when figuring out the calorie count for homemade meals. So it’s a huge time saver to make a recipe with everything already measured out, and know exactly how many calories are in it without doing all that extra work. Saves me a good 15 minutes reading labels, making lists, and adding/dividing numbers. Plus, I don’t “cheat” with the portions just to avoid wasting leftover food, because with these pre-portioned meals, there is no waste.

Every week, each company lets you know when the next menu is ready, and you can go in and choose from several different meals if the ones they choose for you aren’t to your liking. But the selection is still limited enough that it’s not something you’ll agonize over, and you can only get certain combinations. That works great for me, because it forces me to just glance over it, substitute one or two meals if there’s something included we don’t like, and leave it at that. Both services also let you skip weeks, so you aren’t locked into the weekly thing – you could just do once a month as a fun thing if you wanted.

I’m really enjoying them at the moment – it’s fun to add new dishes to the mix without having to buy, say, a whole bottle of fish sauce or black bean paste just for one new recipe. And it’s nice to have several meals already planned and shopped for with an incredibly small amount of effort on my part – takes a lot of the “what do I feel like eating/cooking tonight” stress off without the added stress of sitting down to actually menu plan. My husband will be gone for the last week in July, so I’ve already skipped that week in the Blue Apron account, but I’ll go ahead and get the Home Chef delivery which will give me four meals since it’s just me, and two smoothies – and I’ll still get fresh produce for the week, where I wouldn’t be able to buy that in such small quantities just for myself at the grocery store without wasting a fair amount.

These won’t be for everyone, obviously, and who knows how long I’ll subscribe, but at the moment, it’s a fun, stress/hassle-free way to try a bunch of new things and keep track of calories more easily. If nothing else, by the time I’m tired of it or these companies go out of business, I’ll have a bunch of new recipes and cooking styles/methods/taste profiles in my wheelhouse (In one and a half weeks, I’ve already tried several things I’d never cooked with before, and used a couple of cooking methods I hadn’t used before as well). That’s a win-win, I’d say.

Now I’m hungry…