You like the idea of cooking, but can’t stand the prep and cleanup. You can’t go to the grocery store (thanks, COVID-19!), but still want to eat inventive meals. You’re learning to cook, but don’t want to buy a $9 jar of berbere for just one recipe. You have zero time to shop, prep, or make meals (we see you, healthcare workers), but you still want nutritious options. Meal delivery services are the answer to these dilemmas, and many others.
What Is a Meal Delivery Service?
Meal delivery (also referred to as meal-kit delivery) is a type of subscription service in which a company sends you a box of fresh ingredients in the right amounts for a few recipes that you can make at home. It’s a rapidly growing sector of the food industry, with one report projecting the global market for meal delivery to be worth $8.94 billion by 2025.
Cook-from-a-kit boxes, such as Green Chef and HelloFresh, are just one style of meal delivery. Some throw the “kit” element to the wind and instead provide heat-and-eat meals that require minimal effort. Sunbasket, for example, provides the ingredients for a family dinner already mixed and assembled in an oven-safe container.
Splendid Spoon specializes in ready-to-eat meals for one person, such as smoothies, soups, and bowls. It also has prepared plates that are more akin to a microwavable TV dinner. Freshly, Balanced Bites, Fresh N Lean, and vegan service Veestro fall into this pre-made category. Conversely, Blue Apron is a service committed to helping you learn to cook—to the degree that it also sells chef’s knives, meat thermometers, and other equipment you might need as your skills progress.
The service diversity is remarkable. We haven’t had an opportunity to test them all, but if their unique hooks sound appealing to you, consider doing some more research. Yumble specializes in kid-friendly foods in kiddie portion sizes. Sakara Life’s pricey subscription sets you up with a highly curated wellness plan, and includes meals that purportedly improve whatever issues you have, such as making your skin clearer or increasing your energy. You can find kosher or halal meal kits. There’s even a ramen delivery service called Ramen Hero, which we have reviewed, that sends pre-measured ingredients in heat-safe pouches that you warm in boiling water to make your own Japanese noodle soup.
Some services, such as Snap Kitchen or Vegetable and Butcher, only deliver to their local communities. Housemade, which we’ve reviewed, depends on you being near a physical Just Salad restaurant, although the service plans to expand in the future. However, most other services deliver anywhere in the United States, except for Alaska and Hawaii, in about one week. MisenBox partners with local restaurants to deliver their food as meal kits nationwide.
Do I Choose the Food?
Before you sign up for a meal delivery service, you should preview the menu for the upcoming week and future weeks. In our experience, this is the most important part of choosing a service. Looking at the weekly menus for a few services and comparing them tells you a lot about what makes each one unique.
It’s a little like choosing a restaurant. Both the menu and presentation, including pictures of the food and how the company describes it, determine whether it speaks to your taste buds. Just look at the difference between Daily Harvest’s stark images of vegetables in a bowl, compared to HelloFresh’s colorful plates brimming with warm meals and a scattering of fresh herbs or toasted breadcrumbs on top.
When previewing menus, be sure to check two things. 1) Are there enough menu options each week that meet your dietary requirements, including allergen concerns? 2) Can you see the recipe and instructions, and do they line up with how much work you’re willing to do? The recipes indicate what equipment and ingredients you need. It might be nothing more than a skillet, wooden spoon, and salt and pepper. It helps to have olive oil, vegetable oil, and sometimes butter on hand, too. Depending on the service, you might see recipes that call for a slow cooker, though it’s easy to avoid them if you don’t have one.
In a few rare cases, companies make it hard to see the detailed recipes until after you pay. We like companies that show you everything in advance so there are no surprises after payment.
Once you sign up, you choose which meals you want each week from a rotating selection. If you forget to pick meals, the company automatically selects some for you.
A few companies let you pick substitutions, or offer add-ons and upgrades. Some Home Chef meals let you substitute, say, chicken for shrimp, or pay extra for organic or antibiotic-free meat. Sunbasket sells snacks, breakfast items, and other standalone groceries that you can add to your order. Hungryroot is a slightly unusual meal delivery service that’s part online grocery store and part meal-kit service, letting you choose both kits and groceries in every order. Gobble sells add-ons, too, like a two-pack of cookie dough or an extra container of marinara sauce.
How Many Meals Do I Get?
Some meal delivery services offer a la carte purchases, but most require a subscription. When you sign up, you agree to regularly receive a shipment of meals or meal kits, usually weekly. On average, you must commit to a minimum of three meals per week that serve two people each, or six servings total. A few companies let you scale down to as few as two meals for two people per week.
All plans let you can skip a week at any time or indefinitely pause your subscription. You typically have the option to skip multiple weeks at a time. The best companies let you do this directly from your account.
When you first sign up, the meal delivery service’s site will typically ask a few details about you and your food needs. How many people will be eating with you? Do you have allergies or dietary restrictions? A top-notch service only shows you the meals that meet your needs. Watch out, because not all companies do this. For some services, you must vet each meal as you choose your orders.
How Much Do Meal Kit Services Cost?
The going rate for a meal delivery service is between $8.99 and $12.99 per serving. Delivery fees typically hang in the range of $7.99 per shipment.
Note that meals are priced per serving. Most (but not all) companies calculate the price of your kits on a sliding scale, based on how many servings you order. It’s the old “the more you buy, the more you save” idea. A box of three meals per week with two servings each has a higher per-serving price than a box containing four meals per week with four servings each—even though the larger box has a final higher cost.
$7.99 is the standard shipping rate, but you can often find better deals. Blue Apron charges $0 in delivery fees for all but the smallest orders. Hungryroot‘s shipping is free if you qualify for ground delivery from its New York City location; air shipments cost $10. Purple Carrot charges more for big boxes (up to $11.99) and less for small ones ($5.99). Veestro charges $10 for one-time purchases, but waives shipping fees for subscribers.
I Heard Packaging Is a Problem…
You heard right. When you receive a meal kit order, you must deal with the packaging, and sometimes there’s a distressing amount of it. Some services reduce the amount of material used (EveryPlate does a fair job) or have moved toward compostable materials (Daily Harvest). That said, no nationwide company is a paragon of environmentalism.
In our testing, we noticed two options for keeping the shipment cold. The most common is a gel pack. It’s a frozen block of non-toxic liquid wrapped in heavy-duty plastic. They are a pain to dispose of properly. You can reuse them by refreezing them, or you can let them thaw out, snip a corner of the plastic, and then dump the watery contents into the trash. The gel is not suitable for your plumbing. Then, you must thoroughly rinse the remaining plastic and hope that your recycling center accepts it.
Option two is dry ice. Dry ice works well with fully frozen items, but not fresh produce. If it evaporates before you open the box, that’s ideal. If the ice is still intact, you must be extremely careful not to touch it, as dry ice can burn your skin. You might not want to risk it around curious children and pets.
The main draw to any meal delivery service is convenience. Many meal kits also have a health angle, but most home-cooked meals are going to be better for you than the average delivery meal, if only because you can control the amount of salt that goes into them. Certainly you can use them to get more plant-based meals into your diet, too, if that’s a goal. If you subscribe to WW (formerly Weight Watchers), you can find some meal plans that tell you how many points your meals are worth. Blue Apron displays the menu options that are WW approved, and Splendid Spoon has a help page that highlights its meals’ point values. Veestro offers its own weight loss subscription plan. Trifecta pairs its healthy meals with a free fitness app and a food-logging database.
If you’re looking toward meal delivery for health reasons, you might also consider a fitness tracker, fitness apps, and other helpful tools, such as a smart bathroom scale or a heart rate monitor to steer your workouts to be more effective.
Variety Is the Best Spice
There are far, far more meal delivery services than these top picks, including choices for nearly every cuisine, specialized diet, or cooking skill level. We’ll be looking at more services from time to time, too. For more information on meal delivery services, please visit our dedicated meal kits page and our guides to the best vegetarian and vegan meal kit delivery services along with the best prepared meal delivery services. Read our Blue Apron vs. HelloFresh comparison to see two of the best meal kit services face off.