Meal-in-a-box deathmatch!! Three meals enter, one meal leaves!!!
Dinner preparation is HARD. I go back and forth about which part is the worst: the thinking of the meal, the gathering of the supplies, the preparing the meal, or the clean up. But I think the worst part is that every night rolls around and I get so frustrated that I have to think of something to eat and make AGAIN. It just keeps coming.
I know there are some people out there that really enjoy cooking, and sometimes I do. When I have infinite time, and have no stress, and didn't work all day, cooking can be great. But most times, my day is some variation of working/watching Chewbacca, getting exhausted, putting him to sleep, finding out that I have avocado in my hair from feeding him, and then realizing that I need to eat dinner.
So, to stop me from ordering takeout 5 nights a week, I decided to investigate the companies that offer meal-in-a-box services, which I will refer to as MIAB from here on out, because using hyphens is hard. If you haven't heard of these companies, the idea is that they take half of the work out of cooking, by coming up with a meal idea, and sending you all of the ingredients, premeasured so that all you have to do is prepare and cook the meal. Great idea, right?
There are three major providers of MIAB in Boston: Blue Apron, Plated, and Just Add Cooking. In the name of research (and not having to think of meals for three weeks straight) I ordered one week of each of these services to test them out and figure out which one was the best.
If you're just looking for the Overall Takeaway, here it is: my favorite was Just Add Cooking. I don't think their meals were necessarily the most exciting or the best (although they were very tasty), the meals were nutritious, healthy, local and most importantly, the recipes were super easy. It was the only service that I actually could see myself replicating and doing on a regular basis. Blue Apron and Plated were definitely good, but I felt like it was just way too much work for me to do regularly. Their services seem to be targeted at people who love cooking and have time for cooking. For me, the point was to make cooking easier, so Just Add Cooking was my winner.
If you're interested in more pictures and details, here are my thoughts on each of the services, with some coupon codes below to try them out yourself:
Just Add Cooking: Like I said, this one was the winner for me. It is local, and so the boxes are delivered by hand rather than FedEx and the box came marked with the time it was delivered, so we knew how long it had been sitting out. Also, you get a text when your food has been delivered if you're not home, so you know that it's there, which I thought was a nice touch.
Handy time-stamp, you know, just in case you're gone all day on a Sunday because that NEVER happens.
They deliver on Sunday afternoons, which I found to be perfect for our schedule. But some of the other services offer different times, if you plan to cook later in the week.
Price: $79 for 3 meals for 2 people.
Menu options: 7 choices a week, with 3 vegetarian options.
Level of Difficulty: Easy. The menus are rated online as to their difficulty level, so I picked two marked "easy" and one marked "medium" because it is important to know your own limits. I found this to be perfect after a long day of childcare and work to be able to pull together a healthy, nutritious meal pretty quickly.
Everything is sourced locally, and my recipe cards indicated that the bread was from Iggys, and the produce came from a farm in Danvers, which I really liked.
When possible, the products are also in-season (we had a delicious grilled veggie salad that was proof of that), organic, and local. I thought everything was extremely fresh and I could feel the vitamins in the food (okay, not literally, but you know that feeling when you're eating a really colorful salad, right? maybe?)
Easily the LEAST amount of packaging compared to the rest of the services. Even though some of the other companys' packaging was recyclable, I was just overwhelmed to see how much waste was used. So to see Just Add Cooking do it minimally was really nice.
The recipies are extremely easy to follow. They suggest an order to how you cook the meals (depending on what you want to be the freshest), which suggested a lot of thought put into the process. Also, the recipes themselves have steps on a flow chart so you know which steps you should be doing when. I got the sense that everything was well planned out, and your time was being maximized. As an efficiency-junky, I really appreciated that.
The recipes were generally very healthy, with the calories being somewhere around 500-700 calories per meal. Plus, the vegetarian options were high in protein, which often isn't the case.
Because they're smaller and locally based, I found they had much better customer service.
Here was the full package unpacked for what I got when it showed up.
The only negative I can say is that the meals weren't as "flashy" or impressive as some of the other services. BUT, as I found out, those other meals take a lot longer to make. So, I guess it's a tradeoff. Although, the meals were very delicious, it's just hard to get excited about a lentil stew as compared to a shrimp po' boy sandwich. That being said, when it was all said and done, I actually liked the lentil stew better, which surprised me.
Discount code: (full disclosure, I don't get anything for this referral): If you use the code BPLUS at checkout, you'll receive $20 off your first order. For new customers only.
Here was the plated packaging. Lots more bags and packages, and also less brightly colored produce. Cauliflower and ice berg lettuce don't pack a lot of nutrients. You can actually see the difference in the meals.
The photo vs. reality
Price: Varies depending on whether you buy a $10 a month membership or not (which gets you $3 off per meal). The nice thing is you can order a la carte if you'd like.
Menu options: 7 options to choose from, including 3 vegetarian
Delivery method: Sent via Fed Ex, but you can choose your delivery date. While I can't blame them because the delivery occurred during that 90 degree heat wave we had, all of my greens were extremely wilted when they showed up, telling me that they had been in transit for awhile.
Level of Difficulty: Medium. It wasn't that the recipes were all that hard to do, it's just that they were slightly labor-intensive and what you got for all the hard work was not worth it. For example, we had to mandolin potatoes with a veggie peeler (because who has a mandolin?) to make our own potato chips. Once they were done, which took a good 15-20 minutes to do, they didn't even taste that great. I would have much rather been sent potato chips and make an easy side salad instead.
you can use the service a la carte without getting a membership and only order one meal per week if you'd like.
The meat options looked delicious, and I thought the recipes by and large looked very creative.
They source their food locally as well, but since they're based out of New York, all of the food is coming from there, and shipping from there as well. So locally-sourced didn't mean that much.
The packaging is all bio-degradable and recyclable, but there is a LOT of packaging. I'm a believer that the best way to create less trash is to create less trash, not recycle it. So this bothered me a bit.
On first blush, I thought the recipes were going to be great: shrimp po' boys and buffalo sauce cauliflower, but both of them only ended up being "eh" in the end. I didn't think the spices and seasoning were that great, and as I said, it was too much work to get there.
Discount code: (full disclosure, I will get a credit for anyone who uses this code, so thanks in advance if you do!) Get two free plates in your first order if you use this code: https://www.plated.com/invites/ba1ffc
Blue Apron: This is probably the most well-known MIAB providers in Boston (aka, they offer the most discounted meals through flash sale sites like groupon). They're definitely the top dog and I think they've been around the longest. I think they are targeted toward giving people the cooking experience. So if you're someone who enjoys the process of cooking, this would be a great option for you. They encourage different cooking methods and different ingredients.
The box was not only late, but pretty dinged up by the time it got to me.
Three of the recipes I cooked.
Price: 10 per meal per person
Menu options: 6 options, 3 vegetarian
Delivery method: They deliver via fed ex. While you get a tracking number, they said they would deliver by 8pm that night, but we went to bed around 9:30 (lay off, it's hard with a baby), and the box still hadn't arrived. Luckily it was so well packaged that it was still cold when I got it that morning.
Level of Difficulty: Hard and FUTSY. There were a LOT of steps here. Again, similar to plated, I thought that there were some steps they could have skipped that would have saved tons of time. For example, one recipe called for candied cashews and you were supposed to do the candying, which took 15 minutes. I'd rather they just send me the cashews already candied. Ain't nobody got time for that.
The meals were very tasty and I got to try some different techniques, like steaming fish in parchment, and candying cashews.
Labor-intensive, and not well thought out in terms of steps. All of the recipes asked you to prep everything in advance and then start. Just Add Cooking, by comparison, had you start the things you could first, and then while some things were simmering or cooking, they had you start the next step. I thought these recipes were less thought out.
If I had found a recipe I wanted to replicate, both of them had ingredients that were pretty unusual, such that I don't think I could get pattypan squash (right? what is that?) at just any grocery store.
Again, they had a LOT of waste in the packaging. Easily the most out of any of the companies. Their website has steps for HOW to dispose of their packaging (much of which is not recyclable) to give you an idea of how much waste they have.
Discount code: (full disclosure, I will get a credit for anyone who uses this code, so thanks in advance if you do!) You can get 30% off your first order if you use this website: https://www.blueapron.com/bplusboston
So there you have it. If anyone knows of any other MIAB services or ways to magically make healthy meals appear, definitely let me know. I think maybe this winter I might get ambitious and try one of those "buy these ingredients and freeze all your food for 30 days" projects....and then again, I might just order takeout 5 nights in a row. We'll see.