Inside the Kitchen: Testing Food-Delivery Services Like Blue Apron and More

PHOTO: Several new services promise to deliver fresh ingredients to your home along with recipes that you prepare yourself.Getty Images
Several new services promise to deliver fresh ingredients to your home along with recipes that you prepare yourself.

I love to cook but hate to plan out recipes, and going to the supermarket is like walking into a black hole that eats time.

So, new services that plan your menus for the week and deliver all the ingredients to your doorstep sound like a dream come true. What I discovered is that these services go way beyond convenience; they help you discover new recipes and, in some cases, act like cooking school in your own home.

How They Work

You tell the sites what foods you like and how many people you’re feeding. Each meal costs between $8 and $15 per person. That’s more than you’d pay if you did the shopping yourself, but cheaper than a restaurant and healthier than drive-thru. The meals are not pre-prepared: the ingredients and recipes are delivered and then you do all the chopping and sautéing yourself.

For a period of three weeks I tried some of the biggest and newest services to figure out how they work and whether they are worth the added cost.

Blue Apron, Plated and Hello Fresh are the leaders in the category. They have certain similarities but the big differences are price and flexibility around subscription (see individual listings below).

With most services, a box is delivered weekly by FedEx or a similar shipping company.

The box contains everything you need for your meals, including spices, oils and vinegars. It is bizarre to have fresh fish and meat delivered this way, but everything I tried was fresh and of high-quality. Ingredients are pre-measured and come in tiny plastic bottles and bags. This is incredibly convenient because you don’t have to measure as you cook.

The recipes were all good, healthy food that would appeal to a wide range of palates, including kids. Preparation was easy and no meal took more than 35 minutes.

One note: Because the delivery depends on ice packs, you end up with a lot of these plastic-covered lumps of frozen liquid. The company says they are non-toxic, but they are to be disposed of in the trash, not down the drain. The companies are clearly aware of their recycling issues and have instructions on their blogs about how to reuse and recycle their packaging materials.

Blue Apron

Cost: $10/person per meal.

Subscription: 3 meals per week ($60 for 2 people, $120 for 4 people).

Delivery Area: East of the Mississippi and west of the Rockies. Click HERE for a map.

Meal I Tried: Stuffed Peppers with Rice

Blue Apron delivers a box (or boxes) to your doorstep once a week. Their menu is fixed (no substitutions) based on your dietary preferences (any meat, no red meat, fish and eggs only, vegetarian). Sample menus here.

The fixed menu was a bit of an issue - there was a dish with Spanish rice and I still have bad memories of that dish from my grade-school cafeteria - but the prices were outstanding and the food was fresh.

Plated

Cost: $12 a plate (Based on a weekly subscription).

Meal I Tried: Grilled Hanger Steak with Glazed Carrots

Delivery Area: Ships to 95% of the population, reaching all the lower 48 states; Check your zip code here.

Subscription means weekly or bi-weekly deliveries of any number of meals you choose. You can skip up to eight weeks at a time. If you want to order just a few meals, you can order a-la-carte but the price is higher. The Plated subscription delivery model seems more flexible than Blue Apron and offers more selection of recipes for each week. Plated is very similar to Blue Apron with delivery in a box and ingredients pre-measured. The recipes were good and the food was fresh.

Deal: Plated has an introductory offer, but be aware that once the offer duration is up, your credit card will continue to be charged at the regular price.

Hello Fresh

Cost: $9 per person for vegetarian, $10.75/person for omnivore.

Subscription: 3 meals per week.

Delivery Area: Contiguous U.S.

Meal I Tried: Seared Basa with Marinated Tomato and Zucchini Salad

HelloFresh is very similar to Blue Apron with delivery in a box and ingredients pre-measured, but HelloFresh lets you substitute a recipe you don’t like for a few other choices available that week. You have to let them know you want a substitution by the Wednesday before delivery, but it’s nice to have the flexibility if there’s a meal you know your family won’t eat. The meals were good; the ingredients were fresh. Sample Menu can be found here.

Deal: To kick off their newly announced whole continental U.S. delivery area, they have a bunch of introductory offers. Keep in mind that once the offer duration is up, your credit card will continue to be charged at the regular price.

Different Food Delivery Models:

Gathered Table

Cost: Free for six months, but grocery delivery with their delivery partner, Peapod, costs $7.95 for orders greater than $100, $8.95 for orders $75-$100 and $9.95 for orders $60-$75.

Meal I Tried: Tarragon Roasted Halibut with Hazelnut Butter

Delivery Area: Limited by Peapod, which has a delivery area around metropolitan areas in the American Midwest and Northeast regions. Gathered Table is partnering with other delivery services and plans to have service in 20 of the top 25 metro areas in the United States by the beginning of 2015.

Gathered Table’s recipes were delicious. I tried a Tarragon Roasted Halibut with Hazelnut Butter that was one of the easiest and most delicious fish recipes I’ve ever made. With Gathered Table, you have lots of control over the menu. You can pick and choose from their library or even add recipes from your own collection. Once you choose your recipes for the week, the service sets the menu and populates a shopping list. You can either use that shopping list yourself when you hit the grocery store or Gathered Table will create a list and send it to a delivery service that does the shopping for you.

An added bonus is that you can add other household staples to the grocery list so you can avoid the supermarket completely if you like. I will continue to use Gathered Table to discover new recipes and also to store my favorite existing online recipes. It has a really simple way of importing other recipes you find online and housing them in your account.

Appetites

Cost: $8-$12 per person, per meal.

Subscription: Order a la carte from the app. Same-day delivery.

Delivery Area: Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C.

Meal I Tried: Chicken Italian Sausage with Chard and Sweet Potatoes

Appetites has the smallest delivery area of the services we tried but I hope it increases because the food was delicious and I learned so much cooking their recipes. You can order a la carte from Appetites and they will deliver your food the same day you order. Appetites only works on a phone or tablet. Order via app, once the food is delivered, you fire up your device and find the recipe. Step-by-step instructions, including videos, guide you through the cooking process.

While the same-day delivery is amazing, the strength of this service comes in the videos. They are not done like a cooking show. Each step of the recipe includes a narrated how-to demonstration showing exactly how to cut, mix or sauté the food. Once the 10- to 15-second narration ends, the video goes into a silent loop so you can look back at it anytime to remember how to do the task. I learned a whole new way to chop onions, cut sweet potatoes and it truly felt like I was attending cooking school in my own kitchen.