I consider myself to be, for the most part, a damn good home cook. I can’t bake to save my life, but any kind of roasting, sautéing, braising, or saucing I attempt is generally going to turn out pretty good. I didn’t attend culinary school, but I’ve spent at least the last 10 years obsessively learning everything I could about cooking. In that time, I’ve been able to develop dozens of my own recipes, tested and re-tested on my friends, who served as my gustatory guinea pigs.
As such, I scoffed immediately at the ascendancy of meal delivery services like Blue Apron, Plated, and HelloFresh. If you need someone to measure out and prep your ingredients, why not just go to a restaurant? From the beginning of their popularity, I decided to just ignore them — it’s not as if I could afford to spend upwards of $70 on just three dinners for myself and my partner. That was at least two-thirds of my entire weekly grocery budget, and I generally prefer to eat more than three meals a week.
Still, if you do have the cash and are short on time, the idea of having pre-portioned, pre-packaged, ready-to-prepare meals is incredibly seductive. If you’ve found yourself in a dining rut or just aren’t very good at figuring out what to make for dinner, the idea of purchasing all the ingredients that you’ll need in the perfect quantities makes a lot of sense, as does seeking out new and interesting recipes. But for someone who relishes the task of cooking and finds relaxation in poring over cookbooks and tweaking recipes, food delivery services seem sterile, disconnected from all the emotions, good and bad, that cooking (and food) bring up.
But even those of us who relish the repetitive whisking of a perfect Hollandaise or kneading homemade pizza dough need a break, emotions be damned. Perhaps more importantly, everyone needs a shake-up in their dining routine, even if you’re trying out a few new recipes a week. We all fall into culinary ruts, and meal delivery services can be an incredible way to broaden your horizons. Still, after receiving my first food delivery box from Plated, I was immediately skeptical.
Individually wrapped pats of butter, a single scallion zipped into a plastic bag, and a tiny portion of shrimp did not do much to inspire more confidence. Less than one tablespoon of butter in an entire recipe? You’ve got to be freaking kidding me. What happens if I drop the scallions (sorry, scallion) on the floor? I’m screwed. My anxious inner control freak was about to have a meltdown, especially when I looked at one recipe that called for cream. I’d unpacked the box earlier that day, and there was nary a drop of heavy cream in sight.
It’s pretty much impossible to make the advertised cream-based pasta sauce without any cream, so I decided to improvise. I took the peas, smoked salmon sourced from Acme Seafood in Brooklyn, and rye reginetti pasta that actually did show up, and made them into a sort of swanky pasta salad with plenty of lemon and lots of fresh dill. The result was acceptable, but only further confirmed my skepticism of food delivery services. By the time dinner was on the table, I was frustrated that I’d spent more time trying to figure out what the hell to do with the ingredients that I had than actually cooking.
I had even less luck with Blue Apron, a trendy service that is wildly popular with my fellow coldbrew-chugging, succulent-planting crunchy millennials. The paella that I’d chosen looked positively devourable on the recipe card, but I immediately turned the majority of the pan full of arborio rice, plump fresh shrimp, and peas into a blackened, inedible mess. It wasn’t pretty. Another recipe that I ordered was perhaps a good idea in theory, but didn’t taste so good on the plate. After a while, I started to think that I might be the problem, not BlueApron or Plated.
And then came Chef’d. This service uses celebrity chefs — Scott Conant, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Melissa D’Arabian among them — to create recipes that can be easily reproduced at home. I eventually settled on a a recipe created by Chef’d own in-house culinary professionals, ahi tuna poke, which would prove to be both challenging and delicious.
If you’ve never made poke, you probably don’t realize that it involves a metric fuck-ton of chopping. Crisp Asian pear, serrano pepper, jicama, garlic, ginger, and (approximately) seventy-five other ingredients all had to be minced or diced, and that doesn’t even include the fish. The fish was imported from Vietnam, perhaps not an ingredient that a fine dining chef would use, but it was fresh and full of flavor. One slab of pink, fleshy tuna was slightly fattier than the other, and I thought that might be on purpose — a strategic blending of lean and fatty.
Delicate circles of wonton wrapper were to be brushed with oil, then sprinkled with black sesame and garlic before being placed into a hot oven for just three minutes. Meanwhile, I minced the tuna, whisked the dressing, and left it all in the refrigerator for a few minutes so that the flavors could mingle. The resulting poke was totally addictive — eaten directly from the bowl with a spoon once the crunchy wonton chips were gone — and well-balanced. I brushed my shoulders off, and decided that maybe these food boxes weren’t such a bad idea.
But then there was the cost. Chef’d is also the most expensive of the food delivery services, with two portions of a single meal costing upwards of $40. I can head to the 4-star restaurant next door and have a dinner that I don’t have to cook for just a little bit more cash than that, and probably have leftovers to take home. Those two pats of butter that you receive with each recipe are fine for dinner, but there isn’t going to be any the next morning when you’re craving toast. Those little packets of spices are sure convenient, but you won’t have any cayenne or za’atar when the next recipe comes calling.
Still, I was determined to figure out whether or not these delivery services could actually be a viable way to keep my own cooking fresh. Over the course of the next month, I checked out two more delivery services — HelloFresh and GreenChef, bringing the grand total to five. Of the five that I tried, Chef’d was the hands-down winner, leaving the rest of the services to fight it out for the second place participation award. The food itself was generally of good quality, but the recipes were often disappointing and bland. Other times, they were impossible to execute in the amount of time recommended on the box.
It is perhaps important to note that pretty much all of these food delivery services are barely distinguishable from one another. GreenChef uses organic ingredients, HelloFresh offers gluten-free options — which means that when you’re complaining about one service, it’s likely that your gripes apply across the board.
Each of the five food delivery services I tried came with similar issues. The shipping was always a pain in the ass. One box ended up delivered by a courier at an apartment complex across the street. Another rotted as it sat in front of the wrong unit in the Texas heat. Others arrived at my door a little too warm for comfort, or with wilted vegetables and missing ingredients. Customer service teams happily replaced the errors, but it frequently meant waiting yet another week to have a box shipped to your door.
And the packaging. Oh God, the packaging. The boxes arrive to your door with fresh, chilled ingredients, which means saving, or most likely, throwing away a lot of heavy, sweaty freezer packs. Ingredients are individually wrapped in plastic, then bundled together in, you guessed it, more plastic. The boxes are then lined with a thick sheet of foil-wrapped foam for both insulation and cushion, meaning that you’re going to need to make more than one trip to the trash before you’re even ready to cook dinner.
The person that meal delivery services is most perfect for is the novice, inexperienced cook. If you aren’t sure how to balance flavors or haven’t figured out the perfect breading technique for your baked zucchini fries, the photos and step-by-step instructions can be a great help. Beyond that, cooking these recipes can help show you why balancing acid, salt, and fat are important, or why you should be frying with canola oil instead of olive.
But even as someone with more chops in the kitchen, I can see why these delivery boxes hold so much appeal, even if you’re not a busy 9-to-5er. And that appeal is likely to be enduring — as people get busier with their knitting clubs and 12-hour workdays, this is convenience cooking at its healthiest, two things that people with too much money and not enough time really enjoy. It’s certainly better than popping a TV dinner into the microwave, but if you really love to cook and be creative in the kitchen, you will likely find that these food boxes just don’t deliver.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor.