Meal kits aren't going anywhere. The boxes of pre-portioned ingredients and recipes that get delivered weekly to your door are set to "grow to between $3 billion to $5 billion over the next 10 years based on current adoption rates," Fast Company reported, citing data from research firm Technomic. In June, there were more than 150 meal kit companies vying for your attention, knife skills and cash, according to Food Business News.
The appeal of meal kits is easy to see. All of the ingredients are packaged and sent in their exact amount, eliminating the need for grocery shopping or figuring out what to do with a fifth of an onion and half a can of diced tomatoes. Plus, they make for a non-intimidating entry point for anyone less than comfortable in the kitchen, simplifying the process of preparing a fresh meal, the Specialty Food Association noted.
Perhaps their biggest advantage is that the kits prevent decision fatigue: Instead of spending an hour scrolling through Pinterest to figure out what to make for dinner, the meals are chosen for you by the company.
And yet, despite all of these benefits, I've never felt a strong desire to get into the meal kit game. I'm an avid cook with an impressive cookbook collection. Plus, I prefer to eat vegetarian, and have heard from friends that vegetarian options offered in a kit are often pasta. Why would I pay $50 a week for ingredients I pretty much always have on hand?
Still, not having to decide which of the millions of recipes I wanted to make sounds appealing. And perhaps I was wrong: If these companies put so much thought into making a range of creative recipes for meat eaters, surely there was some consideration put into their meat-free offerings.
I decided to put the vegetarian boxes from six popular meal kit companies, including Blue Apron, Plated, PeachDish, HelloFresh, Marley Spoon and One Potato, to the test to see if any were worth ordering again. Sixteen meals later, this is what I found.
• Cheesy eggplant Parmesan melts
• Summer squash bánh mì
While none of Plated's options were pasta (phew!), both were sandwiches on white bread. Sandwiches are stereotypically a lunch food, and white bread feels pretty 1990s. So this was little off-putting. The bread for both sandwiches also arrived a bit squished and misshapen, and the instructions called for both to be stored in the fridge, which is never where good bread is stored.
As for the taste, the sauce was bland. Plus, the side salad was nearly inedible thanks to the too pungent sherry vinaigrette that comes with it.
The bánh mì earned points for being a more diverse option, but the bread was dry. The meal's saving grace? The umami-packed miso grilled corn — which is technically a side dish. I took two bites of the sandwich before tossing it and scarfing down the bowl of the corn for dinner instead.
Compared to the other meal kit companies, Plated arrived in a pretty small box while managing to hold a lot of food. I appreciated how organized it was: Each recipe came packaged in its own plastic bag, making it easy to store in the fridge.
Plated provided easy-to-follow recipe instructions. Still, the bánh mì recipe technically required a grill pan to make (though you could roasted the vegetables, but it would not taste the same). I don't own a grill pan, so I had to borrow one from a friend. Also frustrating: Each of Plated's sandwiches took over an hour to make.
Plated doesn't provide much nutritional information on its recipe cards besides calorie counts, which were relatively reasonable for the amount of food served. The eggplant melts with a salad came in at 720 calories while the bánh mì with corn was 550 calories per serving.
Each Plated meal works out to be $12 per serving, whether vegetarian or regular. While this is not unreasonable for a sandwich and a side, it's possible to get a better meal from a restaurant for the same price (and no cooking or cleaning up is required). Case in point: a roasted cauliflower bánh mì on fresh, bread is $7.95 at Num Pang, a trendy sandwich shop in New York City.
• Sweet pepper, zucchini stir-fry with soba noodles
• Fregola sarda pasta with ricotta
• Summer vegetable and queso tostadas
Even though two of the three meals were some form of pasta, Blue Apron's meals had variety. One of the pasta dishes was made with fregola, a small, round spherical noodle similar to cous cous and not something I would typically buy. The other pasta dish was made with soba, a popular Japanese buckwheat noodle. I appreciated the inclusion of a Mexican dish as well, and the vegetable and queso tostadas ended up being my favorite meal of the box.
This is the area in which Blue Apron struggled the most. All of the ingredients were seemingly tossed in the box, without being separated for each individual meal. Oddly, the box was missing a couple of ingredients too.
The recipes required an incredible amount of chopped and dicing, and my wrist was sore by the end. Each meal took 20 to 30 minutes longer to cook than estimated too, despite my speedy chopping skills. Blue Apron does save you on cleanup, though: Often, the recipe instructs the chef to wipe out a pan and reuse it. Nice.
Like Plated, Blue Apron only offers calorie counts on its meals. Most were around the 700-calorie mark per serving, surprisingly high for dinners without side dishes.
Each serving costs $9.99 per person, regardless if it is vegetarian. While the meals were interesting and heavy on the vegetables, nearly $20 is a lot to spend to make a noodle-based dish for two people. The portions were generous, however, and I did often have leftovers for lunch.
• Patatas bravas salad
• Veggie lo mein
• Zucchini and asparagus farro bowl
I was delighted when the HelloFresh box arrived with one hearty salad, a non-Italian noodle dish and a grain bowl. The salad, which is a riff on the popular Spanish tapas, was salty and filling — something I would definitely make again, even without the box. Same goes for the grain bowl.
Of all of the meal kits, HelloFresh's packaging was my favorite. Each recipe arrived neatly tucked into its own rectangular box, which fit easily into my fridge. The sauces and spices were also cleanly packaged and the produce was of a relatively high quality. It was nice to just come home, pull the box out of the fridge without having to look for anything and start cooking.
The recipes required quite a bit of chopping, but for the most part, they took no more than 10 minutes longer to make than the estimated time, which made cooking, while starving after work, much more tolerable.
HelloFresh was one of the few meal kit brands that list the complete nutritional facts for each of its meals on the recipe cards. While I felt like most the meals were really carb heavy, they surprisingly all had about 15 to 20 grams of protein per serving. Also, all three meals stayed between the 500- to 600-calorie range, which is more reasonable than a number of other meal kits.
Each HelloFresh vegetarian box serving is about $9.08, which is $.82 less than a meat-based box. I appreciate that the meat-free box costs less, but I did imagine the price different to be greater, however. Still, at $9 a serving, HelloFresh is on the cheaper side of meal kit meals.
• Corn and squash fritters
• Whole wheat farfalle and spinach
• Grilled eggplant and yogurt
I was a little disappointed that Marley Spoon, a company backed by lifestyle legend Martha Stewart, would have such a straightforward and boring-sounding pasta dish as part of the meal plan. I don't need to pay $10 to have someone tell me to boil pasta and toss in some spinach. The ingredients were top notch, however: The ricotta salata used to top the pasta came from Murray's, a reputable cheesemonger and the butter used in the recipe was from a high-end creamery.
I loved the corn and squash fritters, which were served with an herb salsa recipe so flavorful I bought more ingredients to make a big batch the next day to pour on everything the next day. The grilled eggplant and yogurt dish was also delicious. Sadly, the dishes weren't very filling and felt like appetizers, not full meals.
This meal kit is organized and the recipe ingredients are easy to find. The company also gives you extra food to use for a future meal. For example, my box came with a full bag of whole wheat farfalle when you only needed half. The produce also looked fresher than other boxes: Every box gave me garlic, but Marley Spoon's was the best.
Marley Spoon would better suit people who like to cook, and have a bit of experience doing so. The box has a few advanced techniques, like reserving pasta water to make a pasta sauce with butter or pan frying fritters. Techniques aside, the instructions were easy and clear and didn't require an excessive amount of chopping or prep work.
Marley Spoon's calorie counts per serving were all over the place. The fritters, which are fried in oil, only had 470 calories, while the farfalle had a whopping 810 calories per bowl. The eggplant and yogurt dish fell in the middle at 675 calories. The calorie counts are unfortunately quite high for dishes that often feel like appetizers and not full meals.
Marley Spoon does not offer a different price for vegetarian boxes. Each meal works out to $10.25 per serving, which is quite high for small portions. Still, the company uses high-quality ingredients, which no doubt add in to the cost of the box.
• Black-eyed peas salad with masa cakes
• Eggplant Provençal with saffron rice
PeachDish offered the most interesting menus. It was refreshing to see rice and beans on the ingredient lists, which I hadn't encountered up until this box. The eggplant Provençal made good use of the purple vegetable. All in all, the box seemed more upscale than the others, but that may just come down to the fact that saffron is so damn expensive.
The black-eyed pea salad with masa cakes was definitely one of my favorite meals out of all of the boxes. It was filling, thanks to the beans, and the masa cakes were easy to make. I would have probably never thought to put the two items together into one meal without the innovation of the recipe card.
PeachDish offered stellar packaging. Each recipe was placed in a breathable satin bag that kept the produce fresh. At the bottom of the box, I also found two chocolate chocolate chip cookies and two peaches for dessert — an unexpected treat and wonderful touch.
Rice is nice. Most of the boxes avoided the grain, and I'd guess because cooking rice is often a task that intimidates people, even though it is quite simple. The rice-cooking method provided was pretty successful for the most part, though the rice tasted a bit under-seasoned, so I wish I'd have added my own flavors.
Like HelloFresh, PeachDish provides the full nutritional breakdown on the back of its recipe cards. Both meals had a decent amount of protein, although the eggplant dish was surprisingly high in fat (27 grams per serving). It also had nearly double the calories (704 per serving) than the black-eyed pea salad (382 calories per serving).
Each serving costs between $10.83 and $12.50 (the more meals you order, the cheaper it is), depending on how many meals you order that week. Unfortunately, vegetarian meals are not cheaper than meat-centric meals. While the price might be on the higher side for meal kit boxes, the recipes definitely had very large portion sizes and they came with dessert.
• Vegetable fajitas with Spanish rice
• Falafel with hummus and baba ganoush
• Sweet corn ravioli with heirloom tomato salad
I was impressed with the variety of menu items from One Potato, a new meal kit boxed geared toward families. The company clearly put a lot of thought into its vegetarian ideas. The vegetable fajitas included faux meat in the form of Beyond Meat chicken. A nice touch, but fake meat products aren't for everyone (myself included).
The falafel were fine but not as good as they could have been — probably because they were pan-fried and not deep-fried, which is tradition. The sweet corn ravioli, which was packed with flavor thanks in part to a delicious herb butter, was the star of the box.
One Potato struggled with its packaging. While most of the ingredients for each recipe came packaged together in a large plastic bag, there were some ingredients missing. The falafel was supposed to come with pita but instead, I had three packs of white tortilla for both the fajitas and the falafel.
Many of the ingredients were pre-made, which sort of seemed to contradict the point of a meal kit. And the corn for the ravioli also came pre-shucked and off the cob, which was a strange choice. The result was a bunch of weird and mushy sauces and veggies, many of which I tossed because they were spoiled.
Considering this is a meal kit, it involved a surprisingly little amount of actual cooking. The directions were easy enough to follow, but I'm still stumped as to why they included things like pre-made guacamole — a dish that takes mere minutes to make.
One Potato did not include any nutritional information, which I found to be strange. There were no calorie counts whatsoever. That being said, I liked the fake meat, beans and rice, which are ingredients most boxes didn't contain.
Each One Potato adult serving costs $11.99. The price is on the higher side but is actually quite a good deal considering that each meal has multiple components like hummus and cous cous and a salad and falafel. The boxes also come with slice-and-bake cookie dough for dessert, which is never a bad thing.
If I had to do it all over again, I would order more meals from PeachDish in part because of the use of hearty ingredients like black-eyed peas and rice, but also for its stellar cookies, which are the best way to end any meal. Both PeachDish meals were ones I would have never thought to make myself, and they are both going into my regular rotation of recipes — I'll just go to grocery store and get the ingredients.
The lack of variety when it came protein sources was the biggest issue I took with most of these boxes. Most dishes included some form of cheese and sometimes nuts.
I appreciated that the boxes got me to cook more than I usually would. There were nights where I was making farro bowls instead of opening my Seamless app to order a mediocre pizza, and I definitely felt better because of it.
Would I order a meal kit again? Maybe. Having two to three meals decided for me each week and committing to cooking them isn't exactly something I want to pay for. But ordering the occasional meal kit is a nice way to shake up my routine.