Meal kits, which originated in my home country of Sweden, are all the rage these days. You sign up for a certain number of meals per week, and a box will magically appear on your front porch containing carefully pre-packaged ingredients and recipe cards telling you exactly how to transform your beets, barley and shallots into beautiful gourmet dinners. Some of the contenders in this increasingly crowded field are Blue Apron, Plated, HelloFresh, and the all-vegan Purple Carrot (the latter features recipes crafted by former New York Times writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman). HelloFresh happened to be running a special in my area, offering a box for nearly $20 off.
At this point, I should mention that even with a discount, these boxes are not cheap. My HelloFresh box, which contained the ingredients needed to make three vegetarian dinners feeding two people, cost $40; the regular cost is $59. That’s about ten bucks per meal. Purple Carrot’s boxes are even pricier, at $68. (HelloFresh’s non-veggie boxes cost $69 for two, $129 for four.)
So why on earth would you pay that much money for food you have to cook yourself? Well, for me, I complain a lot about getting in a rut and making the same recipes over and over again, but finding new ones to try can be challenging, and then you have to go out and shop for all the ingredients. One of my personal bugaboos is celery. I make a lot of soups, and there’s frequently a quarter or a half cup of chopped celery required. Inevitably, I wind up throwing away a bunch of celery because it gets soft and rubbery before I can use it all up. Sometimes I ask Joe to bring me some from his work cafeteria’s salad bar, which isn’t cheaper, but it seems less wasteful. Well, with meal kits, there’s no food waste. Everything is pre-measured for you. Just look at this meal kit from HelloFresh, containing the ingredients for a brussels sprout and barley salad! It’s so adorably packed into teensy bags, and there’s even a diminutive bottle of Balsamic vinegar! (Granted, there’s a lot of plastic here, but at least the box itself is recyclable.)
Out of the three recipes, I decided to make the brussels sprout salad first, because Joe is off eating overpriced hot dogs at a sporting event and sprouts are one of his not-a-chance-in-hell foods. (I personally love them and make them fairly regularly.) This is not a quickie recipe; I had to cook the barley for 30 minutes, wash the arugula, wash and trim the sprouts, and thinly slice the shallot. It probably took around 45 minutes, though not all of that was active cooking time. It also requires dirtying a few pans. One of Joe’s Facebook friends also tried HelloFresh this week and was downright angry at how much work was involved: “if I had wanted to MINCE [curse word redacted] GINGER I would have taken a class at the Cordon Bleu.”
As for me, I didn’t mind the prep; it was fairly easy and straightforward. And the portions were extremely generous. This was a big dinner and required no side dishes. (Since Joe won’t be eating any of it, I can enjoy the leftovers tomorrow!) The calorie count seemed on the high side, but I wound up only using half of one goat cheese packet (there were two in the box), since it seemed like an awful lot. I’ll use the leftover goat cheese later in the week.
It definitely tasted more “gourmet” than my usual weeknight fare. This is the sort of dish I’d expect to get at an upscale bistro. It’s kind of cool that I made it myself (my first time cooking barley!), and it tasted better and fresher than most food I’ve tried from the takeout counters at Whole Foods or Berkeley Bowl.
Based on this initial meal, I’d say that the ideal customer for these kits are (a) not terribly price-conscious, (b) enjoy cooking and don’t mind spending 30-45 minutes prepping dinner, (c) like trying new foods, and (d) have trouble sitting down on Sunday afternoons and planning a week’s worth of menus. I feel like I qualify on all of those counts, and I look forward to trying the other two meals that came in the box (and I really hope I can convince Joe to try them as well!). The one thing I really hope is that these services can find ways to reduce waste; ideally, it would be nice to see them move toward more reusable packaging (maybe there’d be a way to pick up some of the boxes and cold packs when they drop off the following week’s meals). But for now, I’m a pretty satisfied customer.