For good and bad, it was the single sage leaf in a zipped plastic bag that caught my attention.
I was spending a day in my kitchen testing recipe delivery services Blue Apron, HelloFresh and Plated, companies that deliver preportioned ingredients to your doorstep along with instructions on how to turn them into dinner.
The lone sage leaf exemplified the benefits and pitfalls of these kinds of online services, which aim to help with dreaded weekly meal planning and encourage healthier eating at home. The national startups, founded about three years ago, are some of the biggest players on the recipe delivery scene. (Peach Dish, based in Atlanta, has been another notable contender since 2013.) Blue Apron and HelloFresh each ship more than a million meals per month, and in early March, Plated announced it was going to start offering its meals in retail stores around Chicago.
Here's how it works: Go online to the services' websites, choose from a new slate of unique recipes each week (priced at $8 to $12 per plate), select a delivery date, wait for the boxes to arrive at your house, cook the meals with the directions provided. You can skip weeks, so you're not locked into a plan, though each site requires a minimum purchase, usually $40 to $50 worth of food.
I ordered one box from each company to see whether these services really do make cooking dinner less stressful, and whether they're worth skipping a trip to the grocery store.
Convenience with a side of plastic
First, the good. This is about as convenient as home cooking gets, save for someone toiling over the stove while you rest your feet on the couch. Plus, it makes the cooking process more exciting, particularly for those who are intimidated by coming up with meal ideas.
The emphasis on precise, prepackaged ingredients means there is very little food left over, which means less food waste. Each of the three companies touts this as a benefit, and rightly so. To make the Chicken & Sage Biscuit Pot Pie recipe Blue Apron sent, I didn't have to buy a $2 package of sage I would likely not be able to use before it turned bad. It was nice to be able to cook a meal with only the necessary ingredients, and not worry about bagging up half an onion or figuring out what to do with a ¾ bottle of heavy cream.
A darker side of this convenience is the packaging. It's, um, abundant. Everything you need to make dinner is in one box (except for salt, pepper and oil), and for the most part each item is packaged separately. For someone who proudly hauls reusable bags to the grocery store, it hurt to pull ingredient after ingredient from these individual, often plastic packages.
Meats are kept cold with nontoxic, water-soluble gel packs (at least two to three per box; I am still reusing about eight in my freezer); some veggies like carrots and celery are prepeeled or pretrimmed and in their own separate bags. For the Blue Apron recipes in particular, everything came in its own container, meticulously labeled for maximum clarity: what looked like a mini shampoo travel bottle for a quarter cup of heavy cream, 3 tablespoons of flour in a tiny bag, the world's smallest bottle of Tabasco sauce. And then there was that sage, a single leaf in its own zip-top bag, which seemed downright silly. Surely some of these things could have been packaged together.
Recycling is a big part of these companies' mission, but still, the burden is on the customer to dispose of the packaging in an environmentally friendly way. HelloFresh says its boxes are made from biodegradable and recyclable materials, and they encourage people to mail packaging pillows that come in the box back to HelloFresh for $2 per liner. Plated said its boxes are made from 100 percent postconsumer material and can be recycled curbside, and that they cut steps from the food manufacturer to your front door in an effort to help reduce "the entire carbon footprint." All of Blue Apron's packaging is recyclable.
Many of the ingredients are sourced locally, and Blue Apron has created its own grocery distribution platform to work directly with suppliers for cheaper ingredients. HelloFresh works with "a variety of local purveyors," including Murray's Chickens and Love Beets, near its three distribution centers in New Jersey, Dallas and San Francisco. Plated says all of its meats are antibiotic-free and they use only domestic and sustainably caught seafood.
You still have to be the sous chef
Once the ingredients are unpacked, whole red peppers and unsmashed garlic cloves sitting on the counter, staring at you, the process begins to feel less like ordering takeout and more like what it is: cooking dinner. While it's nice to not have to think about what you're going to make or to go shopping after work, you still have to cook. And there's a good amount of technique involved.
In the recipes I tested, everything — rice, sauces, biscuits — was made from scratch. I chopped, I sauteed, I poached. I had to make a roux (a flour-butter thickener used in stews and soups), to chop a cutting board full of veggies, to slice meat into thin strips and to shred chicken breasts with a fork. You're going to sweat.
Colleen McGrath Lilley, 44, of Gulfport was surprised to find the Blue Apron meals she and her husband ordered were rather labor intensive.
"It didn't come prepped. You didn't have to go shopping, but you still had to be the sous chef, and that's the part of cooking I don't enjoy," she says.
A vegetarian, Lilley doesn't cook much ("I heat things up regularly," she says), leaning toward healthy but very simple meals. Bored with the meal choices in their house, her husband did some research into Blue Apron and found "you could order recipes for really any diet." They ordered three vegetarian recipes per week for about six months.
"It solved a problem for us because it didn't require me to look up recipes and go shopping for them. I was too busy to put any extra effort into cooking," she says.
Plus, Lilley says, it expanded their food repertoire.
"We got things I would never make, like Asian noodles with Hoisin sauce. Almost every recipe had an ingredient that I hadn't seen before or I wouldn't have picked up on my own."
In the end, more relief than hassle
At $8 to $12 per plate, costs that verge on restaurant territory, these services can get pricey. How does it stack up to buying the same ingredients at the grocery store? Since ingredients are measured and mailed out in such precise amounts, it's tough to directly compare. It's not like you can buy a quarter cup of heavy cream at the store.
I was struck by another unsettling fact when I came home from work around 7 p.m. to find a box that had been delivered at noon. The delivery window can be up to 12 hours, meaning the food can sit on your doorstep for a while. Plated was the only company to ship from a distribution center in Florida (Miami); the other two sent the boxes from New Jersey. All three companies ensure the ingredients will stay fresh in the box for many hours after delivery, due to the insulated packaging and freezer packs, but the image of a box sweating under the Florida sun makes me question that.
There was also a longevity issue with some of the ingredients I received, particularly from HelloFresh. I cut into a potato for a Roman Chicken recipe on Sunday evening, four days after the box arrived on Wednesday, and it was thoroughly rotten, brown all the way through. It was unusable, which was curious — I've had potatoes sit on the counter for weeks that are fine. And a green pepper Blue Apron sent for its Farro Jambalaya was wilty straight out of the box, though it ended up being okay to use.
In general, though, the boxes were more of a relief than a hassle, especially when the 5 o'clock hour rolled around and I had a dinner idea at home, waiting for me. This isn't the kind of service I'd subscribe to every week, but it offered a chance to try new things and got me thinking about recipes I could try on my own. And, without a trip to the grocery store, I wasn't tempted to buy things I don't need, like a wheel of Brie or a box of Milanos.
Contact Michelle Stark at [email protected] or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.