As summer draws to a close, daylight hours shrink, and the luster of happy hour begins to dull, the option of cooking at home increasingly becomes attractive. And for the motivationally challenged, meal kits provide a stepping stone to self-enabled nutritional balance after a summer of allowing bar appetizers to pass for dinner.
Meal kits are gaining attention from both novice and experienced home cooks alike, because each faces a number of obstacles to a night in the kitchen, most notably the task of grocery shopping. Between the dubious expiration dates at neighborhood bodegas and the onerous prospect of transporting sacks of ingredients on the subway, the price of convenience provided by a delivery meal kit suddenly becomes very negotiable. The meal kit concept also serves as a means of discovering new recipes. If the experience proves positive, the consumer, armed with the recipe, can repeat (and refine) the dish with ingredients acquired through more traditional means.
Two of the most popular meal kit services, Blue Apron and Plated, have been aggressively courting home cooks in the hopes that their services will become as indispensable as your Netflix subscription. Their burdens of proof: convenience, value, and achievable results. With these factors in mind, your humble servant, a generously self-labeled novice cook, will chronicle the experience of utilizing their offerings.
The Blue Apron Experience
The Blue Apron experience is designed for simplicity. Upon registration, the site surveyed me along three basic parameters: number of people for each meal (two or four), dietary preferences (vegetarian, meat, seafood), and delivery parameters, which vary by zip code. My particular Manhattan zip code offered delivery window options ranging in size from as little as four hours (6 to 10 p.m.) to as many as 12 hours (8 a.m. to 8 p.m.).
After completing the survey and entering my credit card information, the site informed me when my first delivery would be and what would be on the menu. From that point on, Blue Apron assumes that you’ll receive a weekly shipment. In the event that it is a bad week to cook or the menu doesn’t interest you, you may opt to pass.
Within a week, my first box arrived. Carefully, I inspected the contents and performed an inventory. With the exception of one gnarled lemon, all the ingredients arrived unscathed in the ice-packed thermally insulated carton. While it is good practice to read the recipe prior to cooking, I opted against better judgment and instead prepared to cook the “Maple & Ginger Glazed Salmon with Watercress, Orange and Parsnip Salad” by pouring a drink and starting the stopwatch.
My arrogance went unpunished as there were no surprises that couldn’t be overcome. In the first step, the recipe called for orange rind to be zested, which would be a lot easier if I had a motherfucking microplane. In hindsight, a microplane would have been a fine investment, as all three recipes included in that particular box included directives to zest a citrus fruit. Further, the second step called for two tablespoons of olive oil, which were not included in the carton. Fortunately, olive oil was among the staples that happened to be hiding in my cupboard.
After completing the six-step recipe in just over 51 minutes, I was able to plate the dish without substantial complication.
Conclusion: The results were reasonable, given both the low effort and low level of skill required. At a price point of $9.99 per person per meal, the comprehensiveness of the meal was certainly competitive with delivery and casual dining establishments.
The greatest caveat with the Blue Apron service is that once you’ve subscribed, the default behavior is that you’ll receive a package each week. While it is possible to skip weeks, that is a manual process done online. Cancellation is only possible via email.
The Plated Experienced
The Plated experience, while similar in concept, features more knobs and levers. Like Blue Apron, which surveys across some broad dietary parameters, Plated also offers dietary control, but to a more granular degree. Notable ingredients/themes that may be excluded from Plated include: dairy, gluten, spicy, peanuts, soy, nuts, and pasta.
After completing the survey, users are offered the ability to select a set of dishes to cook in for two, four, or six diners. Menus can either be manually selected, or Plated can do the lifting for you. At an a la carte price of $15 per plate, or $12 per plate with a monthly or annual membership and with more immediate delivery options, Plated gives you greater control, but at a premium to Blue Apron.
Plated does have one small feature that improves the cooking experience: it identifies on the recipe card items that are expected but not included. Additionally, the recipes include an estimated preparation time.
After completing my order, I awaited the day of the delivery, only to find out that the Plated delivery service (PeriShip, a FedEx subsidiary) was unable to to provide information regarding the delivery time.
Much like Blue Apron, the carton came in an ice-packed thermally insulated carton. After inspecting the goods, I again poured a drink and began to cook, this time tackling the “Swordfish with Gremolata and Lemon Basil Zucchini,” which had an estimated cooking time of 20 to 30 minutes. Armed with the foresight of knowing I’d need olive oil, salt, pepper, a baking sheet, and a large pan, I was more confident beginning the process. This confidence was betrayed, as the preparation took me just under 38 minutes. Again, a microplane would have been handy.
Conclusion: As with the Blue Apron experience, the results were solid, but unspectacular, which should most likely be attributed to the skill level of the chef rather than the curation of the recipe. Plated, though it provides greater control of the process, comes in at a price point that is a considerable margin above that of Blue Apron.
Will It Catch On? By some reports, it already has. Each company claims to be able to offer delivery to 80 percent of U.S. households, with some estimates from over the summer indicating that Blue Apron is delivering 700,000 meals per month, while Plated is delivering 100,000 meals per month.