HelloFresh is one of several meal-kit delivery companies to pop up in recent years. Image credit: HelloFresh via The Washington Post
Meal-kit delivery services have grown from a novel start-up concept to a billion-dollar industry in a few short years. You've probably heard of some of the bigger players by now: Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Plated, Chef'd, Purple Carrot. These companies essentially take meal planning and grocery shopping off your plate (pun intended) by curating a menu, bringing all the ingredients to your door and giving you step-by-step instructions for getting those meals on the table. Everything is brought to you in an insulated box in exact amounts: a single stalk of celery, a teaspoon of paprika in a little packet, a little vial of vinegar. You still do the chopping and cooking, but everything else is taken care of - well, except the dishes.
There are many of these companies in the game, each with a slightly different marketing angle, all generally priced in the range of $10 to $15 per meal per person. The services are convenient, and word on the street is the food is truly tasty. I have spoken to several people who use one plan or another and have heard only praise about meal flavor and quality, and that was my experience with the dinners I tried from one brand, HelloFresh. But can these meal kits also help you eat healthier? I dove deeper to find out.
If you often find yourself facing 5 p.m. famished with nothing in the refrigerator and are likely to grab greasy takeout as a result, buying one of these plans, which typically cover you for two or three dinners a week, would probably translate into more-nutritious meals with fewer calories. But it depends on how you choose. (All of the services I saw allow you to select from several meal options each week, except for Purple Carrot, which has a set menu.) The majority of the meals on these plans come in at between 500 and 800 calories, and all those I compared offered a nutritional breakdown for each recipe, except for Blue Apron, which lists only the calories per portion. There is a tremendous range, even within individual services, in healthfulness, depending on the meal chosen.
For example, with Plated, you could go for a not-so-healthy (but admittedly delicious-sounding) dish such as the Mac and Cheese with Gruyere, Peas and Pea Shoots, which comes in at 770 calories and 19 grams of saturated fat (95 percent of the daily recommended value) per serving, or a better-for-you Skillet Roasted Chicken with Caramelized Fennel and Potatoes at 540 calories and 3.5 grams of saturated fat. As a rule, vegetable-, seafood- and poultry-centric meals are healthier than those based on meat or cheese.
Some services are more invested in making health a priority than others. HelloFresh, for example, has an in-house dietitian who reviews each meal, and although there are 800-calorie burgers on the menu, there's also a wide and appealing array of lighter options. Purple Carrot is a vegan service, and for the most calorie-conscious, Chef'd offers meals in partnership with Weight Watchers.
Whether especially health-focused or not, a big benefit of these meal kits is that they can help you get a handle on portions. When Dianne Murphy, owner of the public relations company Dinamic Communications, opened her first Blue Apron box, she remembers thinking, "This is never going to be enough food." But, she says, it is. "Now we are eating smaller portions and feeling satisfied."
My neighbor Paige Davis, an actress (currently playing the role of Roxie in "Chicago" on Broadway), often has a Blue Apron box in front of her door. She had a similar initial reaction to the quantity of food but now realizes she had been buying way too much and ultimately wasting a lot of food when she shopped for meals. She said Blue Apron has taught her a lot about appropriate portions.
Meal kits can also expand culinary horizons, which ultimately keeps healthy eating appealing and sustainable. "I have tried spices I never would have tried. It opens up your world to different flavors," Davis said. She recalls that her first box contained the ingredients for a catfish recipe and that she was disappointed at first. "I never would choose catfish at the store, but I loved the dish, and to this day it is one of my favorites," she said. Murphy had a similar experience. "I didn't feel comfortable cooking fish, and now I cook fish!" Now she, her husband and their three children are exposed to and enjoy a wider variety of vegetables; arugula is their new favorite.
The step-by-step instructions included in the boxes can also up your cooking game, and better skills and more confidence in the kitchen usually translate to healthier eating over the long term. Murphy originally started with the service one summer thinking it would be a kind of "cooking school" for her kids. She found that it not only taught them valuable skills, but also gave her new techniques. "I'm not buying salad dressing anymore because I have learned how easy it is," she said.
If you are already skilled in the kitchen, regularly cook healthy meals and, like me, enjoy the creative aspect of planning meals and exploring ingredients at the market, a meal-kit service probably won't help you eat any better, and all that packaging material does generate a lot of waste. When I tried HelloFresh, I enjoyed the meals but actually felt deprived of the creativity involved with more improvised cooking, and I thought it was silly to have a tablespoon of flour in a packet when I had a whole pound of it in my cupboard. But if you often feel stuck at dinnertime, meal kits could be just the assist, inspiration and hands-on education you need to help get you on a healthier track. Just choose your meals wisely for the best results.
Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author. She blogs and offers a biweekly newsletter at elliekrieger.com. She also writes weekly Nourish recipes in The Washington Post's Food section.