Are mail-order meal kits worth the cash?


(Photo: Pixabay)

Meal kits — such as Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and Plated — are a great way to learn the fundamentals of cooking. And for people too busy to go to a store, they also guarantee a supply of fresh, high-quality food.

But it all comes at a hefty price.

I tried Blue Apron for a week. They sent me the ingredients and recipes for three highly flavored dinners, two portions apiece.

And it cost 60 bucks. Technically, $59.94. That works out to 10 dollars per person, per meal (OK, $9.99).

True, it’s less expensive than basically any restaurant. But you have to cook the food yourself, and clean up after yourself — and it’s just the main course. Any side dishes are cooked and paid for by you. Beverages, too, though Blue Apron also offers 500 ml bottles of wine for $10.

If you’re buying the food for four people, then the price drops down to $8.99 per meal. It’s a welcome discount, but it will still set you back $3,740 a year for just two dinners per week.

The week that I was a subscriber, I received the ingredients and detailed recipes for spicy beef tacos, shrimp with fresh gnocchi and seared chicken and vegetable ragoût. All three were delicious; certainly better than the average weeknight meal.

All three also took a lot of time and effort to make — that’s why they tasted so good. And two of the three left me hungry.

The tacos began with what they claimed was 10 ounces of ground beef but was in fact 9 3/4 ounces. I know, that’s just a difference of 1/4 ounce, a mere 7 grams. But I notice they didn’t accidentally give me 101/4 ounces instead. And when the package says “10 ounces” on it, it really is supposed to have 10 ounces of meat in it. There are rules about that.

It also came with six street-size corn tortillas, 12 cherry tomatoes, of which four were a little off two days after they arrived so I didn’t use them, an absolutely gorgeous ear of corn, an aging lime (again, two days after arrival), a sprinkling of cilantro, some pastes and seasonings and a jalapeño that was absolutely devoid of heat. It tasted like a jalapeño-shaped bell pepper.

It took maybe 45 minutes to cook and assemble the whole thing, and the taste was wonderful — bright and fresh and delightful. I had five of the tiny tacos (my wife had one), and I was still hungry enough to eat a rather embarrassing amount of leftover deli meat.

The next night’s shrimp and gnocchi began with 10 ounces of shrimp (really 9 1/8 ounces), 6 ounces of cherry tomatoes (5 1/4 ounces), a less gorgeous but still nice ear of corn, a couple of scallions, 12 ounces of fresh gnocchi (really 12 1/4 ounces. Good for them!), some basil, crushed red pepper and two tablespoons of high-quality butter.

It was decidedly summery and tasted fine, but it wasn’t as good as the tacos. I don’t know what possessed the recipe creator to add an ear’s worth of corn to a gnocchi dish. That’s just piling the starch on top of starch. But any meal finished with a hunk of good butter is bound to be good.

The chicken and vegetable ragoût came with two smallish chicken breasts (no weight given, but they totaled 11 ounces), 6 ounces of cherry tomatoes (5 1/2 ounces), 6 ounces of sugar snap peas (4 ounces!), 8 ounces of Yukon gold potatoes (71/4 ounces), garlic, basil, a tablespoon of sherry vinegar, more of that great butter and a shallot the size of a tennis ball.

Once again, the flavors blended marvelously. And then I finished off the rest of that leftover deli meat.

For the beginning cook, the recipes are full of important techniques and helpful tips. They demonstrate the basics of sautéing, show how to extract flavor out of aromatics by cooking them first and play up the importance of seasoning every step of the way. You get a great sense of the order in which to cook various ingredients, when to add seasonings and when to finish with butter.

Once you have learned enough from this thrice-weekly cooking class, you can cancel at any time. But it isn’t easy. They won’t let you cancel unless you check a specific reason from their extensive list of reasons. Then, when you check it, they explain why that’s not an adequate reason.

They make it hard to untie those Apron strings.

By Daniel Neman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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