I remember my mother, an avid subscriber to Woman’s Day, planning our family’s meals each week. The magazine’s suggestions for entrees and sides—spaghetti with green salad, baked chicken with potatoes and peas, beef goulash and broccoli—were accompanied by detailed shopping lists.
I am a poor planner when it comes to food shopping, and often find myself with a refrigerator giddily stocked with meats, vegetables and bunches of fresh herbs, all with no endgame in sight. Some of my farmers market and grocery store zealousness inevitably ends up in the garbage, thus contributing to the 60 million tons of food wasted in the U.S. each year.
For many, getting control of the fridge means careful planning. Knowing exactly what’s for dinner—and having all the necessary ingredients on hand to prepare it—goes a long way to preventing waste, I’ve found.
Enter pre-portioned meal delivery. In the past year, I’ve experimented with a handful of services, ranging from the hands-free Galley Foods to the online shopping service Relay Foods (soon to be Door to Door Organics after a merger), which offers a menu-planning function.
According to Consumer Reports, meal delivery has grown into a $400 million industry since it first established a foothold some five years ago. There seems to be a box for every taste, from the pricey New York Times’ chef-driven Chef’d to the plant-based Purple Carrot.
I began using planned menus piecemeal, when, in 2013, I came across Friends & Farms, a Columbia-based company that aggregated fresh and mostly local food, CSA-style, into baskets for pick-up. Subscribers received enough meat, eggs, dairy, bread and vegetables for at least two full meals, with plenty of extras. The company’s website offered recipes that aligned with proffered foodstuffs. Sadly, the company folded last year.
Since that halting start, the idea of having someone else do my grocery shopping, and, by extension, organize my meals, has taken hold. Here is a rundown of the services I’ve tried, moving from most required involvement to least; costs per meal unsurprisingly tend to move in the opposite direction.
With so many companies clamoring to bring food to our tables, it’s a wonder we bother to cook anymore.
While not a meal-delivery service per se, Relay Foods, which launched in Virginia in 2009 as an online grocery service, has evolved into a user-friendly site that helps plan meals and reduce wasted purchases. Relay has since expanded regionally, including to the Baltimore/D.C. area. By the time this story appears, Relay’s planned merger with Door to Door Organics, a Colorado-based company with a similar business model, may well be complete.
Relay’s approach evolved from listening to its customers. “We hear a lot that the mental energy of managing a family’s food life is stressful and anxiety-producing,” says company president Derek Mansfield. “People want to cook at home but don’t have time to do complicated meals.” Relay’s meal-planning function means you can browse recipes by category (breakfast, seasonal, salads) or by special diets (paleo, vegan, egg-free). Once you’ve chosen a recipe, you can fill your shopping cart with the necessary ingredients, often in required amounts.
The next step, says Mansfield, is a way for customers to link their own recipes to their shopping carts: “Say you want to make your grandmother’s pecan pie recipe. You can enter it into your recipe book, so next time it’s a one-click order.”
The website has plenty of recipes, and its prices are similar to those I find at the grocery store. I can pick up my order from the back of a truck parked on Roland Ave. each Monday and Friday. relayfoods.com; doorto doororganics.com
Fresh Market isn’t the only grocery store to jump on the meal-planning bandwagon, but its Little Big Meal program is a serious contender with the delivery-only outfits. And the price is also appealing. Each week, the store offers a package with just about everything you need to put together two meals for four. Recent menus included stir-fry (for $20, you get a bag of vegetables; a choice of chicken, steak or shrimp; 12 ounces of teriyaki or Thai peanut sauce; a pound of rice; and a dozen spring rolls or pot stickers) and meatloaf and risotto ($15 buys a prepared meatloaf, risotto, asparagus and pound cake). The grocery chain started the program about a year ago in response to customer feedback, says Stephanie Lowder, PR manager. “A team of foodies creates interesting meals each week.” Drawbacks: One, if you want extra herbs or condiments, you’re on your own, and, two, there are two meal offerings each week—on other days, fend for yourselves. thefreshmarket.com
Blue Apron hits my three requirements of a meal-delivery service: At about $10 per meal, it’s affordable; the recipes are easy to follow and involve minimal prep; there’s enough variety to keep things interesting.
For some, a drawback might be portion size. The three meals in each delivery are calibrated for two servings each (about $10 per plate), and while sometimes a meal is large enough to stretch, don’t count on a lot of leftovers. Blue Apron also offers a plan for families—two meals per week with servings for four are about $8.75 per plate—but I found the family-friendly recipes unexciting compared to the more adventuresome two-person plan.
Each week, an ice-packed cardboard box arrives filled with everything you need.
Ingredients are portioned to prevent food waste. You’ll get a few sprigs of rosemary, a tiny plastic bottle with a few tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, a packet of seasoning—even a single raw egg, suspended in an air-cushioned cardboard nest.
Recipe cards resemble food blog instructions, with color photos illustrating each carefully detailed step. Blue Apron requires chopping, zesting, browning and deglazing. I’m a fairly experienced home cook, and I’ve learned some tricks and shortcuts from following the service’s recipes. But my 17-year-old daughter is just picking up basic cooking skills.
Blue Apron works well in my two-person household. If I plan to return home late, I might get the mise en place done early in the day, then let my daughter finish preparing the meal while I’m out. So when I get home, I can pour myself a glass of Blue Apron wine (did I mention the company offers wine delivery, curated from boutique vineyards to pair with meals?) and enjoy. blueapron.com
Terra’s Kitchen, started in Baltimore by Michael McDevitt, former CEO of Medifast, is designed to give you the illusion of preparing meals at home without actually requiring much hands-on time. Ingredients are portioned, chopped, sliced and diced, so all you have to do is throw them together and cook according to instructions. The food is packed in an insulated container resembling a mini- fridge. Packages are numbered to correspond with each recipe so there’s no mix-up. While Blue Apron’s ingredients arrive in generic bottles and bags—a tablespoon of mayonnaise, for example, will come in a plastic cup—Terra will toss in, say, a branded foil packet of Hellmann’s like the one you’d get at a cafeteria. Another note: While it’s lovely to have everything prepped, I’ve found that pre-chopping veggies shortens their shelf life.
Terra’s Kitchen meals range in price from $10 to $18 per serving, and you can order sides like salads and smoothies. The menus are categorized by dietary concerns, such as gluten, nut- and dairy-free, vegan and paleo. At the start of the year, Terra’s Kitchen began a weight-loss category. terraskitchen.com
Galley Foods launched in D.C. in early 2014, and has since made its way to Baltimore. The service delivers healthful heat-and-serve entrées within 30 minutes. The daily menu, priced from around $12 to $16 per plate, might include seared steak with mashed potatoes or shrimp and udon stir-fry. You can add extras like a superfood salad for $8 or a $3 chocolate chip cookie. galleyfoods.com