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If you’re like most of us, you come home from work, take off your clothes and then ask the age-old question: ‘What’s for dinner?’ If you’re single, that might mean choosing between a hastily thrown together sandwich, some dubious looking leftovers, or takeout.

If you’re a parent, that might mean coming in after your daily commute to make dinner and realizing you didn’t thaw out the ground beef, you forgot to pick something up after an exhausting day, or you just don’t have the energy to cook a full-on meal. So you, too, might be picking up the phone to call takeout. Since so many of us are obese or eating foods that aren’t healthy, there must be a better way.

You may have heard of the dinner delivery meal kits from places like Blue Apron and Martha Stewart, whose kits are under the label Marley Spoon. These kits offer a subscription service that only charges you for the weeks you order them. You can pause delivery for the weeks you don’t want and won’t be charged for those ‘off’ weeks.

We took all the guessing out of these kits and actually tried MOST of them. Here’s what we learned.

Kits are great for singles and couples

If you’re single, the kits do two great things – they give you a foolproof dinner plan and they allow you just enough leftovers so that none go to waste. For me personally, I’d collect all these great recipes off Pinterest, swear I was going to make them, and then the perishable ingredients would die in my refrigerator. Meal kits eliminate all those issues, as they only give you enough food for two reasonable servings.

Plated Smoked Salmon Pizza customized with Turkey Bacon (my niece didn’t want smoked salmon, so we compromised)

smokedsalmonturkeybaconpizza

There are no wasted ingredients and no moments of panic once you realize you have everything for the recipe you intended to make but one damn ingredient. It also reduces waste, as most meal kits give you just enough ingredients to make your meal. So instead of having to buy a bottle of teriyaki or barbecue sauce that then might sit in your fridge until its expiration date, you always have just enough of what you need.

Instructions are easy to follow for casual cooks and even experienced cooks might enjoy cooking with new and different ingredients or techniques. (For me, pan searing has been a great new-to-me technique.) For couples, meal kits mean quality time spent preparing together and just enough food for two. (Also, it’s great for singles looking to impress someone with a home cooked dinner for two.)

Kits force you to cook

Kits range in price from $55-100 plus weekly for three-four meals serving either two people or a four-person (or sometimes larger) family. It doesn’t sound so budget-conscious unless you waste a lot of food that goes uncooked or you’re always ordering takeout. There are two-serving boxes and family boxes to choose from depending on your needs. For singles, two boxes with 3 weekly meals will likely get you through two weeks of dinners.

For families, it may be more of a budget imposition depending on your income and who’s eating. If you have finicky kids or significant others, while you do have meal options to choose from, they may not want what is akin to restaurant type meals for every dinner. And if you only eat soul food, well, these ain’t that.

One great thing about kits, even if you use them sparingly, is that they do get you into the habit of cooking at home and most kits offer a variety of healthy meals that include a protein, a starch and a vegetable. They can be used to jump-start healthier, more portion-controlled eating habits if that’s an issue for you. A friend of mine, who turned me on to the kits, lost 100 pounds using meal kits and daily exercise.

Kits source top-quality ingredients

Most meal kits source directly from farms and other food suppliers. What that means for you, especially for meats, seafood and poultry, is that you get top-notch ingredients. I’ve cooked chicken and fish dinners (I don’t eat red meat or pork) and I’ve become accustomed now to the fresh, delicious ingredients. Produce is generally Whole Foods or better level quality. In fact, the food is so fresh that you should plan to cook it within the first few days of getting it, or it will start to go bad.

Kit protein Ingredients from Plated

codfishmeal

Some cons:

The packaging is a pain to dispose of. Kits are delivered in a medium-size box. If you don’t live in a city where recycling comes to you, you’ll end up hauling meal kits and their cold packs, which melt eventually, to the local recycling center. Although the boxes are fairly light, the boxes and cold packs pile up. Fortunately, all the meal kits’ packaging is recyclable. As for the packaging the actual ingredients come in, paper bags, recyclable plastic bags and recyclable boxes are what the meal kit ingredients come in, and that packaging is fairly easy to dispose of.

braisedchickenpapardelle

No apps: A few delivery services, including Green Chef, don’t have apps yet. That’s a pain because using the apps makes it easier to skip meals on the weeks you don’t want them. If you don’t manually skip the week’s delivery, you’ll be charged, so you have to plan carefully. What I did was to skip meals as far as I could go forward, and then go back in the weeks when I wanted a delivery and un-skip. The apps make it easier.

Meal selection:

Some services have less non red meat options. That was the case for me with Blue Apron, so I quickly cancelled. For those on restricted carb or restricted sodium diets, these kits may be an issue, although added salt is one thing the kits allow you to control at your discretion. Frustratingly though, white rice and pasta are the defaults for meals that include them, as opposed to brown rice or whole wheat pastas. Purple Carrot is all vegan/vegetarian foods, but although the meals I made from them were OK, their weekly choices just weren’t that appetizing for me.

Home Chef Skinny Chicken Mozzarella Recipe And Completed Meal

skinnychickenrecipe skinnychickenmozarella

Overall:

We tried Home Chef, Green Chef, Hello Fresh, Blue Apron, Sunbasket, Purple Carrot and Plated. The faves out of these were Home Chef and Marley Spoon. (We paid for all the meal kits.) They have great ingredients, nice packaging, great menu instructions with photographs, both have apps, they both inform you of the deadline dates and times to change or cancel a delivery and they both have a multitude of meal options. Home Chef even has a breakfast option as well as a fruit ordering option.

Marley Spoon Braised Chicken and Papardelle

braisedchickenpapardellemeal

Here’s a tip: each one of these meal plans will send your first meal at an introductory rate that can be $20-30 off the first order. If you sign up for each one, you can get discounted meals for several weeks. But to keep up with who’s charging what and which meals you’re ordering as opposed to skipping, I’d suggest signing up one or two at a time, then cancelling or pausing the service as you try the others. Guess what? If you order, receive a meal, then cancel, they will keep your info on file (you just have to log-in again to reactivate) and likely will offer you another discounted meal to come back. Just call it the food delivery kit hustle. Most of these kits have stellar customer service who can explain how they work and will refund or credit any errors.

PHOTOS: Tonya Pendleton

Have you tried these kits? Do they work for you? Could you see this being an option for you or your family? 

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