2016-03-10 / Arts & Entertainment News

Cooking out of the box

Subscription meal plans the new way to save time, eat well
Florida Weekly Correspondent

Above: Hello Fresh sends delicious ingredients to your doorstep for cooking fresh in your kitchen. Above: Hello Fresh sends delicious ingredients to your doorstep for cooking fresh in your kitchen. Have you found yourself falling back on the same five or six meals every week? Are you bored by what’s in your refrigerator and feeling uninspired when it comes time to cook?

That’s what was happening at my house. My husband and I, who have long loved to cook, were in a major slump. Although I’d plan meals in advance, shop once a week for ingredients and have them ready for use, we’d arrive home from work exhausted, prepare dinner for our dogs and cats then run out of steam and ambition before feeding ourselves.

We’d resort to either a throw-together dinner of salmon on the grill with roasted veggies and fruit or, more often, we’d head out to eat.

The result was that we ate out three or four times a week — not counting the restaurant reviews I do for Florida Weekly. Even when going to relatively inexpensive places — Thai, Chinese, neighborhood Italian — the expense quickly adds up. When I stopped to figure out what we were spending, I was horrified: upwards of $200 a week on dinners out, not to mention what we threw away in the form of food that went bad in the refrigerator.

Hello Fresh sends delicious ingredients to your doorstep for cooking fresh in your kitchen. 
HELLOFRESH / COURTESY PHOTO Hello Fresh sends delicious ingredients to your doorstep for cooking fresh in your kitchen. HELLOFRESH / COURTESY PHOTO Then my stepdaughter, who lives in Boston and juggles a high-pressure job and single motherhood, told me she had started using Blue Apron, a subscription meal plan service, and she really liked it.

I was dubious. I’d tried another one — Plated — about a year ago and had been disappointed by the results. But she sent me an invitation to try Blue Apron, and so for a discounted price — I think the first one was $20 — I received our first three meals. The box was delivered to our door filled with a bounty of fresh vegetables and some fresh fish that was carefully tucked between packs of dry ice. There were large, full-color recipe cards, too, with pictures of what we were going to eat: cod and potato brandade with watermelon relish salad and garlic toasts; butternut squash and Gouda casserole with rigatoni, Brussels sprouts and chestnut breadcrumbs; and creamy lemon linguini with caramelized onion, chard and walnuts.

Heirloom carrot and toasted farro salad with labneh cheese and pickled dates is one of the Blue Apron dishes subscribers enjoyed in January. 
KAREN FELDMAN / FLORIDA WEEKLY Heirloom carrot and toasted farro salad with labneh cheese and pickled dates is one of the Blue Apron dishes subscribers enjoyed in January. KAREN FELDMAN / FLORIDA WEEKLY It felt like Christmas. I could hardly wait to start cooking.

Costly but convenient

Subscription meal boxes have become popular among working folks who have more money than time and energy. They cut down on the amount of time you spend shopping and digging up recipes. Instead, all you have to do is open your box, pull out the ingredients, choose a recipe and get started.

They aren’t inexpensive. Most of the plans run $10-$15 per person per meal. Two of the most popular — Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, the ones I’ve been testing over the past couple of months — run about $9-$10 per meal per person. Compare that with what the USDA estimates to be the cost of most home-prepared meals — somewhere between $1.80 and $3.60 per person per meal (that seems to be the extreme low end) — and it’s clear that these aren’t meant to be money savers. But depending on your dining habits, they might actually save you money. And there are a number of other advantages as well.

Arlene Knox of Fort Myers has a demanding job in Naples and two teenaged daughters, resulting in a hectic, fast-paced life, particularly during the winter season. So she started ordering Blue Apron.

“I absolutely love it,” Ms. Knox says. “I love to cook, and it’s relaxing for me, but during season is our busiest time. I’m often working weekends, and then there are the kids and all their activities. For me to make this type of meal takes a level of planning I just don’t have the time for right now.”

In the summer, she adds, she has more time to spend cooking. “But right now, this is brilliant. It’s worth the money. We’re not wasting food. We are eating everything. It’s just enough. The kids like it, and we’re getting to try new stuff. It’s wonderful.”

She says that before Blue Apron, she frequently found herself headed to the supermarket after work. “I can go to the grocery store and blow 60 bucks and still not have three meals prepared. Sometimes it’s too much for me to think about.”

Although the meals run about $10 each per person, “I’m saving money because I only buy the staple stuff when I go to the store. And I’m not going to the store every other day. It’s a lot of food. It’s often dinner with some left over for lunch. When the three of us are home, it’s enough for all of us.” (That drops the price to less than $7 per person.)

Ms. Knox has selected the omnivore version for her family; you can also pick one with fish and vegetarian options or just vegetarian dishes. Last weekend, she was making chicken cutlets and was planning pork chops for the following night.

Michael McNally and Beth Drouin have been receiving the fish and vegetable box once a month for about four months now and have been enjoying them. Because Ms. Drouin isn’t a big fan of butternut squash, she substitutes another dish via their online account when she sees that coming up on the menu, an option she likes.

In general, the couple has enjoyed the dishes they have tried, especially some of the unusual combinations such as the warm grain salad made with farro, radishes, beet, avocado, orange, tarragon, walnuts and gorgonzola cheese.

At first, they say, the process felt somewhat labor intensive, but then they learned to conquer and divide.

“Initially, it was a whole lot more trouble than I expected,” says Mr. McNally. “But we’ve gotten better at it. We don’t need to read each recipe three times anymore. Now one of us does the prep and the other picks it up from there. There’s very little waste, and with a lot of the dishes, there’s enough for two meals and another lunch.”

Joann Haley has been subscribing to Blue Apron for about three months and says she and her husband, Mitch, “have really enjoyed about 80 percent of the meals.” When they didn’t care for them, it was mostly because they prefer their food with a lot of seasoning and heat and these dishes were on the blander side.

The Haleys had been getting a weekly package but just cut back to every other week of the fish and vegetable option.

Ms. Haley says although some of the recipes take a bit more preparation than estimated on the recipe cards, in general she has found them easy to prepare. And the savings on their grocery bills have been “tremendous. I think the amount we’re saving on groceries equals what the Blue Apron box costs,” she says.

Another plus is that it’s introduced them to a broader range of ingredients. “I’d never even seen black rice before,” she says. “I probably would never have purchased farro, but now I love farro (an ancient strain of wheat growing in popularity because of its high protein content). And I never thought to use fruits in dishes, but some of the recipes add an orange or clementine to the recipe and it brightens it up. And I’ve never eaten this much kale — ever.

“It encourages me to cook more frequently,” Ms. Haley says, “because I have all the ingredients and a recipe already there.”

An appetizing option

Our experience has been much like that of the others quoted in this story. I’ve cooked with ingredients such as freekeh (a protein-packed wheat) as well as with Medjool dates, sumac, labneh and tatsoi. We’ve loved the variety and the ease of knowing we could come home and there would be something to cook with all the ingredients ready and waiting.

For those who eat meat — my husband eats fish but not meat, so we subscribed to the vegetarian option with Hello Fresh and the fish and veggie one with Blue Apron — there are other interesting dishes. Recent offerings for carnivores on the Hello Fresh menus have included chicken paillard with mustard potato and green bean salad; Korean-style beef stir fry with broccolini, brown rice and sesame; and bone-in pork chops with roasted pear, collards and shallot cream sauce.

It’s hard for me to say which of the services I like better. They run about the same price, and both are delivered midweek to my door. (Both also offer a larger box for families that are priced accordingly.) You can stop and start your deliveries whenever you want. Both give you a rough estimate of prep time.

Hello Fresh packages each meal in a separate box (all contained in a larger cardboard box delivered to your door) that’s labeled and can be slipped right into the refrigerator as-is. Then all you need to do is pull it out when you are ready to use it. That’s a big plus. The recipes also clearly state if there are any allergens in them (soy, gluten, etc.) and rate the recipe’s degree of difficulty.

Blue Apron sends its ingredients for all three meals in one large box, so you do have to do a little sorting when it’s time to cook. But the ingredients are usually in plastic wrappers that are labeled, and the smaller items are grouped in a bag marked “knickknacks” with the recipe’s title on them, so it isn’t that tough to gather them.

If you eat fish but not meat, Blue Apron’s weekly selections include one fish dish and two veggie dishes, whereas it’s either all veggie or meat and fish on the Hello Fresh plan. We like having a fish dish.

Hello Fresh has been featuring one dish a week created by well-known chef Jamie Oliver. While I was initially excited at the prospect of trying some of his offerings, they have been the least flavorful ones — and in last week’s package, Jamie’s Squash and Penne Bake with Golden Bread Crumbs packed 886 calories a serving, including a whopping 23 grams of fat, 11 of those the saturated variety. For a chef known for being health-conscious, this seemed extreme.

After having tried about a dozen dishes from each service, I may be slightly more favorably disposed to Blue Apron’s recipes and the fact that it offers the mix of fish and veggies. But both deliver top-quality products — fresh produce and eggs and no processed foods. The only packaged items I’ve received are some beans, and they typically come in a carton rather than a can.

The result is that I look forward to cooking each night and we’ve had no repeats yet in the two months that we’ve been subscribers.

Also, our dining out has been considerably reduced. We go out about once a week now, so the money we save from staying home just one night a week pays for three Blue Apron or Hello Fresh meals. Add to that the fact that our supermarket bills are about half what they used to be, and we rarely throw out any rotten fruit and vegetables anymore, and it equals savings for us.

The best part: We are eating healthy meals at home and without having to battle our way into restaurants that are teeming with winter visitors.

These plans aren’t going to work for everyone, but for time-impoverished people who like from-scratch meals and those looking to broaden their repertoires, meal kits by mail are likely to be an appetizing option. ¦

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