So I default to one of the staple meals I always have the components for, or I order takeout from our usual roster of restaurants. When it comes to midweek dinners, I’m literally dialing it in.
That’s when a meal kit makes sense for me. Sure, it’s more expensive than regular groceries, but I’m willing to pay a premium for the convenience of not having to think about dinner. I know I’ve preselected the recipes, everything I need is in the fridge, and I can have food on the table in the time it takes to watch an episode of The Mindy Project. You might have other reasons for trying a meal kit, maybe you’d like to eat healthier, improve your confidence in the kitchen or expand your recipe repertoire.
I tried 2 of the best meal kits on the market - Home Chef and HelloFresh - to get a feel for what’s available. Here’s how the week went.
Price: $9.95 per serving
Shipping: $10, free for orders over $45
Special offer: Get $30 off your order
Good for: less experienced cooks, lots of choice
HOW IT WORKS
I chose how many meals I wanted per week (between 2 and 6), how many portions per meal (2, 4 or 6), and when I wanted them delivered (Tuesday to Friday). Home Chef has an 8am-8pm delivery window and will leave your box on your doorstep if you’re not home to receive it. The insulation and cooling pack kept everything chilled until I managed to get it into the fridge. At signup I was also asked to create a taste profile with my dietary requirements. You can get really specific here if you want to, like saying you prefer chicken over seafood, that you want to avoid pork or dairy, or are interested in low-carb recipes.
The best thing about Home Chef is the large number of recipe choices. Each week there are a dozen meals to choose from plus several add-ons like smoothie kits, which cost extra. Home Chef uses your taste profile to preselect which recipes you’ll get, but you can easily change them online. I ended up swapping mine because they were too similar to what I would cook myself, and besides—choosing the meals is the fun part.
The recipes are mostly elevated basics: tacos and quesadillas, pasta and risotto, stir fries, and meat-and-two-veg. There are usually 3 vegetarian and 2 seafood options per week, and there’s always a steak; HelloFresh often charges extra for steak so that’s a real bonus point for Home Chef if you love red meat. A helpful feature is the “quick and easy” label denoting short cook times and simple preparations—perfect for busy weeknights or beginner cooks. I went with Asian-inspired pork burgers and a vegetarian lasagna.
Each meal comes in its own plastic pouch so you can just grab one when it’s time to cook. I loved that there were recycling instructions for the insulating material but wished there was less plastic packaging overall. Sending 4 garlic cloves in 2 separate ziplock bags is just plain wasteful.
The 5-step recipes cards were well-illustrated and beginner-friendly, even including an explanation of what a rolling boil is. What I liked the most was the “at a glance” information like cook time, difficulty level, spice level (really useful if you’re cooking for kids) as well as how long the ingredients would last. No more guilt while the lettuce wilts in the fridge!
The pork burgers were seriously delicious and marinating the meat in ponzu was a new trick for me that I’ll keep in my arsenal. But the side dishes in both recipes were disappointingly basic: a boring salad of romaine lettuce and a garlic bread that needed a lot more butter and garlic. Luckily both were easily improved by adding a few fridge and pantry ingredients. The portions were satisfying, though the lasagna and garlic bread combo felt carb-heavy and I would have preferred a vegetable side to lighten it up.
Price: $8.74 - $9.99 per serving
Shipping: $7.99, free for orders of 6 or more servings
Special offer: Get $20 off your order
Good for: interesting recipes, well-sourced ingredients
HOW IT WORKS
There are 3 plans: vegetarian (3 meals per week; 2 or 4 servings per meal), classic (2-4 meals; 2 or 4 servings) and family (2-3 meals; 4 servings). I went with the classic which is the most popular plan and again was asked to set up a taste profile which was used to preselect my recipes. HelloFresh requires menu changes to be made a full 5 days before delivery, so if you get your box on Monday, you need to finalize your choices by the Wednesday before. As with Home Chef, if you’re not home during the 8am-8pm delivery window, the insulated box will be left on your doorstep.
How many choices you get depends on your plan, but overall there are a lot fewer than Home Chef. The vegetarian has 3 options, the family plan has 5, and the classic has 7 plus a “premium” recipe (such as rib-eye steak or duck) that costs an extra $5 per serving. I was disappointed to find that there were no vegetarian recipes available on the classic plan whereas with Home Chef I was able to mix and match vegetarian and meat meals.
Many of the recipes were similar to Home Chef’s but were slightly more interesting and gourmet. There were more international flavors, more variety in the cuts of meat, and some yummy-sounding side dishes like cauliflower mash and apple-and-sunflower-seed salad. I liked that the website clearly displayed cooking times for each recipe. I selected cajun pulled pork over rice and mole spiced beef tacos, both labelled as quick 20-minute meals.
Kudos to HelloFresh for the eco-friendly paper and cardboard packaging. And according to the website, the company buys sustainable seafood and organic produce where possible. I was also impressed with the sheet of nutritional information that states the provenance of all the ingredients. The majority came from the USA and Mexico, including a box of fancy heirloom cherry tomatoes. Occasionally the box included more of an ingredient than the recipe called for, so I got to stock my pantry as a bonus.
The 6-step recipe cards were simple and clear, and included useful cooking tips like what to do if you don’t have a microwave to warm your tortillas. Portion-wise, the tacos were on the lighter side but the pork was super filling and we even had leftovers. Both recipes relied on packets of premade spice mix and some of the main ingredients were precooked, including the pulled pork and steamed rice. While these were huge time-savers, they made the meals feel a little bit “instant” and harder to replicate on my own. The heavy seasoning also made the food taste slightly more like takeout food than wholesome home cooking.
On the other hand, the dishes were more exciting than my regular home cooking and I got a huge sense of satisfaction from how good they looked.
So, What’s the Bottom Line?
After a week of cooking and eating, it’s clear that both of these meal delivery providers are popular for a reason. And on my end—I’ve been doing a lot more cooking at home as a result of the experiment. To sum up: with Home Chef, the food was approachable and crowd-pleasing, but may be a little basic for experienced home cooks. If you have more adventurous tastes, HelloFresh is an easy way to shake up your recipe repertoire without requiring much time or effort.