Cooking dinner can be such a pain sometimes.
Mostly because it requires a trip to the grocery store, which isn’t the most fun place on earth to unwind after a tough day at work. From endless circling of packed parking lots to high prices and crowded aisles, to always, always, getting stuck in the slowest self check-out lane, a trip to the DMV could be less frustrating.
And that’s if you’ve figured out beforehand what you want to eat, and done a mental tally of what’s in your fridge and pantry to concoct a shopping list. And have the desired recipe in hand. Oh, and possess the energy to rustle up ingredients, prep them and then prepare the dish before your famished family cries foul.
It’s time to call for backup.
Meal-prep subscription boxes, which deliver all the makings of a fabulous dinner to your doorstep, are growing in popularity for a reason. Not only do they take the guesswork out of that dreaded what’s-for-dinner question, but they also do most of the grunt work.
Everything you need to craft a skillet- or oven-ready meal from scratch, from the protein to fresh veggies to spices and flavorings, comes perfectly portioned for two to four servings. Also included are easy-to-follow recipes with time estimates and nutritional background and information on whether the ingredients are gluten- or GMO-free, organic, or contain nuts, soy or dairy. Step-by-step photos make it easier for beginners.
Instructions also explain the tools you’ll need (such as a zester, meat thermometer or vegetable peeler) and what you’ll need pull out of your pantry — usually salt, pepper and cooking oil.
Home meal services aren’t new to the region: Companies such as Schwan’s have been delivering frozen foods to Pittsburghers’ front porches for decades, and there’s no shortage of personal chefs willing to cook weekly meals to order. These heat-and-eat meals are great from a convenience standpoint, but fail to deliver if you hunger for scratch cooking.
First introduced in 2012, and now a billion-dollar business, meal-kit boxes let you get your hands dirty. While ingredients come pre-measured, often down to the ¼ teaspoon, you still get to chop, zest, whisk, sear and saute — in other words, cook, only fast. Basic knife skills, in fact, are essential for kit users.
It might seem wasteful, and not especially kind to the earth, to get so many tiny packages of ingredients and packaging for just two or three meals; one plan I tested came in more than 24 plastic bags, along with four freezer bags and reams of biodegradable cushioning material.
But consider the positives.
Meals kits aren’t as thrifty per serving as traditional cooking, but they’re cheaper (and faster) than dining out and offer far better quality than fast-food takeout. You get to experiment with new cuisines and unfamiliar flavors, and you’ll see vegetables in a new light. Also, there are some choices involved; most plans allow you to pick from at least six meals.
On the other hand, if you are a cook who likes to experiment or are wary of others selecting your meat, fish and produce, you might find meal kits unimaginative. Also, having everything pre-portioned can make seasoned cooks feel, well, like novices.
We tested six of the most popular meal subscription services in the market, along with one that just debuted this month, and used cooks of varying skill levels and palates. Apart from yours truly, the testers are my college-age daughter, who’s learning her way around a dorm kitchen; my son, who worked as a prep cook in a commercial kitchen and eats gluten-free; my husband, who cooks well enough but has never followed a recipe; and my editor, an accomplished home chef.
Worth noting: While you generally can skip a weekly order once you sign up, and all plans allow you to cancel at any time, you have to remember to do so before the weekly cut-off time (usually a seven-day notice). Most give you a free meal or discount price upon signup, but only one plan — Peach Dish — included dessert (cookies and oranges).
Green Chef (greenchef.com)
Cost: Starts at $80.94 per week for two-person plan, with three meals. Additional charge for gluten-free and paleo options. Nine dishes to choose from.
We really liked this plan, which featured richly flavored dishes made with seasonal certified-organic ingredients. Gluten-free food so often is bland or off-tasting, but our selections — Sweet Potato Fritters, Paprika-Dusted Cod and especially the Tamari-Glazed Chicken — were winners. The seasonings were bold, the produce was super-fresh, and the completed dishes were well-rounded, if somewhat high in calories (758 for the chicken dish per serving).
All of the recipes involved a fair amount of prep (dicing, searing and shredding), and two of the dishes required cooking in multiple pans at the same time — something a new cook could find intimidating. But, generally, they were easy. Portions were more than generous; each fed three adults, with some leftovers.
— Jack McKay
Blue Apron (blueapron.com)
Cost: Starts at $59.94 per week for two-person plan, with three meals. Six dishes to choose from.
My meal came in a pretty big box with an extremely heavy ice pack in it. Everything was kind of just thrown in there together, so I had to go through the box and sort the different dishes. Most of the ingredients were pretty fresh. But some of the produce (specifically the lemons and oranges) got really soft and mushy when I did not use them immediately.
I’m just learning to cook so really appreciated the fact the recipes were relatively easy to follow; the videos online also helped. But I still had to Google a lot of cooking terms. For instance, I had no idea how to separate the “neck and bulb” of a squash. The recipe for Butternut Squash with Stewed White Beans was phenomenal. It probably was the hardest to make, but worth it. But the Vegetable Bibimbap with kimchee had a weird mixture of flavors and was absolutely disgusting.
I think college students should definitely give Blue Apron a try because it’s not that much more expensive than a dining plan. There are also cheaper (family) options available, which, split across four roommates, would definitely be an economical source of meals.
— Olivia McKay
Purple Carrot (thepurplecarrot.com)
Cost: $68 per week for two-person plan, with three meals. No selection — Mark Bittman and his culinary team curate your weekly menu for you.
I like my meat and dairy and so was a bit hesitant to try this kit, the first exclusively vegan meal plan to come on the market, in 2014. I am, however, a fan of Mr. Bittman. So try I did.
I wasn’t wowed, but I was pleasantly surprised. All three of the dishes proved tasty and substantial, and they were super pretty when plated. That said, they took some effort. The Creamy Polenta that accompanied the Awesome Bolognese (made with seitan, a wheat gluten) required constant whisking to keep it lump-free, and a recipe for Falafel Hash with Grapefruit-Arugula Tabbouleh took nearly an hour to pull together. But, man, was it awesome.
A recipe for Crisp Rutabaga Rosti with Garlicky Balsamic Spinach wasn’t quite so successful. “Deliberately overcooked” quinoa was supposed to bind the patties together but they fell apart instantly when I put them on a baking sheet bound for the broiler. I ended up adding an egg and recooking them, but I had to wonder if a beginner would have been able to save them.
This plan takes a leap of faith if you’re not familiar with ingredients such as seitan or tofu or aren’t used to someone else making all your dinner decisions. But for people trying to eat better for the planet and body, it’s a nice option. Recipe cards include exact measurements so you can re-create them on your own.
— Gretchen McKay
Home Chef (homechef.com)
Cost: $48.90 per week for two-person plan, with two meals. Twelve dishes to choose from.
This plan came in the smallest box, with the least amount of packaging, which would be a factor with older customers who have to lug it from the porch to the kitchen. It also was among the few to offer drink pairings — beer for a Chinese entree and Chianti for a meat dish — and a fun fact about one of the ingredients. For instance, did you know sirloin steaks come from the rear of the cow?
Selections included a savory Butternut Mac N’ Cheese with Roasted Brussels Sprouts, a Chinese BBQ Pork with Egg Drop Soup and Broccoli and Parmesan-Crusted Sirloin. All three were pretty easy to make and absolutely terrific.
Some of the servings were on the smaller side — the package included just eight Brussels sprouts and a small handful of cubed squash for the mac ‘n’ cheese — but everything was fresh, colorful and fragrant. The egg drop soup didn’t look anything like the picture, but it was my first time cooking with liquid eggs, and I couldn’t get them to “ribbon” properly.
— Gretchen McKay
Cost: $59 to $69 for two-person plan for three meals. But customers can order as up to five meals a week for varying numbers of people.
HelloFresh shipped its first dinner kit out of Berlin in 2012 and by September 2014 was offered across the United States. It now serves more than 7.2 million meals a month in seven countries over three continents.
Its selling point is having dietitians on staff who can make sure the meals meet all nutritional requirements and dietary needs, said Shara Seigel, senior public relations manager. The company also partners with British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to provide a special recipe each week for customers who want it. For the most part, the recipes were easy to follow (the company sent me Level One recipes), but novice cooks might need more detailed instructions.
The recipe for Spiced Salmon with Blood Orange-Arugula Salad, Couscous and Lemon-Shallot Vinaigrette was simple and tasty, but there was missing information: Cooks were instructed to zest a lemon and blood orange but the recipe never said what to do with it. ( I just threw the zest into the vinaigrette. Hope that was right.) The one piece of celery included for the salad was crisp, but pretty battered, had brown spots and looked old. Chicken Paillard with Mustard Potato and Green Bean Salad also was tasty but took longer than the 30 minutes suggested because each green bean had to be sliced in half lengthwise.
Caramelized Onion Burgers with Garlic Aioli and Crispy Cauliflower took fewer than 30 minutes to prepare. It was our favorite of the bunch and was a full meal.
— Virginia Linn
Peach Dish (peachdish.com)
Cost: $50 per week for two-person plan, with two meals. Eight dishes to choose from.
Peach Dish takes a lot of the stress out of cooking, but not all of it. For a non-cook like me, there’s still a confusing list of ingredients (saffron? barberries?), and while some came in the right portions, others required me to measure out just a fraction of the supplied amount. For the chicken dish, for instance, I had to pick and chop dill fronds and mint leaves from the stem.
The recipes for Beef Hot Pot with Asian Greens and Curry Spiced Chicken with Saffron-Barberry Rice sounded exotic (read: difficult), but were actually pretty basic. Still, I felt anxious. For a novice like me, a recipe that lists seven steps is probably five or six steps too long. The instructions clearly state “Read the entire recipe” before starting, and that would have taken some of the confusion out of the process if I had done it. But of course I didn’t.
I was able to produce a semi-gourmet meal that looked, smelled, and tasted like it had been prepared by a pro, and it was pretty darn cool. The portions were generous (enough for leftovers) and the meals were way more interesting than the boring salmon and rice I cook for myself most days. I’d definitely do it again.
— Peter McKay
Terra’s Kitchen (terraskitchen.com)
Cost: $83.99 minimum per week for three meals for two people. Fourteen meals to choose from; options include omnivore, gluten-free, paleo and vegetarian.
The Cadillac of home meal delivery plans, which launched just this week, arrived in an eco-friendly, climate-controlled “delivery vessel” that looks, and is, almost as heavy as a mini-refrigerator. Items have to be unpacked on the day they arrive so you can place the vessel outside before 8 a.m. of the next business day for return. (You peel off the old shipping label to reveal the return label.)
Ingredients came in small recyclable plastic boxes instead of bags, and most were already sliced/diced and ready for the pan. (If I was ordering a plan for my elderly parents, this would be a huge selling point.) I would have been out of luck, though, if I hadn’t owned a grill pan or cast-iron skillet — all three recipes called for grilling.
The meals weren’t as fancy as with other plans, but they were solid, and nothing took more than a half-hour. Tomato Scallion Rice with Cheesy Grilled Squash was colorful, full of flavor and oh so easy. The chicken thigh portions in the BBQ Chicken with Sweet Potato and Spinach Salad cooked up tender and juicy but might disappoint those with big appetites. I liked but didn’t love the Fajita-Style (skirt steak) Street Tacos. While the beef was tender and the avocado perfectly ripe, the pico de gallo tasted bitter and the Buffalo hot sauce seemed a weird afterthought.
The recipe cards also include wine and beer pairings, wellness tips and “foodie facts” or pro tips — for instance, wait until the last minute to dress your salad to ensure crisp and lively greens.
— Gretchen McKay
8 ounces red potatoes
1 yellow onion
4 ounces sugar snap peas
4 parsley sprigs
4 thyme sprigs
Olive oil for drizzling and heating
Salt and pepper
Salt and pepper to taste, divided
1 tablespoon butter
1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 ounce grated Parmesan
2 sirloin steaks
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and prepare a baking sheet with foil. Rinse, dry and quarter potatoes. Peel and halve onion, then slice into thin strips. Remove any strings from snap peas. Stem and mince parsley.
Arrange potatoes and half of thyme sprigs on baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast in oven until fork-tender, about 20 minutes. Remove thyme and transfer potatoes to plate.
Melt butter in microwave. Combine in mixing bowl with breadcrumbs and Parmesan and pinch of salt and pepper. Set aside.
Rinse sirloin steaks, pat dry, and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in an oven-safe pan over high heat and sear on the first side for 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and sear second side for 2 more minutes. Flip back onto first side and top with Parmesan-panko mixture. Transfer pan to oven and continue cooking for 4 to 5 more minutes until crust is golden brown and a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees is reached. Remove steaks to plate and rest.
Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a medium pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and remaining thyme sprigs and stir frequently for 5 minutes. Add balsamic vinegar and pinch of salt and pepper and cook 4 minutes. The natural sugars in the balsamic will sweeten onions. Transfer to plate, discarding thyme sprigs. Wipe pan clean and add 1 teaspoon olive oil and snap peas. Cook, undisturbed, for 1 minute to char, then stir until fork tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.
Arrange a serving of potatoes on plate with onions and snap peas next to them. Lean steak against vegetables and garnish plate with minced parsley.
— Home Chef
Caramelized Onion Burgers With Garlic Aioli and Crispy Cauliflower
10 ounces of ground beef
One red onion
1 garlic clove
Head of cauliflower
1/4 cup of panko crumbs
Olive oil for drizzling, divided
Salt and pepper to taste, divided
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
2 brioche hamburger buns
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Bring ground beef to room temperature. Halve, peel and thinly slice the red onion. Mince or grate the garlic. Cut the cauliflower into bite-sized pieces.
In a medium bowl, toss cauliflower florets with panko, a large drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Place florets on a baking sheet and roast for about 25 minutes, until golden brown.
Heat a drizzle of oil in a medium pan over medium heat. Add sliced onions and cook, tossing, for 4 to 5 minutes until softened. Add balsamic vinegar and cook, tossing over low heat for about 10 minutes, until slightly caramelized. Season onions with salt and pepper. Set onions aside and wipe the pan clean.
Meanwhile, form ground beef into two equal-sized patties. Season with oregano, salt and pepper.
Using same pan, heat another drizzle of oil over medium-high heat. Add burger patties and cook for 2 to 5 minutes per side, until cooked to desired doneness.
While burgers cook, combine in a small bowl, the mayonnaise, minced garlic (to taste, start with a little and go up from there) and add a pinch of salt and pepper. Split and place buns in the oven for 3 to 5 minutes to toast.
Remove buns from oven. Spread with garlic aioli on one side of the bun and top with a burger and the caramelized onions. Serve the crispy cauliflower on the side.
Curry Spiced Chicken With Saffron-Barberry Rice
1 tablespoon barberries
5 sprigs dill
4 ounces cucumber
2 sprigs fresh mint
3/4 cup basmati rice
2 teaspoons butter
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup sliced almonds
Salt to taste, divided
1/8 teaspoon saffron
3 ounces yogurt
2 tablespoons sultanas
Black pepper to taste
8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1 tablespoon curry powder
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Rinse barberries under running water. Place in a mixing bowl and cover with enough water to allow the berries to float and any sand to sink to the bottom. Set aside to soak.
Prepare your mise en place: Peel and mince garlic. Pick and chop dill fronds; save the stems. Quarter cucumbers lengthwise; thinly slice crosswise. Pick and chop mint leaves. Rinse rice well in warm water. Drain barberries thoroughly.
Heat a saucepot over medium heat, and add butter. When butter is melted, stir in garlic and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Stir in barberries and cook 2 minutes more. Add rice, almonds, dill stems, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, saffron and 1 cup water. Bring to a simmer, then cover and reduce heat to low. Cook 8 to 10 minutes, or until most of the liquid is evaporated. Keep covered, remove from heat and set aside.
While the rice cooks, prepare the creamy cucumbers: In a small bowl combine yogurt, cucumbers, sultanas and mint, and season with kosher salt and pepper to taste. Set aside at room temperature.
Season chicken breasts on all sides with curry spice and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Lightly coat a heavy baking pan with 1 teaspoon cooking oil. Place seasoned chicken on the pan, and cook 12 to 14 minutes, or until lightly browned and cooked through.
Remove dill stems from the rice. With a fork, fluff in chopped dill fronds. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Slice chicken across the grain, then serve over rice with creamy cucumbers on the side.
— Peach Dish
1/2 cup organic red quinoa
3½ ounces organic green beans
1/4 organic red bell pepper
1 stalk celery
10 ounces organic boneless chicken thighs
2½ tablespoons oil, plus more for sauce
Salt and pepper to taste, divided
½ cup sliced yellow onion
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons ginger, peeled and minced
2½ tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon sambal chili paste
2 tablespoons organic peanuts
6 sprigs cilantro
Bring red quinoa and 1¼ cups water to a boil in a small pot. Reduce heat to medium-low, then cover. Simmer 16 minutes, or until liquid is mostly absorbed and quinoa is tender. Let rest 3 minutes, covered. Fluff with a fork.
Meanwhile, trim stem ends off green beans. Cut into 1-inch long pieces. Medium dice red bell pepper into about ½-inch pieces. Slice celery into about ¼-inch pieces.
Cut chicken thighs into bite-size pieces. Heat about 1½ tablespoons oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add chicken to hot pan. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook 5 minutes, or until lightly browned, stirring occasionally.
Add about 1 tablespoon oil to pan with chicken. Add green beans, bell pepper, celery, onions, garlic and ginger. Season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine. Cook 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Combine mirin, wine vinegar, brown sugar and chili paste in a blender. Mix on medium speed for 30 seconds. While blender is running, slowly pour in oil. Pour sauce over pan with chicken and veggies. Add ⅓ cup water. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer 8 to 10 minutes, or until sauce thickens and glazes chicken, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, trim ends off carrot; peel if desired. Grate on large holes of a box grater. Add quinoa and carrot to pan with glazed chicken. Stir to combine. Cook 1 minute. Remove from heat. Salt and pepper to taste. Destem cilantro; roughly chop leaves. Roughly chop peanuts.
Divide tamari-glazed chicken and quinoa between plates. Sprinkle peanuts and cilantro over top.
— Green Chef