Meal kit delivery services may be a good substitute for grocery shopping during the coronavirus pandemic, experts say

Becky Horvath
·11 min read

Working from home? Me too. Like many of you, I’ve suddenly become intimately acquainted with what’s in my fridge — and what’s not. But while this seems like the perfect time to get cozy in the kitchen and whip up some home-cooked meals, a trip to the grocery store presents its own set of problems. Not ready to abandon my dreams of culinary grandeur, I wondered if now might be the right moment to try a meal delivery kit service. But is that even safe?

Turns out, the answer is yes. Dr. Kathryn Jacobsen, Yahoo Lifestyle’s Public Health Contributor, assured me, “Getting a meal kit delivered to your home is probably safer than going to a grocery store, since you’ll have fewer contacts with other people and the packages and foods you touch are likely to have been handled by fewer people.”

Makes sense. And the FDA states that there is no evidence of food or food packaging transmitting the novel coronavirus to consumers. “Ask that your boxes be left outside your home, so that you can maintain physical distance from the person making the delivery,” Dr. Jacobsen recommends. “After receiving the package, remove the food from its packaging, dispose of the packing materials, and then wash your hands and sanitize any surfaces that the packaging has touched.”

Fears assuaged, now all that remains is choosing the right kit. Simple, right? Wrong. In the U.S. alone, there are well over 100 different meal-kit delivery options, including favorites like Hello Fresh and EveryPlate, healthy options like Sun Basket and Daily Harvest, and options for different diets like the vegan Purple Carrot. How do you know which one is best for you? Armed with my iPhone and plenty of extra hours in the day, I set out to find some answers.

With the help of the Yahoo Lifestyle team, I whittled down the online options to the best three kits to put to the test: Gobble, which touts meals that can be prepared in just 15 minutes, often using just one pan; Dinnerly, which costs just $4.49 per serving, making it the best affordable option on the market; and Blue Apron, one of the first and most well-known meal kit services available. I ordered a 2-serving, 3 meal kit from each company, and sharpened my knives.

After a lot of leftovers, dirty dishes, and the perpetual struggle to find natural light in my apartment, here’s what I learned.

BLUE APRON — THE STANDARD

If Meal Delivery Kits were a Family Feud category, Blue Apron would likely be the top survey answer. Founded back in 2012, it’s the only service to be publicly traded on the stock exchange. If you’re ready to channel your inner Martha Stewart, this is your go-to option.

The Basics

  • Price per serving: $9.99 for a 2-serving subscription, $7.49 for a 4-serving subscription

  • Subscription options: 2-servings 2-3 nights a week, or 4 servings 2-4 nights a week

  • Meal choices per week: 11 options for 2-serving plan, 6 options for 4-serving plan

  • Dietary considerations: Vegetarian, Carb-Conscious, Plant-Forward, Mediterranean, WW-Approved, Diabetes-Friendly, and 500 Calories or Less meal choices are offered

  • Average recipe time: 30-40 minutes

  • Calories per serving (from test box): Steak - 670; Chicken - 500; Freekeh - 490

The Breakdown

Just perusing the options on Blue Apron made me feel like I had opened Pandora’s Box of exciting culinary experiences from around the world. Dietary considerations are clearly marked, so it’s easy to create a kit that fits your needs. I chose the Middle Eastern-Style Chicken with Harissa-Roasted Vegetables (developed by Chef Seamus Mullen for Goop!), Vegetable and Freekeh “Fried Rice” with Shishito Peppers & Peanuts, and the classic Seared Steaks & Green Beans with Sour Cream & Cheesy Scallion Potato Cakes.

Upon arrival, this was the largest of the three boxes. Each recipe had between 11-13 ingredients, all individually packaged. Admittedly, most meal kits are not the most environmentally friendly way to feed your family because of the excess packaging. However, all ingredients were fresh and in good condition.

My favorite part about the Blue Apron recipes was by far the opportunity to use new ingredients without investing in purchasing them in a large quantity. The ras el hanout spice packet, the perfect portion of harissa paste, and the freekeh for the “fried rice” were all things that I don’t generally keep in my kitchen but was happy to be able to sample.

Unlike some of the other services, the supplies you need are not listed on the recipe card so I found myself scrambling to find my box cheese grater in the back of a cabinet at one point. And though I consider myself fairly adept in the kitchen, Blue Apron also had the only component that I managed to royally screw-up, resulting in some pretty mangled cheesy scallion potato cakes.

Overall, these three recipes made me feel rather accomplished in the kitchen. Master chef achievement unlocked. All three dishes were flavorful, filling, and came together within the time listed on the card. My meal kit journey was off to a solid start.

GOBBLE — QUICK AND EASY

We added Gobble to our test because delicious, home-cooked recipes in 15 minutes or less seemed too good to be true. However, this service proved that just because it’s fast doesn’t mean it has to lack flavor. If you’re working from home while also entertaining little ones, this service could be your new best friend.

The Basics

  • Price per serving: $11.99

  • Subscription options: 2 or 4 servings, 2-4 nights a week

  • Dietary considerations: Classic, Vegetarian, and Lean & Clean plans available

  • Meal choices per week: 10-12 options, plus add-ons like salads, mini quiches, and soups

  • Average recipe time: 10-15 minutes

  • Calories per serving form our test box: Pasta - 790; Pork - 550, Pot Roast - 430

The Breakdown

I have to admit I was skeptical of a service that promised a home cooked meal in 15 minutes or less, and my curiosity was piqued further when I perused the recipes online. They seemed every bit as complex as Blue Apron. Similarly, they offer options for different diets, but go a step further and list allergens on the main selection page. The callout of “Kid Friendly” options was also appreciated. I chose a Cacio e Pepe with Diced Chicken & Asparagus, a Yankee Pot Roast with Root Vegetables, and a Mandarin Orange Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Candied Rice Congee & Sautéed Bok Choy—because if it takes 15 minutes to say the name, how can it be cooked in less?

Like Blue Apron, Gobble ingredients arrived in good condition, but were sorted into bags by recipe, already saving precious minutes. Each recipe had between 7-9 ingredients. I was a fan of the “supplies to gather” section of the recipe card and was able to avoid any last minute cabinet scrounging.

So did these dishes come together in under 15 minutes? Shockingly, yes. The pot roast actually took under 10 minutes and just one pan. While I still had to do the occasional veggie chop, most of the more complicated components (the demi glace, the shallot garlic confit, and the mandarin orange sauce) came pre-prepared. I thought this might subdue my dreams of culinary greatness, but I still felt like I had accomplished something in the kitchen, while having time left to do actual work. I’m sure my boss is also grateful.

Perhaps most surprising to me was that the dishes were remarkably flavorful. The quality of the meals was on par with Blue Apron, but everything came together in half the time. Right now I might have enjoyed the leisurely pace of Blue Apron, but Gobble is a great go-to when the world returns to spinning at its normal pace. Note that those pre-prepped ingredients do come with a higher price point, but for some, the time saved may be worth it.

DINNERLY — THE AFFORDABLE OPTION

At only $4.49 per serving (considerably less that its competitors), the price of a Dinnerly meal can’t be beat. These meals require more prep than Gobble but with fewer ingredients than Blue Apron, so you can still feel accomplished in the kitchen at a lower price point. With less fussy ingredients, this is a winner if you’re on a budget.

The Basics

  • Price per meal: $4.49 per serving

  • Subscription options: 2 or 4 servings, 3-5 nights a week

  • Dietary considerations: Vegetarian, Low-calorie, Gluten Free, and Dairy Free meal choices are offered

  • Meal choices per week: 15, plus add-ons like smoothies and scones

  • Average recipe time: 30-40

  • Calories per meal: Tacos - 760, Chicken - 610, Lasagna - 520

The Breakdown

The most affordable kit on the market doesn’t skimp on the meal choices—in fact, it offers more weekly options than both Blue Apron and Gobble. Dinnerly quips, “long ago in a land far away there was a moment in the day called dinnertime,” and indeed, many of these recipes reminded me of simple meals from my childhood. I chose Lasagna Roll-Ups with Spinach, Ricotta, & Parmesan; Pan-Roasted Chicken & Mashed Potatoes with Herb Gravy, Peas & Carrots; and Carne Asada Steak Tacos with Guacamole & Pickled Onions, because who isn’t missing Taco Tuesday right now?

The Dinnerly box was noticeably smaller than the other two, and not all ingredients made it with their packaging intact. A carrot and rosemary sprig had gotten loose. All of these recipes had seven ingredients, but required you to have additional components on hand like butter, flour, sugar, vinegar, and eggs. In comparison, Blue Apron and Gobble only require salt, pepper, and oil. To further save on costs, Dinnerly doesn’t provide recipe cards. They are emailed to you before your box arrives (along with the ingredients you need to have on hand) so you can print them yourself, or go green and use a laptop/tablet while you cook.

Timewise, the Dinnerly recipes were on par with Blue Apron, and sometimes just as complex, as I found myself making gravy from scratch. However, the real head scratcher for me was the addition of cream cheese to tomato sauce for the lasagna. I was all for learning new tricks in the kitchen, but this seemed to go a little too far. The rollups were cute though, and could be a fun activity to get kids involved in the kitchen.

How did the finished dishes compare? While they were not my personal favorites, I do have to admit that it would be much easier to sell lasagna rollups to a toddler than harissa-roasted veggies or candied ginger rice congee (or to a picky eater of any age). These dishes all felt comforting and nostalgic, and that could be exactly what we all need right now.

I should add that at the time of writing, both Blue Apron and Gobble confirmed that as essential businesses they expect to be able to continue to operate as normal and do not anticipate any disruptions to their supply chains. However, Dinnerly expressed in a company email that they might need to adjust delivery timelines. They could not be reached directly for comment.

Meal kits might not be for everyone all the time, but in our current predicament, they are certainly a welcome option. Whether you’re channeling your inner chef, trying to get a hot meal on the table in a hurry, or need to prepare dinner on a dime, there’s a viable option out there for everyone. All three services are flexible and you can choose to skip weeks and cancel anytime. Many offer discounts for first time subscribers. With this uncertain new world we’re facing, one thing remains true: nothing brings family together better than a home cooked meal, no matter what box it comes in. If only they could fit a dishwasher in there too.

For the latest news on the evolving coronavirus outbreak, follow along here. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.

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