A Month of Meal Kit Menus; Home Chef vs Blue Apron
June 20, 2016
I’ve been feeling uninspired lately when it comes to cooking dinner during the week. I work full time and have a heinous commute (1.5-2 hours each way) at least 3 days a week. Some days I’m away from home 13+ hours and by the time I get home the last thing I want to do is think about what I want to cook. Much of this could be solved by deciding what I want to cook each week, making detailed menu plans, and shopping for the ingredients on the weekend. But honestly, that’s not me. Rarely do I plan in that type of detail; typically I buy a bunch of core ingredients (various proteins and vegetables) and anything that catches my fancy and wing it.
Cue Dr Phil, “How’s that workin’ for you?”
Answer: Not so good. Because of this, I’ve decided to give a couple of the meal prep companies a try. if you’re not familiar with the concept, these are companies that send you all the ingredients for several meals and the recipes, and you prep and cook the meal yourself.
I have several friends who have tried these services and loved them, yet I resisted. I’m a (former) chef, right? This would be great for someone else, but not me. It’s easy to get all judgy and think “why can’t you just shop?” I know, because I thought that myself. So, why would I need something like this? Well, for exactly the reasons listed above. For me, it’s time, lack of desire to plan, and a lowering of food waste.
But for others, the reasons might be different. Some people are intimidated by the thought of planning and cooking several meals per week because they don’t know how to cook and plan. These kits can help alleviate the stress and they even might teach people how to cook. If that happens, it’s all good in my book.
Fortunately, the initial risk is fairly low in terms of cost. Both companies offer free or discounted trials. Neither of them approached me for this review and I paid for it out of my own pocket. If you want to try one, see the details at the bottom of the post.
Home Chef (referral link with discount) and Blue Apron were the companies friends had tried and liked so that’s where I started. There are at least a dozen other similar companies out there that fill all kinds of niche dietary markets; vegan, paleo, southern, organic, it’s all out there.
My plan was to try two weeks of each company so I could get a broader impression than the reviews I’d read which had done as little as one meal or much as one week. I went online and selected Home Chef first simply because based on my order date, they would be able to deliver first.
Both companies cost the same, about $9.95 per person or $19.90 per meal (each meal is for two people).
Home chef allows you to order as many or as few meals as you want and offers free shipping for boxes over $40. Without that, shipping is $10 so it makes sense to order three meals instead of two (when you have to pay for shipping on two).
Blue Apron is fixed at 3 meals per week (for two people) and shipping is included for the $60. They also offer a family meal plan that 2 meals a week for 4, for $70.
Home Chef offers 10 main course choices each week plus breakfast, and a smoothie, and a fruit basket (the last two cost less). You can pick from any of the items and there are always at least 3 vegetarian options, plus a couple each fish, chicken, pork and beef options. If you want, do nothing and they will send you an auto-selection each week or go in and pick what you want.
Blue Apron offers 6 choices; one each of meat, chicken, and fish and 3 vegetarian. You can de-select one of the meat proteins options, but doing this does not always allow for a vegetarian option. I found this very frustrating (more on this below).
I did not order the vegetarian options from either company. While some of them sounded delicious, I didn’t feel the “value” was there for $10 per person and I would have liked to see more alternative proteins added like tofu.
One of the criticisms of all these companies is that there’s a lot of packaging, and while there’s truth there, it’s also necessary. You can’t just throw a bunch of meat, chicken and fish lose in a box with a bunch of vegetables and expect it to arrive safe and sound.
When you shop at a grocery store you put vegetables in plastic bags and meat comes wrapped and packaged so it’s not much different.
The biggest amount of excess packaging is for small items. For these items, Home Chef uses hard plastic bottles and jars with screw caps on them. These seem pretty wasteful, but I’ve saved them and re-used them for packaging items for my lunches. Blue apron uses more disposable-type containers for pantry items, similar to what you’d get in a restaurant’s to-go orders and they aren’t meant to be re-used.
Home chef puts each meal’s ingredients in a separate bag with the proteins separate. Blue apron has them all loose in the box so you really need to take care when unpacking that everything is there and that you don’t accidentally misplace or use an ingredient meant for another dish.
Both companies say all the packaging is recyclable.
For me, the flip side of all this packaging is that there’s a lot less food waste. Things like demi-glace, figs, fresh herbs, and creme fraiche are all delivered in the right size for the recipe and I’m not throwing away the molding rest of the container 2 weeks later.
Portions and Ingredients:
Both offer two portions for every meal. I found the portion sizes to be generous, especially with the vegetables and carbs (rice, potatoes, grains, etc). We often had leftovers of the sides.
Protein portions were typically around 6 oz per person.
There was some repetition of ingredients. Depending on what you select, it could be more cost-effective to shop on your own, but then you would have to plan each meal too. Many of the meals used garlic, ginger, green onions, green beans, or lemons. There was one week with Home Chef that had green onions in every meal and one week with Blue Apron that had lemon zest in every meal.
Single people might find meal kits a bit more of a challenge but I know several singles who have enjoyed it. It may mean eating one of the portions from each meal as leftovers or cooking it separately. On the other hand, they found that many times they could stretch the 2 portions to 3 meals for one person.
Blue Apron makes an effort to use all-natural (no hormones or antibiotic) and sustainable meat and seafood and I very much appreciate it. Their packages of proteins are clearly labeled as such and Home Chef’s are not. I found the quality of the meat and chicken coming from home chef to be fine (though unlabeled as to providence) but the salmon to be basic farm-raised Atlantic (which I would not normally buy).
The Actual Meals; Home Chef vs Blue Apron:
It arrived around noon on the day scheduled and was opened at 4pm by my husband. He said everything was well packed and cold. The box was insulated and had at least 6 ice packs in it.
When I got home I pulled out everything to take a look and my first impressions were good. There was a thin flexible plastic binder and 3 hole punched full-color recipe cards to go in it. Everything was well labeled and organized into separate bags for each meal, with the protein separate.
Then I noticed that one of the protein items (a flatiron steak) was missing. We searched the box. Not there. We searched the refrigerator. Not there. In inside any of the meal bags. Just. Not. There. By this time it was too late to call the company so I emailed them my disappointment. It took until 1pm the following day to get a reply; it was very apologetic and they offered full credit for that meal. Still, not a great way to make a first impression.
Home Chef, Meal #1
That night I decided to make the first meal; shrimp pad thai. This is not a dish unfamiliar to me. I’ve traveled at lot in Thailand, and I live in Los Angeles, home to the largest Thai population outside Thailand and to literally hundreds of excellent Thai restaurants. It was decent, but not the best version or even in the top 10 I’ve ever had. It was too sweet and too spicy.
Home Chef, Meal #2
Steak salad with caramelized onions and blue cheese. This was the item with the missing protein but I didn’t want to waste it so I used my own steak. The salad was good, though there were a lot of steps. Both mustard and honey ingredients came in little foil to go packets and the walnuts were pre-chopped instead of whole as in the photo. A day after the box was shipped Home Chef sent out a warning about the spice mix for the steaks saying the feedback was that it was too spicy. Glad they did and because of that I used only about 1/10th of what was provided and it was plenty spicy.
Home Chef, Meal #3
Pork chop with kumquat butter- there were lots of steps in this recipe, which might be a bit of a challenge for inexperienced cooks or for people who don’t like cooking. But for people who want to learn and try new things, this is a good way to gain experience. The mix of flavors wad interesting and I never would have made something like edamame fritters if I were doing my own meal planning do it did get me making something out of the norm.
Home Chef, Meal #4
Salmon Tonkatsu with miso ginger vegetables- green beans, red bell pepper (plate photo at top of page). This could have been better if they’d used a better quality salmon, but we enjoyed it and vegetables had good flavor. Nice to have a meal not loaded with carbs.
Home Chef, Meal #5
Berbere chicken thighs with green beans and cous cous with almonds and apricots. This was one of my favorite meals. Again, I learned something. I’d never heard of Berbere spice which is a blend of spices commonly used in Ethiopian food. Again, I went lighter on the spice, saved what was left and was able to use it again in a later meal. I even turned the leftover cous cous and green beans into a salad the next day.
Home Chef, Meal #6
Steak with grains of paradise spice, zucchini and mashed sweet potatoes. This recipe was fairly easy and the grains of paradise spice was an interesting and new to me ingredient. The recipe included veal demi-glace which makes a very rich sauce but wouldn’t be something I’d normally have on hand.
When planning for the two weeks of Blue Apron, I looked ahead at the options and while the first week looks ok, the second week has chicken wings which neither my husband nor I especially enjoy. Unfortunately, Blue Apron offers no other choices if I want to change out that meal. Sure, there are 3 vegetarian options, but none were available if I want to get something instead of the wings. I’d have to change out the beef or salmon dish instead. So basically, I’m stuck with the wings. the lack of choice leaves me unhappy.
Like Home Chef, our first week was scheduled to arrive on a Tuesday with 3 meals in the box. BA sent an email the day before letting us know it had shipped and with a tracking number. We followed it all day Tuesday, but the package did not arrive at our house until well after 7pm.
Opening the box; even with the late delivery, everything was quite cold and the two giant ice packs were still mostly frozen.
All the ingredients were in the box and labeled with what they were, but not for the dish in which they were to be used. This means you need to be very careful to pull out all the ingredients for the dish when you make it and also not to accidentally use any of those ingredients (like whole lemons which are just loose, not packaged).
The box came with 3 recipe cards set up similar to home chef with a large photo and description on one side and instructions on the other, as well as an ingredient focus card, this week on fresh mint. The recipes are not 3-hole punched and did not come with a binder. My husband noted that all of the 3 meals looked the same this week; a protein on top of a starch in a bowl.
My first impression is that there are far fewer ingredients per meal, which leads me to feel like Blue Apron might be the better option for a more inexperienced cook.
Blue Apron, Meal #1
Wild salmon on top of warm creamy barley “salad” with zucchini. Blue Apron gets an extra point for their commitment to sustainable and wild seafood. Our salmon was clearly marked as wild. However, it was sockeye, not king and we got two very thin tail pieces. The barley-zucchini mix was tasty but didn’t wow us with any innovation.
Blue Apron, Meal #2
Chicken Thighs with lemon picatta buccatini. Again, very flavorful but protein on carbs. The garlic chives were a nice addition to dish otherwise devoid of color and vegetables. It was nice to have chicken clearly marked as antibiotic free. Chicken demiglace and use of pasta water in sauce was a good option instead of butter. This was the 2nd meal with lemon zest.
Blue Apron, Meal #3
Spiced lamb and beef tagine. This was one of my favorites from Blue Apron. The ras al hanout seasoning was delicious and the addition of the labneh (yogurt cheese) was made it even more “authentic”. Again, it was nice not to have to buy a whole container of labneh, there was just enough for the meal. The only downside was that the mint was missing from the ingredients but I have some in my garden. This was the third meal in a row with lemon zest.
Blue Apron, Meal #4
Pork Chops with fig compote on top of kale and barley. This was really tasty and the pork was all natural antibiotic free.
Blue Apron, Meal #5
Salmon with thyme potatoes and green beans. This was good, very simple, and not much different from something I’d make on my own.
Blue Apron, Meal #6
Miso glazed chicken wings with purple rice. Ah, the dreaded chicken wings. They were tasty, but I would skip the week rather than be forced to have them again.
Both companies use the same format in cooking in that they try to keep the pots and pans to a minimum. In this way, they often have you cook something in a saute pan, move that item to a plate and then cook something else in the same pan. They also recommend, rightly so, that you prep your mise en place in advance.
Useful tools* (these are all items I use in my own kitchen)