When we lived with housemates last year, I watched astonished as Liz ordered a few meal subscription boxes. It seemed crazy, and expensive.
But it’s a growing trend in America: pay $40-80 for a week’s worth of dinners, and all the ingredients come in little packets in a refrigerated box on your doorstep. You chop and fix them yourself.
Liz enjoyed it, but ultimately decided portions were small and it wasn’t for her.
But once we got a place of our own, I was curious. If I tried a few boxes on sale, would they be worth it?
Trying it out:
So for the past few months, Amos and I have used a range of trial offers, which usually put three small meals in the $20-35 price range. On the one hand, that’s still a luxury, as we pay off student loans—but on the other hand, it means we buy less at the grocery and eat out less, and it’s given us the chance to try something new.
Home Chef. I lured Amos in to cooking random meals for me (… I mentioned I’m selecting meals and he’s cooking, right?) with classic meals like chicken and greens, beef with rice, and pork and brussel sprouts. We tried a few salads, but realized we could buy a salad pack and pre-cooked meat strips way more easily and cheaply ourselves. These meals were generally filling and tasty, and Home Chef gave both me and my sister half off instantly when I referred her… which led me to get a second box. So that worked out for them.
Gobble. What with hand-rolling fried chicken sandwiches, smashing potatoes, and stirring up gemelli pasta, these were our most fun recipes—although too salty for me. Amos thinks he’d make fried chicken again now that he’s learned how to layer the batter.
Daily Harvest. You can get six weird smoothies (black sesame and banana?) in a freezer box with dry ice for $26, and I really enjoyed them. But that’s already a stretch (it came out of my ‘fun’ money for the month), and I can’t imagine paying the regular $50. I tried inventing my own smoothies afterwards, but let’s just say my frozen peach globs with kale bits still need some work…
Hello Fresh. Now that Amos has gotten more adventurous with cooking, we tried a week of vegetarian, with sweet potato and bean tacos, spinach ravioli, and goat cheese with farro (a grain) and greens. The flavors felt off, and we were sent a hard, unusable avocado, so it wasn’t our favorite.
Marley Spoon. We enjoyed the strong flavors of the chicken + bok choi, and chickpeas + cucumber salsa, but this is the expensive, fancy, Martha Stewart meal plan that was probably $40 for two meals with the half-off discount. So no, I won’t be trying it again, and the recipes were so detailed we won’t use them again.
Blue Apron. A good mix of things like chicken and quinoa, steaks with yuzu fruit, and freekeh with broccoli. The biggest downside was that other companies pre-sort each meal into its own bag, but Blue Apron just tosses all the meals’ ingredients together in a box, meaning you have to e.g. separate and count how many carrots each recipe uses before cooking.
Green Chef. I had to pick among different sets of three meals, so we got two that we loved with a random third (stuffed zucchini?). Also unfair: an hour after my wisdom teeth extraction, Amos fires up the stove to cook himself the steak, so it won’t ‘go bad’! …I suppose I can’t blame that on the company, though.
Sun Basket. We enjoyed things like a Mediterranean salad with soft-cooked eggs, but a magazine full of each week’s recipes is actually less convenient than three standalone cards. You also have to call them to cancel, which is a huge pain.
Dinnerly. Haven’t got this yet, but they bill themselves as the ‘cheap’ option, with simpler recipes (interestingly, by the same company that makes the overpriced fancy Martha Stewart meals…) Targeted marketing, I suppose. Maybe these companies will all buy each other out and we’ll all end up ordering from Amazon/WholeFoods or Walmart/TacoBellAtHome anyway?
On a strictly accounting basis, it’s not worth it to buy subscription boxes, even at a discount. You could probably assemble meals yourself, using ingredients on sale at the grocery store, for less.
But that’s also not exactly the point.
For some folks, boxes represent convenience, and not having to plan or buy all the parts of a meal. (I still found a lot of mental labor and coordination involved, however, as I was the one ordering, knowing which day it would arrive, knowing which plans we’d tried, how long we had to cook them till ingredients went bad, and cancelling trials, even if Amos did the cooking!).
It also let us learn new cooking skills and explore together. Odd ingredients came in just the amount needed, it nudged us out of our food habits, and it became a substitute for a night out, or attending cooking classes—in which case, the teaser price is reasonable.
Price-wise, I think we hit the sweet spot on these service as a couple; a single could probably order in or buy pre-prepared meals at the store more cheaply on their own, and a larger family could definitely save money with a large pot of spaghetti (some of the recipes, though, do note ways kids can participate).
If you decide you want to try it, do something like Home Chef first (they give you a binder, where you can store the other services’ recipe cards), and then explore others.
You’ll order, choose a delivery day, and then immediately ‘skip’ the next few weeks’ orders, so that you can cancel the subscription when the first box comes in without being charge for future weeks.
Some services give half off another box if you invite friends (Home Chef), while others won’t give further incentives unless a friend buys at full price. I gave a few links above, but most services only let me refer people if I have an active trial or subscription, which seems silly!
Overall, we found it worth it to try new things, but it still took coordination, time, and mental energy to cook something new. I recommend trying it for the experience, but not as a regular habit unless prices come down!