Meal-subscription services that send boxes of premeasured, pre-prepped ingredients to your door have become big business. Home cook Marisa Meltzer puts them to the test.

By Marisa Meltzer
Updated May 24, 2017
Meal Kits
Credit: © Ben Wiseman

The Catfish I’d dipped in a blend of rice flour and Cajun spices was crisping nicely in a pan just as the dirty rice on the stovetop grew perfectly fluffy and tender. I plated the rice and fish and topped both with my homemade remoulade before adding a garnish of chopped parsley and sitting down to eat.

This was a Wednesday.

The dinners I usually cook for myself on a weeknight don’t often involve homemade remoulade, and certainly not a garnish. But my foray into the world of meal-subscription kits shook up my routine. These kits—boxes delivered to your door containing ingredients and recipes for several nights of dinners, usually at a cost of $7 to $12 per meal—are a booming business. There’s Blue Apron, the company that promises easy, healthy recipes. There’s Purple Carrot, which specializes in vegan meals. There’s Marley Spoon, which emphasizes high-end ingredients. There’s Plated, the sustainable one, and PeachDish, the Southern one, and Pete’s Paleo, the meaty one.

A key selling point of these subscription services is the balance they strike between ease and effort. They’re the bridge between the convenience culture in which we live and our collective desire to use our brains and hands and instincts in the kitchen—to resist the temptations of the devil on our shoulder who’s waving an iPhone, promising us an easy fix.

But there’s a larger issue. We don’t always know what’s in the food we order online or buy from a market or eat at a restaurant, let alone where those ingredients came from. We don’t know if they’re good for our bodies or the planet. According to Mark Bittman, the former New York Times columnist who last fall joined Purple Carrot as chief innovation officer, meal kits can change that. “I’ve done the opinion work,” he says, describing his longtime advocacy for plant-based meals. “But I don’t think I can convince that many people to [go vegan] without actually sticking the food in their hands.”

I decided to test a few services and see if he was right about the power of meal kits. Over a few weeks, I experimented with four kits and nearly a dozen recipes. With Blue Apron, I made the aforementioned catfish as well as sautéed spinach. With Plated, I tried vegetable hand rolls with avocado and a sesame-miso dressing that was so delicious, I continued to use it for countless salads. Plus, thanks to detailed instructions that showed me how to make sweet-potato matchsticks, I learned a new knife technique. The celery, fennel and quinoa salad I made from Marley Spoon was a keeper, though, as I ate it, I thought about how I could improve upon it next time—use a little less oil, add a Meyer lemon and maybe red pepper flakes and an endive.

On the whole, the recipes were good, and healthy. And for the most part, the quality of the ingredients was fantastic. The pork for Plated’s pot stickers was sourced from top-tier supplier Mosner Family Brand. Marley Spoon’s feta came in a container from the high-end cheese shop Murray’s.

But there were some shortcomings. Purple Carrot’s vegan meals rely heavily on food processors, which I don’t own. I ended up using my ordinary Osterizer for the cilantro-cashew cream, which resulted in a lumpy mix of herbs and nuts unworthy of the moniker “cream.” And, with all the subscription services, there were a few problems with quality control: a rotten avocado that exploded over everything; missing rice vinegar. One day I was at a bar talking to a friend about my Blue Apron steak, and the bartender mentioned that he’d canceled his subscription. The portions, he said, were too small. (That wasn’t my issue; in fact, I appreciated that the calorie count for each meal was 700 or less.)

I also wondered about waste. Most of the companies I tried ship in cardboard boxes, each holding a cooler pack with many containers of ingredients and adorably doll-size squeeze bottles of oils and vinegars. At the end of the first week I was monopolizing my building’s recycling bins. Many companies are painfully aware of this concern. Plated, for instance, uses recyclable liner bags in its boxes; Blue Apron is working on packaging exchanges.

Environmental impact aside, there was something uniquely satisfying about that moment each night when I sat down to a home-cooked meal that was balanced and well thought out, even if not by me. The recipes I liked most, however, ended up being a kind of creative prompt. I liked the pork pot stickers from Plated, but when I made them again and added more ginger and some chives, I loved them.

I never thought I’d be the kind of person who’d make dumplings for friends coming over to watch Scandal. Still, I wonder if the real legacy of this experiment, for me at least, is learning to eat healthfully in a way that is a little more exciting than I’m accustomed to. A bland stir-fry doesn’t stand a chance against a Seamless dinner, but a grass-fed steak or an organic soba noodle bowl might. That makes me think there’s a future in these kits beyond the novelty of them all.

Marisa Meltzer has contributed to the New York Times and Vogue. She lives in Brooklyn.