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Meal delivery services for the home cook: Five years later

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Disclaimer: this is not a sponsored post, just a review of the services based on my experiences using them.

In 2015 I wrote an assessment of meal delivery kits that first appeared on my old personal site and blog (you can now read it here, too, as I’ve been transitioning some of my food-related posts to this site over time.) This was a follow-up to my review of Plated, the first meal kit service that I tried in 2014, arguably just as these programs were really starting to gain some popularity. I routinely subscribed to Blue Apron since the time of writing that article, which I preferred of the few that I tried (but, more on that later…)

Helpful alternatives to meal prep and an easy answer to the question “What’s for dinner this week?”, meal kits are ideal for nearly everyone, especially people that like to try new recipes or loves to cook but doesn’t always have time to shop. Fundamentally, that has not changed.

Flash forward to 2019, and a lot has changed as far as the businesses themselves.

The business person in me has to mention that Blue Apron celebrated going public in 2017 (NYSE: APRN), opening to the market at a price of $10 per share. Plated, after appearing on an episode of Shark Tank and nearly closing its doors, also completed a deal the same year: the company didn’t go public, but was acquired by the U.S. grocery chain Albertsons for $300 million, getting the benefits of a bigger grocery brand with proven supply chain and distribution practices to back it up.

Both companies had shake-ups in their executive leadership teams just this year. By January, both of Plated’s co-founders had exited the business, CEO Josh Hix leaving just three months after co-founder Nick Taranto. In April, Blue Apron’s CEO stepped down after two years of post-IPO earnings disappointment, including seeing shares decline to below $1.00 a share in December. (Flash forward: as of last week, it’s back up to a range of $7-9 a share.)

The services have adapted to offer more flexible portion sizes over the last few years, better catering to different crowds—from people who live solo and maybe travel often for work or other commitments and don’t have a lot of time to shop, to the family of four that wants the convenience of easy to prepare meals that can be made between the time that kids are doing homework and parents are answering work emails or taking care of household chores. This is clearly an improvement to the earlier models of both services: typically 2 or 3 fixed meals per delivery, geared towards servings for two people, with restrictions to mixing-and-matching recipes.

Considering the benefits of getting a home-cooked meal versus opting for what may be viewed as unhealthier alternatives, like eating out at a restaurant or ordering take-out, why don’t more people go for meal kits? Cost is still a common answer.

In discussions with friends and family, I’ve always said it’s not as expensive as people think. For two people, it’s about $10 a meal for a kit that contains 2 or 3 meals per person. Adding in the convenience, reduced cost and time of buying and prepping ingredients, including some that an average home cook may not often use (spices for Indian cooking or sauces for Asian cooking, for example, could go wasted if a person had to buy a bottle or package of something specific for just one recipe), and it’s, really, not a bad deal.

Reflecting back on a service that I lauded only four years ago, I’m sad to say that in spite of the company’s growth and some positive changes, I’ve noticed that Blue Apron’s quality has been declining. I restarted deliveries in April this year and noticed:

Different packaging for the “knick knacks”—previously, small plastic bottles of sauces, plastic baggies of spices or dry ingredients, and single-servings of butter and dairy products were all packaged in small brown paper bags. These same ingredients are now packaged in larger, sealed plastic baggies, i.e. plastic bags within plastic bags which seems like a waste to me. I have seen spices packaged in paper or cardboard tear pouches, similar to those used for loose leaf tea or that Raw Spice Bar used for its spices. These would be better alternatives, especially since…

Leaking of sauces or spices…although packaged in plastic, ingredients still leak. Sauces packaged in round containers with plastic pull-off tops have sprung leaks on me, including sambal chili paste, not a fun one to get all over your hands. Dry spice packages (shown below) have come with small holes at the top of the pouches on at least three occasions that I can remember. Since these were packaged within the larger plastic bag, the mess was contained, but once opened I still had a mess on my hands (literally) to clean up. You would think the extra layer of packaging would help improve things from getting damaged in transit but in this case, not exactly.

Repetitive, less-than-fresh produce—there were several weeks in a row where the recipes I chose had cucumbers and cabbage in them. Nothing against cukes and cabbage, but after a while anyone would get tired of eating them. I’ve noticed blemishes and other marks on produce, too, and in one box some sprouted garlic that when compared to past boxes made me think that the ingredients were no longer as fresh.

Different packaging for the ice—boxes once came with large, ridged rectangles containing frozen gel that slowly melted over time. These ice packs, I can tell you first-hand, accumulate after a while. I kept a few to start since they were really nice for stacking, laying completely flat with no ridges similar to other hard ice packs. How many ice packs, realistically, can you keep in your freezer though? Now, plastic bags are filled with a non-toxic freezing “gel” substance. As a method of disposal, the company encourages recipients to cut a corner of the bag, empty the gel in the sink, and recycle the plastic packaging.

Unfortunately for me, on the last box I ordered, the suggested “method of disposal” of the ice pack happened to be within the box itself.

I initially thought it was water from condensation on a hot day (completely reasonable), but it wasn’t until I started unpackaging the box that I noticed the thicker-than-water substance, coating the cardboard at the bottom. I assume the ice pack ruptured in transit or was flawed to begin with since, when I squeezed the pack, the gel liquid spurted from a hole about the size of an eraser on the end of a pencil.

Was I freaked out at the prospect of being “poisoned”? Certainly not, because ice packs, by necessity of how they are used, are made with non-toxic materials.

But did I want to eat something that had been sitting in the gel “goo”? No. The fish and chicken packages were wiped off, but it covered the garlic that was at the bottom of the box, and for how long I wasn’t sure, so I threw that away.

Did I appreciate the mess? Hell no! And I was less-than-enthused with the way my hands smelled (chemical-ly) after sticking my hands in the stuff—even after washing them a few times.

The Blue Apron customer support team was friendly and responsive. They refunded this order after I provided photos and details on the issues mentioned here. With the issues of the opened spice packages and blemished produce prior to this adding up, I was already questioning if I wanted to continue the service, not to mention continue to recommend it and justify the cost of it as I had in the past to friends and family. Unfortunately, in spite of the friendly response, this was a final straw, and I have since cancelled my account.

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