You don’t need me to tell you that when it comes to food, convenient means “terrible for you,” and a good, balanced diet, especially the kind that helps build muscle and shed fat, often means more effort and money. But here’s some good news: The hypercompetitive start-up world is trying its damndest to change that.
A wave of fresh-meal-based subscription services has crashed into the marketplace seemingly overnight, and the culinary offerings are tailor-made for the active guy who wants the healthy benefits of homemade food but can’t be bothered to shop.
All these companies work by sending you boxes containing everything you need to whip together meals in your own kitchen: chilled, insulated, and nonfrozen foods; perfectly portioned and vacuum-sealed ingredients; and clear, hyperspecific cooking instructions. (No defrosting or marinating required.) So, if you’ve got the basic kitchen utensils—a frying pan, a good pot, and maybe a baking sheet—all you need to do is crack open the box and follow your marching orders.
Though I am certainly no foodie, I am a practical dude who knows a thing or two about getting bang for your buck, and I definitely know a tasty, healthy meal when I bite into one. So I gave all the new online start-ups on the market a test run. If you’re game to cruise for online orders, here’s your shopping list.
FOR IMPRESSING YOUR GIRLFRIEND:
BLUE APRON (BLUEAPRON.COM)
COST: $60 per week for three meals for two
THE MENU: Rice-flake salmon with miso mashed potatoes and garlic-ginger mustard greens (295 calories); Parmesan-crusted chicken with a kale and pickled-celeriac Caesar salad (350 calories).
MY TAKE: First, there was the preparation: lots of it. (I will surely cave and order delivery if I’m ever asked to “peel and roast” hazelnuts ever again.) But about an hour and a half later, the food, notably the miso potatoes, was outstanding, and the baked chicken was satisfying without the heaviness. For guys looking to impress someone, Blue Apron is a good way to go. It has specialized menus—from pescatarian to shellfish-free—and the dishes tend to include ingredients you’ve never heard of (Fairy Tale eggplant? Celeriac?), which will either make for playful conversation starters with your date or lead her to think you’re buddies with David Chang.
FOR FITNESS FREAKS:
COST: $12 per meal, with a $50 minimum
THE MENU: Pan-roasted chicken with squash panzanella (385 calories); seared steak with cauliflower mash (345 calories).
MY TAKE: More than any of the delivery services, Plated caters to specific diets. It’s the only service with a Paleo option, surprisingly. And the dishes themselves were protein-heavy and tasty and came in big, guy-friendly portions. (I never imagined that eating starchy squash with starchy croutons could be a slam-dunk dinner, but it was so good I’ve re-created that recipe from scratch twice since.) The biggest issue with Plated had nothing to do with quality or presentation: When I tried to order my meals for the week, far too many options were flagged as “SOLD OUT.”
FOR COOKING NEOPHYTES:
COST: $69 per week for three meals for two, $59 for the vegetarian plan.
THE MENU: Herb-roasted chicken with vegetables (642 calories); lemon cod with ratatouille (526 calories).
MY TAKE: This company, which claims to help you “discover the joys of cooking,” hails from Germany, and it shows. There is Teutonic exactness drilled into everything, chiefly the slick black recipe cards that are easier to read than a children’s book. It was also the least wasteful: Unlike the other services, it didn’t use standard commercial chilled packs to keep the food fresh. Instead, the food was stuffed in between frozen bottles of spring water intended to be consumed when defrosted. Unfortunately , the food was also very German, too—competent yet unexciting. But for anyone whose finger aches from hitting the microwave button too many times, go for it.
FOR ASPIRING TOP CHEF CONTESTANTS:
COST: $12.50 per serving, with a minimum order of four servings
THE MENU: Curried guinea-hen meatballs in spicy coconut sauce (650 calories); beef stew with oyster mushrooms and green lentils (728 calories).
MY TAKE: This is a company run by an organic farmer based in Georgia, and the recipes are hearty and infused with a buttery Southern twang. They’re also the most pretentious: Four new meals are offered each week, and no recipe is repeated. That said, these dishes were the highest quality, by far, of any of the companies. (They were also the fattiest.) But they are adventurous and push you to try unexpected things. (If I’d seen ground guinea-hen in a supermarket before, I’d have assumed it was cat food.) The biggest downside, however, was the significant prep time: As delicious as their meatballs are, it was a full two hours from opening the box to the first forkful.
FOR SINGLE DUDES:
COST: $79 for three meals for two, $59 minimum for any order
THE MENU: Herbed chicken patties with lemon-avocado dressing (295 calories); pork cutlet with peach-and-almond salad (308 calories).
MY TAKE: Unlike the rest of these start-ups, which prepare your meals and ship them to you, PlateJoy is a more local affair. When you choose your recipes, a PlateJoy courier buys the relevant ingredients from a high-end local market and delivers them in shopping bags to your door. And there’s good news for single dudes: This service offers rare, single-serving recipes. But that’s not all. It turns out that PlateJoy is ideal for the novice chef looking to learn how to cook and stock his kitchen at the same time. PlateJoy won’t just send you a bag containing the exact amount of ingredients for the serving and no more. You’ll get the whole bottle. So after a while, you’ll have a fully loaded kitchen. Who knows? It may even inspire you to finally check out your local farmers’ market.