Dinner by mail: Subscription meals come in all shapes, sizes and flavors

Dinner by mail: Subscription meals come in all shapes, sizes and flavors

March 8th, 2017 by Anne Braly in Life Entertainment

Flank Steak with Mushrooms is one of dozens of quick and easy entrees offered by Top Chef Meals.

Photo by Anne Braly

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What's for dinner?

It's a question that has plagued us since the beginning of recorded time. For many, it's no big deal. You may love to cook and have the time and think there's no better way to spend some free time than perusing your cookbook collection in search of the next culinary masterpiece you can create.

But for those who hate to cook or simply don't have the time, the home meal delivery business offers merciful relief.

Some offer kits that come complete with recipes and all the ingredients you need; others deliver prepared meals packed in coolers and dry ice that involve nothing more than a microwave to heat them up, making them ideal for college students, elderly parents or to take on vacation.

Whatever the situation, there's a home-delivered meal out there — carnivores, omnivores, gluten sensitivities, vegetarians, vegans, etc. and etc.

In a 2016 report from consumer market research company Packaged Facts, the U.S. meal-kit delivery services market was expected to generate about $1.5 billion in sales and grow to a multi-billion market over the next five years.

"Our lives seem to be busier than ever, and many people miss the traditional family dinners they enjoyed growing up," says Daniel Granderson, communications manager for Packaged Facts. "We may not have the time — or the skills — to cook like a gourmet chef, but that doesn't mean our desire to enjoy home-cooked meals has waned.

"Therein lies the genius and appeal of home-delivered meals. It's the median between takeout and taking back our kitchens. Gone is the need to grocery shop for the right ingredients or scour the internet for the right recipe."

There are currently more than 150 meal-delivery businesses in the United States. Here's a look a five of the most popular. Prices vary depending on what type of meal you choose — single or family. But one thing all of the following companies have in common: They offer online deals ranging from 35 percent off to first-week-free for new subscribers.

Top Chef Meals

Meals: Prepared.

Details: Top Chef meals run the gamut from everyday favorites such as roasted beef brisket, chicken pot pie and pulled pork, to options on a more-gourmet level, including chicken cordon bleu, shrimp scampi, prime rib, and surf and turf with lobster. There are also choices for those following diets such as Paleo, gluten-free, low-sodium, even a weight-loss choice offering a weekly meal plan. All entrees come fully cooked and can be reheated in the oven or microwave. Each entree — there are than 50 — comes with a choice of two side dishes.

What's new? Family-style meals that will feed from two to eight, more if placing multiple orders. Unlike their individual counterparts, family-style meals come in reheatable bags that can be warmed in boiling water or the microwave.

Order: www.topchefmeals.com.


Terra's Kitchen

Meals: Meal kits.

Details: Meals arrive in a fascinating manner — inside a heavy-shelled "refrigerator-like" container with plastic handles on the sides and a locking mechanism on the front. Cut the tape that seals the locks, open the doors and pull-out shelves are revealed. They're filled with every ingredient — chopped, sliced and diced — you'll need to prepare whatever meals you've ordered, right down to, for example, the little packets of sour cream you'll need to make Swedish meatballs or the fresh mint and kalamata olives you'll put in the creamy chick pea-cucumber salad.

Once you've unloaded your "groceries," place the container back on your porch and it will be picked up the next day by Federal Express. You don't need to do another thing, other than enjoy your meal. Making it yourself allows creativity, and it's a good learning tool for kids. Recipes for each meal are included and can also be found online, along with suggested wine and beer pairings for each meal, if desired.

All meals can be made in 30 minutes or less, and the menu includes options for most all diets — Paleo, gluten-free and the like.

What's new? Terra's Kitchen's Real Weight-Loss Challenge. In addition to meal plans, it features suggestions for losing weight, daily fitness moves and suggested meals outside Terra's Kitchen menu.

Order: www.terraskitchen.com.


Green Chef

Meals: Meal kits.

Details: The Green Chef program, currently the only certified organic meal delivery service, lets you share in the cooking duties. Pick your plan _ omnivore, carnivore, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan or Paleo to serve one meal or the whole family — then the chefs at Green Chef will send some of their own recipes along with the ingredients — all of which are sourced from the best producers, including many small family farms — you'll need to recreate them at home. You be the chef and take all the accolades. One of the really nice things about this program is that all ingredients come in packaging that is color-coded to match the recipe, so there's no second guessing if you've picked out the correct ingredient. And for those of you new to Green Chef, they'll give you your first two meals free.

What's new? Green Chef Family Dinners. The plan offers omnivore and carnivore kits with menus changing every week. The menus are different from Green Chef's regular lineup. Two dinners are delivered weekly that will feed up to four people.

Order: www.greenchef.com.


Blue Apron

Meals: Meal kit.

Details: It's hard to compare meal-delivery companies without giving Blue Apron a try since it's one of the first such businesses on the market. The company offers a different menu each week, but the downside is that the range of choices is rather limited. One week's delivery may consist of barramundi (sea bass), melted leeks with verjus blanc (tart white-grape juice) and roasted potatoes and broccoli with horseradish sauce. That may sound a little over-the-top for a family with young children, but it also will introduce them to new foods.

Go online each week to check out the menu. If you don't like what you see, click on the "Skip a Week" option. You won't be charged for the weeks you skip.

Unlike Green Chef with its color-coded food containers, all the ingredients for Blue Apron's entrees are thrown in the box together, so you must sort them out. They are clearly labeled, however, so all you'll need to do it look at the recipe cards to figure out which ingredients go with which dinners.

What's new? A wine-delivery service that pairs wines with meals. Like most wine clubs, Blue Apron's wine are delivered monthly, a convenient option since the wines can be ordered on Blue Apron's web site.

Order: www.blueapron.com.



Meals: Meal kits.

Details: With celebrity chef Jamie Oliver as a partner at HelloFresh who helps create new weekly recipes, there's little doubt you'll get gourmet-level meals from this company. But they're easy to follow, almost like your kindergarten teacher assigned culinary homework. Open the box and inside you'll find an aluminum-insulated container and inside that are individual, clearly-labeled boxes telling you what dishes you'll be making with the ingredients inside. The entire process is easy to follow and directions take you step-by-step. You have 10 recipes from which to choose each week.

What's new? A partnership with Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program ensures that all fish and other seafoods, such as that used in making Turkish-Spiced Salmon with Blood Orange and Couscous Pilaf, are caught or farmed in ocean-friendly ways.

Order: www.hellofresh.com.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.