Meal Kits In Review

We’ve tried quite a few different meal kits now (Blue Apron, Dinnerly, Every Plate, Hello Fresh, Home Chef, Gobble), and I think I have enough information to give a reasonable review of most of them?

One important thing to note: We eat a lot, so many of the “four person” meal kits for us are actually two or three servings (so one or 1.5 meals for the two of us), and many of the “two person” meals are a (small) one serving, so we augment the kits with additional things or just expect they’ll make fewer servings than they say. That also increases the per-serving cost for us a lot (by 50% to 100%), which has a large effect on our cost/benefit analysis.

Let’s do them in order that we tried them in.

Blue Apron

This was the original kit we tried, years ago, and it had the effect of turning us off meal kits for a very long time. (Necessary caveat following from that: it may also be different now.)

I’d generally describe it as “time consuming, wasteful, small, and expensive”. Every ingredient came in the package, but often in small containers (like a tiny bottle with a little squeeze of oil), and the recipes involved a ton of chopping and mixing and generally took way too long to cook. Cleanup was also a mess because preparation involved just about every pan we had (and more than a few plates and bowls). And the ultimate result was tasty enough, but really small for us.

Blue Apron looks like it costs $8.99/serving now, which for us actually means $17.98/person (and we’re still hungry afterward). If we want small and expensive and gourmet, we’d probably do Gobble instead.

Dinnerly

This is basically the exact opposite of Blue Apron. Its recipes are significantly simpler to make (often involving only one pan and a bowl or two), and their veggie meals seem to actually be four (or sometimes five!) servings. (Their meat dishes are still somewhat small, but the side portions are generous, so I think a four-serving meat meal actually made three servings for us, which is better than the other kits.)

It’s also the cheapest of the kits at $4.69/serving (so somewhere between $3.75/serving and $6.25/serving for us), but that comes at a cost: more at-home ingredients required (vinegar, eggs, milk) and also no printed recipe cards. The recipes also tend to involve fewer ingredients overall, and also generally be more “standard” fare that you could make yourself by just hitting up the grocery store. However, another plus: They don’t nickle and dime you with “premium” recipes: everything is the same price.

Packaging-wise, everything comes together in the box and you have to pick out which ingredients go with which meal, which is maybe a little more complicated by the lack of recipe cards. But that’s also not a big deal for me.

They have a lot of variety in their menu, but no veggie substitutions, so you’re stuck with the vegetarian options they have. (Or you substitute for yourself; for one of the meals, we got the beef and just made it with tofu from the store instead.) Some of the recipes also seem to not be too well thought through: A recent veggie option was Tandoori Cauliflower that was intriguing on paper, but a little weird in practice with the ginger/garlic rice and cranberry chutney, plus the recommended preparation (mix tandoori spice with oil and toss with the cauliflower) fell apart in practice (managed to coat less than half the cauliflower before running out of oil/spice mix).

This is probably the one I would recommend the most, from both a price and serving size standpoint, and it helps that it’s one of the easiest kits to prepare, too.

Hello Fresh

This was not quite on the level of complexity of Blue Apron, but getting there. They have a few substitution options for vegetarians, but that comes at a cost: $9.99/serving to start, and an additional $5.99 to $7.99/serving for “premium” options that honestly don’t feel that premium.

In general, Hello Fresh meals tended to involve more preparation and more ingredients than the other kits, but they also sent almost everything needed (including the milk, for things like cream sauce pasta). I appreciated that the meals felt less like things I would normally make anyway, and that it required having less stuff “on hand”.

That said, the servings were small. These were very solidly in the “two servings is actually one serving for us” column, making a meal $19.98/serving for us, which is definitely not worth the price.

Packaging-wise, everything for a kit came together in one labelled brown paper bag, which you throw in the fridge (dry pastas and all), and the meats came separate from the kits. It was convenient for pulling out everything required for a meal, so that was nice. The recipe cards come separately on top of the bags.

Every Plate

We joke that this is the “zest a lemon” meal service, because just about every meal involves zesting a lemon, even the ones that don’t actually come with lemons. That said, this is a strong contender for #2 for us as its price ($4.99/serving) is reasonable and its servings (a solid 3 meals per 4-serving kit, for a price of $6.65/serving for us) are also reasonably sized.

The recipes tend to be slightly more complicated than Dinnerly, but still not involve unreasonable amounts of preparation. But that also means they’re a little more unusual, which is nice. They’re also consistently tasty: they always seem to have a veggie option that involves roasted chickpeas, and I love them so much I’ve started making variations of them on my own (canned chickpeas cooked with chili powder, roasted carrots with paprica, pearl couscous, sour cream, grape tomatoes, and spinach = delicious).

Like Dinnerly, they also tend to not do substitutions (although I think I’ve seen a couple options, but none of which were veggie substitutions for meat dishes), but that’s not a huge deal when they have such great veggie options.

Also like Dinnerly, everything comes together in the box without being separated by recipe, although they have better separation between veggies, dry ingredients, and proteins than Dinnerly does (with a separate paper tray for the veggies). However, these separations are just layers of paper, and one of the boxes we got had a leaky bag of chicken that got its juice over some of the veggies, so that wasn’t great, but otherwise this lack of meal separation also hasn’t been a problem. The recipe cards come separately on top of the bags.

In general, I’d say Dinnerly has slightly bigger servings but is simpler dishes, and Every Plate is more interesting but (slightly) more expensive, but they’re the two most similar of the kits, and I’m happy with both of them.

Home Chef

This is probably the best option for vegetarians, as basically every dish can be substituted. Their meals also have a much wider range of complexity than other companies, ranging from super simple to fairly involved. So flexibility wise, you can’t really beat them.

That said, we found Home Chef to suffer from the same problem as Hello Fresh: Small servings and expensive, especially because they have premium options and substitution of protein often costs more. They start at $6.99/serving (which for us is solidly $13.98/person), but very quickly and easily goes up in price.

I think I’d be more interested in them at half the price (or at least 25% less), because they do have some interesting recipes.

Packaging-wise, everything comes in separate large plastic ziploc bags by meal, with the proteins separated out, so these were very easy to pull out of the fridge to make. The recipe cards are 3-hole-punched and come separately on top of the bags (and they included a binder for the cards with my first shipment, which I thought was a nice touch).

Gobble

Gobble was by far the most “gourmet” of the meal kits we tried, even more so than Blue Apron. But we were pleasantly surprised by how easy the meals were to make. Most of the sauces come pre-made, and complicated things (like polenta) come pre-formed and ready to cook. The meals are also the most unusual and things I would never be able to make myself without visiting specialty stores. (We had chicken in a wine sauce with polenta cake and broccolini, barramundi with cauliflower rice and beans, and a really nice vegetarian bi bim bap with mushrooms and shisito peppers.)

However, all of this comes at a steep cost: $12.99/serving with premium options costing even more. Worse still, the servings are among the smallest of the kits we received, so that’s actually $25.98/person if we ate just the kit. (For example, in the meal below, the potatoes and tortellini are not part of the kit and are things we added ourselves to augment to a reasonable serving size, but the kit contents of fish and cauliflower rice and beans were delicious.)

Packaging-wise, everything came in large sealed plastic bags divided by meal, with the exception of the proteins that came separately. The bags were also well-cushioned with paper inserts both inside the bags and outside, and the recipe cards were inside the sealed bags. So the packaging was a little excessive, but helpful.

I really want to like this kit, because it’s definitely the most unusual and has the most “free” premium options (like unusual fishes and beef), but that price is simply not justifiable for us when we could go to a nice restaurant and pay less than that per person after tax and tip.

Martha Stewart

Edit 12/29: We’ve also now tried the Martha Stewart/Marley Spoon kit. It feels like it’s trying to be gourmet, with “fancier” meals than any of the kits other than Gobble, but also with more prep work than Gobble. The ingredients themselves seem to be sourced from the same company as Dinnerly (and the Dinnerly website also loads many assets, like the PDF recipe cards, from Marley Spoon, so they’re really combined), but its recipes are significantly fancier than Dinnerly.

However, it’s also one of the most expensive list prices. Depending on how many servings you get, it’ll cost between $9 and $11/serving. Their servings are between 1.5 and 2 servings per 2-serving kit for us, so the cost to us is actually something like $9 to $15/serving, which I think is not worth it unless you have discounts.

The box packaging is similar to Every Plate, in that they have a divider for the meat and veggies, but also include an extra bag for the “dry” ingredients, but they don’t otherwise split up the meals, so you’re on your own for locating components for each meal. The recipe cards are between the insulated bag and the box (on the side, in my box, as opposed to on the top with other meal kits).

Overall Thoughts

If price is of no importance to you, I’d recommend Gobble. Its meals are delicious and varied and feel really premium but are still very accessible in terms of cooking complexity. However, they may leave you hungry.

If you’re vegetarian or need lots of substitution options, go with Home Chef for its flexibility, although expect to pay for the flexibility.

If you’re like us and care a lot about serving size and cost, go with either Dinnerly (simpler) or Every Plate (slightly more interesting but slightly more work).

Edit 12/29: We’ve also tried Martha Stewart now. It’s too expensive for me to recommend, otherwise it would probably come third after Every Plate. If you’re able to get discounts, I think the three I’d recommend (in order) is Dinnerly, Every Plate, and Martha Stewart, growing in fanciness but also price as you go.

Edit 3/23: See my followup post after another few months of meal kits.

Adirondacks, Schitt’s Creek

We did another cabin trip! This one was a far one, to a little cottage in the town of Keene, New York in the Adirondacks.

There was the usual hiking and lounging around the place.

We also got to see Mark on our drive back, which was nice.

But I spent most of the week at the cottage bingeing Schitt’s Creek, which I think is my all-time favorite show now. It’s been sitting and simmering for a bit over half a week, and I think it’s pretty safe to say that it

  • Has some of the most consistent characters I’ve seen in any show… there’s very visible character growth through the seasons, but the characters never act in a way that seems “off”… every change makes sense and feels earned
  • Starts consistently good, instead of having a first few seasons that are easily skipped (such as Parks and Rec or Star Trek The Next Generation)… I think the cast is a large part of this, because it feels like they all come in the right way and changes are character growth rather than the actor growing into the role
  • Has the best pacing I think I’ve ever seen in a show… it never tries to do too much within an episode or season, and gives events the time they need to sit and simmer
  • Left me an emotional wreck starting in the fourth season, and especially into the later part of season 5 and season 6, but did an amazing job interspacing levity with its emotional moments so it didn’t get overwhelming
  • Doesn’t really feel like it has “filler” or bad episodes, because there’s always some important development or insight happening in every episode… I think the only one I can think of is “Roadkill”, and I wouldn’t even call that episode “bad”
  • Had I think the all-time best final episode of any show I’ve ever seen… it gives closure in the right ways and (as noted above) everything feels like it’s happening at the right time with no sudden unexpected storylines to tie up
  • Ends at the right time, instead of dragging on into bizarre later seasons like we see with House or much of Glee or getting cancelled prematurely like many other series, which overall makes for an extremely satisfying watch
  • Does such a good job of developing all of its characters and giving them important moments… for example, I think Maybe This Time is a great example of how to properly tie in music and performance into a show, because that entire scene is such a great epiphany for the character… it reminds me of how Glee actually did a good job tying its music into the plots in most of its first season
  • Is amazing because it gave us A Little Bit Alexis and the beautiful cover of The Best

I’m so glad I was able to consume the entire show in one go instead of having to wait for it week by week. At some point I’ll need to find some time to rewatch the entire thing again.

Life, Bleh

My photo journal and stats page have both been updated. With an attempt at returning to normalcy in May, including eating (outside) at restaurants and having people over for board games, we actually have a reasonable number of photos: 2292 in the past 4 months. It’s still lower than the pre-pandemic 3417 since we weren’t doing weekly games or the usual weekend social things, but it’s still nice. (There are also some board game photos on photos, for the first time since the pandemic started. Woo.)

But of course, it’s all just in time for us to have to start being super cautious again, thanks to delta, and particularly thanks to all the people who refuse to vaccinate. I expect the next four months will be depressingly low in photos again, as we curtail in-person things. So that’s bleh #1.

Bleh #2 is work… I don’t think I’ve ever felt this utterly dejected in my professional life, and the worst part is that there isn’t even a reason for it. It’s probably just a ton of burnout, brought on by a combination of things in work and the world at large (because hooray the world is continuing to fall apart). I’m trying to push through it, like always, but I wonder if I actually need to find some more concrete changes I can make, like offloading some of the teams I work with to other people.

So of course, bleh #3 (and probably the biggest one) is the world in general right now. Politics is still an endless mess of poop, states are still doing horrible things (looking at you in particular, Texas and Florida), and the fact that we can’t even come together as a country in the face of an obvious, immediate threat (Covid) really doesn’t bode well for us being able to do anything about climate change.

Speaking of climate change, bleh #4 is that our basement flooded again, thanks to Ida. We’d been expecting for years that the flooding was due to the gutters being clogged and/or was coming from the walls. But this year… gutters were cleaned and cleared, and the water barriers we’d set up maybe suggest that the water is actually coming up through the concrete foundation, given the walls were actually relatively dry, and the wet patch in the middle of the carpet kept getting wetter as we cleaned it up, despite everything around it already being cleared. So that’s going to be some more house fun, and continue to curse the people who finished a Pittsburgh basement without proper consideration for the fact that basements of 100-year-old houses get wet.

Maybe the one “interesting” thing is that our food apathy and indecisiveness have led us to try some meal kits. After the arguably terrible experience we had with Blue Apron a few years back (“Let’s use every plate and pot and utensil and take 2 hours to make this overly-elaborate dinner that is supposed to serve four but barely serves the two of us!”), I didn’t have high hopes. But it turns out there’s a ton of meal box services now, all of which seem to be running specials. So…

Our first attempt this time around is Dinnerly. We got a 6-meals-for-4-people box and, to my surprise, the servings actually seem relatively well-sized. Some of the meals (pulled pork bowls) seem like they’re actually more like 3 servings instead of 4, but others (stir-fried eggplant) are more like 5 servings than 4. It’s also not a huge pain to cook… the things are more elaborate than I would usually make, but not unreasonably so. If it wasn’t for the fact that the meals also felt a bit plain (like things I could easily plan myself, such as grilled portabella with quinoa), it feels like it might be a good way to help with the food issue.

Next up, we’re trying Hello Fresh. They had some interesting-looking dishes up next week (particularly mushroom gnocchi and mushroom cavatappi), so we’ll see how that goes.

So other than the food, that’s a lot of bleh. Not much is going well in life right now, all things considered.

Yay life?

Musings

I logged in to write a post, and I’m not quite sure what to write, but I suppose that’s pretty representative of my state of mind at the moment.

Let’s start with this WIP entry from May 9, 2017 that I never posted, after seeing Ghost In The Shell with Maja, just so I can clean out my journal drafts. It also feels like an appropriate glimpse back into when the world was normal and we could actually do things.

I see movies so rarely that I feel like I have to write a post every time I do.

Last night I went to dinner with Maja and we saw Ghost in the Shell. I went into it not really knowing much about the film or its original manga other than, “They whitewashed this movie it’s terrible.”

Also, it’s weird that people have issues with the protagonist being white when most of the rest of the cast was white. :P It only makes sense that a company headed by a white guy and a team of white scientists would build a white robotic shell, even if the brain they’re putting into it was from an Asian girl. Meh?

But in any case, the movie itself was pretty good. Had all of the obligatory fight sequences and big CG effects and plot twists that you’d expect from a big film.

The world, and particularly the US, continue to fall further into viral despair. I think we’re officially cancelling our Phoenix trip this year, since cases are trending up again and we never actually hit a low enough level where we’d be comfortable with a cross-country drive and plane trip.

But while I could rant about anti-vaxxers and Republicans for hours, I want to talk about some other interesting things that have come out of the pandemic, instead.

I used to be a huge couponer, and even after I stopped cutting coupons, I would always watch sales and plan at least some purchases around sales… only get the sale cereals, only get the fruit-of-the-week, buy the bread or buns that are on sale. The pandemic’s condensing of grocery trips, combined with a switch to Aldi’s as our primary grocer, kind of put a stop to that. But it’s interesting to note as we’ve started going to Giant Eagle again that I haven’t switched back into it. We made a trip today where we just kind of grabbed the things we wanted, without regard for price, which was similar to the last trip where I bought a full-price pack of Milano cookies because I wanted them. I suppose it’s yet another indicator of how financially fortunate we are.

The housing market has also been crazy, probably thanks to the pandemic simultaneously keeping people at home (and therefore looking to upgrade where possible) and causing people to move to cheaper areas (since they’re not going into an office anyway). This is particularly true in Pittsburgh, where we started looking at house listings because Yubin was looking at buying a house, to find that none of the prices made sense to us anymore. If we were looking at buying a house today, there are barely any houses available in our neighborhood (and those that are available are huge), not to mention they’d cost between 25% and 50% more than what we’d be expecting.

Social arrangements are also… odd. While it’s been really nice seeing people in person (and playing outdoor board games with them) again, it also just feels strange to arrange disjoint plans (and gaming sessions) with different people to keep group size reasonable. We haven’t gotten the usual large games group fully back together (and probably won’t this year, if cases continue to go up), which makes some of the larger games I’ve been wanting to play a bit more difficult to manage, as well.

Work has been busy, as always, but I’ve just been having an increasingly hard time concentrating lately. I think it’s a confluence of a bunch of things, such as recent changes around work culture, my ever-fragmented jumping around between teams and topics, and the same general sense of “What do I actually want to be doing?” that I think has been on the minds of many people I know during the pandemic.

All of this is generally just giving me a sense of restlessness, where I feels like I need to be doing something different in my life, but having no idea what it is. I wonder how much of that was the itching to return to normalcy combined with what currently feels like any chance of that being ripped away from us again.

Anyway, this has been a huge wall of text. Boo pandemic. Boo another wave.

Card Games and Board Games and (Keith) Bares, Oh My

I’ve been on a bit of a defunct TCG kick lately, purchasing several new defunct TCGs and doing a bunch of card sorting. Things I’ve picked up include the Bleach TCG, the third starter I was missing for the Young Jedi TCG, the Power Rangers TCG, Force of Will, My Little Pony TCG, Dicemasters, Highlander TCG, Epic Battles, and some more Star Trek CCG and VS system. It’s also made me revisit (and reorganize) a lot of the TCGs I already have, such as .hack, Buffy, Megaman, Hecatomb, World of Warcraft, Fullmetal Alchemist, DBZ (CCG, TCG, and new Panini CCG), Yu Yu Hakusho, X-Files, Neopets, Simpsons, UFS, Lord of the Rings, and the Star Wars TCG (by Wizards, not to be confused with the CCG from Decipher).

Behold, my sorted and labelled collection!

I’ve also been dumping starter deck card lists (at least for the games with fixed starter contents) over at randomjunk, mostly so I can reconstruct decks in the future if needed. Some of them (like .hack) required quite a bit of reconstruction (since I didn’t want to open new, unopened decks to confirm), so I hope I have it all correct.

In any case, it’s interesting how TCGs have changed over the past decade or so. Some thoughts in no particular order:

  • A lot of the older games are much more low-frills: the starter deck boxes contain little more than the deck and some rules and are often sized exactly for the contents, and the games usually don’t require components other than the cards themselves. Newer games have dice and tokens and counters and come in huge boxes with plastic inserts that have to be discarded. (Power Rangers and Force of Will are particularly bad at this, but World of Warcraft also comes in huge cases which are at least functional.)
  • A surprising number of starter decks are not actually tournament-legal decks. World of Warcraft is especially bad at this (would it kill you to give us a full 60 card deck rather than a half-sized one?), but things like Buffy, Star Wars’ theme decks, and Power Rangers also offer starter decks that are less than the necessary number of cards.
  • Many games have two-player starter deck variants, which is nice, but those almost always have fewer cards than required for a legal deck. (See: Young Jedi, Star Wars TCG.) Still, I blame this less than the above, since you’re not forcing each player to buy a deck to play.
  • It’s interesting how TCGs went through a “starters must be randomized” phase, and then split into either theme decks or semi-randomized setups. Star Trek, X-Files, and Highlander are good examples of games with starters that are actually not only not tournament legal, but are often outright not playable out of the box due to the randomization. Some games then turned to preconstructed decks, often with randomized selection or portions of decks in opaque boxes (such as Bleach, Buffy, World of Warcraft, DBZ [both CCG and TCG], and Yu Yu Hakusho), while others took a more consumer-friendly approach of preconstructed decks indicated by the box (such as Simpsons, Megaman, .hack, Fullmetal Alchemist, Neopets, VS, and UFS) so you could select which deck you wanted.
  • Duplicate cards are an expected part of any starter, but some games take this to an extreme. I think Decipher’s 2-player starter decks (Young Jedi, Austin Powers) are especially egregious examples of this, but even things like the Star Trek 2E Starters duplicate cards for no good reason between decks (and even between decks in different expansion sets).
  • I wish more games did the “starter deck” rarities, especially across all cards in a starter deck. It’s extremely frustrating to open boosters and get a “rare” that you already have a few copies of from a starter (the DBZ TCG was particularly bad at this, with both the decks having two copies of one card as the only rare), but WoW does this too. Huge kudos to things like DBZ Panini for having only starter-rarity cards in their starters, but thanks to things like Megaman and .hack for at least trying via starter-only “rares”. (Alternately, randomizing only the rares works too, like LoTR or Buffy.)
  • I wish more games would include a booster pack or two in the starter deck. It’s a good way to give a taste of the collecting and customizing experience to newbies, but also increases the value of purchasing multiple starters. Bleach and WoW are probably the top here (two boosters per starter) but other games like Terminator at least make an effort.

I keep thinking it could be fun to start a blog/podcast/youtube channel on defunct TCGs, giving a general summary of their format (starter randomization, thoughts on packaging and collectability), gameplay, history, and my thoughts on the game. But like most things, I’ll probably never find the time to do it.

It’ll also be interesting to potentially try out playing some of these in the future. Which is actually a reasonable segue into the next subject…

We’ve started in-person games again, albeit outdoors (on our backyard deck) and with a very small number of other people at a time (1-3). Still, that means photos has gotten its first update with photos since the pandemic began (the last galleries, despite being posted in August, were from a February trip).

This is mostly thanks to Ben, who was in town for an unexpected visit. We hung out and played some games on the deck a couple of times (including some of my new pickups from the pandemic, such as Shadows in Kyoto), and it felt okay enough that we had Keith and Austin over for some more serious games this past weekend. I think we’re not ready for games (or generally groups of people visiting) inside the house yet, but outdoors seems fine.

We also had lunch at Emiliano’s with Keith (sitting outdoors, of course), which was our first restaurant meal with someone else since the pandemic started.

Baby steps :)