Meal kits can be expensive, but with a few strategies, you can save time and money on meal planning and prep for you and your family.
As a food journalist, it’s my job to try the things that are about to be trends before the buzz, and then try to figure out if they even should be trends in the first place. I could see that meal kits were rapidly growing in popularity years before the pandemic, and watched them become an instant success because they appealed to so many different types of cooks.
Whether they were for seasoned cooks who were just trying to save time and streamline grocery buying, or cooks who were a bit less sure of themselves in the kitchen and needed recipe ideas and step-by-step guidance, meal kits were a great option for everyone. And they were a great option for me, too. I went from making the same half dozen or so recipes each week to trying fun new flavors and ingredients all the time. These skills absolutely inspired me to get more creative on my own even outside of the meal kits.
During the pandemic, 54% of us started cooking more at home, according to a survey from Blue Apron. But we weren’t just cooking. We were trying new ingredients, improving our culinary skills, and finding ourselves through the “meditative act of cooking,” says Dani Simpson, Chief Marketing Officer for Blue Apron. And here’s the thing: Many of us who picked up a wok for the first time, well, ever, found that we actually really loved it. Thus, meal kits are here to stay. The only problem is, they’re not always affordable for every budget. Here’s how to make sure you’re getting the most for your money, and seeing the most value on every plate.
Yes, meal kits offer convenience and variety, but are they actually a good value?
It depends on how you define value. Meal kits can be a bit more expensive than buying each ingredient separately, but many people still feel they’re worth the extra cost because they don’t involve a trip to the store, and rather than being saddled with, say, an entire bottle of rice vinegar, you’ll get just enough to perfect your recipe of the day.
In general, the average meal kits end up costing about $10.00 per person, per meal, though the prices commonly range from around $5 per meal to upwards of $20 or more, explains Shawn Plumber, a spending and saving expert. “If you replace eating out and getting delivery with meal kits, you’ll likely see cost savings even when you consider the time it takes to cook. Supplement that with a budget shopping list and you can eat well without breaking the bank,” says Plumber.
Just keep in mind that if you’re looking for the absolute most budget-friendly diet, then a meal kit isn’t going to be an ideal solution. “You can get your grocery list down to $50 a week or less per person by eating less meat and focusing on casseroles, lentils, rice and beans and other dried grains,” Plumber says.
Factoring in the value of convenience
As a registered dietitian who works with everyone from busy working moms to those in retirement, Courtney Vickery, MS, RD, LD sees the value in meal kits as having a lot to do with the time they stand to save you. “I always tell my nutrition clients that they should do what works best for them for their current season in life. Sometimes it may be a meal kit that helps them nourish their bodies with a variety of foods or it may be that they want to spend some more time in the kitchen instead of more money out of their wallet,” says Vickery.
If you’re talking only monetary value, it’s clear that meal kits are not the cheapest option. For example, HelloFresh costs around $8.49 per serving (plus around $9.99 for shipping). “If we take the ingredients of their One Pot Black Bean and Pepper Soup, for example, we could buy the full size of each ingredient item and it would only cost around $13.74 at Kroger. And this would likely yield more servings than the 4 servings in HelloFresh,” says Vickery. So the difference would be around $44 vs. $13.74. That’s huge. But as we’ve heard countless times before: Time is money. And there’s no question that meal kits are much more budget-friendly than living off takeout, so keep that in mind before you open your Seamless app.
And although convenience may be king, keep in mind that not all meal kits are created equal. When deciding on which company to try, you’ll want to consider the level of prep involved, portion sizes, cost per meal, variety available, dietary preferences, and quality of ingredients. All of which you can do by comparing the details on the company’s site. The right meal kit can help you maximize daily nutrient intake and even be healthier than you were before, says registered dietician Julie Balsamo, MS, RDN. But only if you pay attention to what you’re getting.
Keeping It Healthy
Variety is the spice of life, but it’s also the key to a healthy diet, and meal kits are great for offering variety into your diet. “When it comes to nutrition, meal kits tend to encourage more plant variety, which is beneficial in terms of gut health,” says Balsamo. They also encourage you to try new foods and recipes that you typically wouldn’t on your own. “In terms of balance, meal kits tend to check off all the boxes, ensuring that you’re enjoying a nutrient dense meal. Some companies even have dietitians on staff to review their menus,” says Balsamo. They’re also a great option for those who have medical conditions that require them to follow specific diet plans, such as diabetes or heart disease.
When choosing a meal kit, look at the ability to customize your options. “Meaning, can you swap out meals, or can you adjust for preferences, like allergies, and/or cooking time?” asks Amanda Sauceda, MS, RDN. “I would also look at a sample menu to see if you would even like those foods, because if they don’t sound good online, you won’t eat it when it’s on your plate.”
Also, for single-person or two-person households, meal kits can be a great way to cut down on waste, Sauceda says. But for larger families, they can be hit or miss. “If you absolutely hate grocery shopping or have dinner decision fatigue then it can be a good option. Alternatively, with larger families you may not see a cost savings and you’re less likely to have any leftovers for lunch the next day,” says Sauceda.
There are also diet-specific meal kits that exist these days, which can be an excellent way to kickstart healthy eating, but they do come with a warning: Meal subscriptions that require the dieter to go extremely low carbohydrate or low calorie can result in weight gain post-meal subscription.
“This is because the dieter’s metabolism actually slows down due to being fed a diet of extremely low calorie. When they are no longer taking in this small amount of calories, because it isn’t sustainable or healthy, their body stores the excess calories as fat,” said Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and creator of the Candida Diet. This happens when a dieter from a meal subscription goes from low carbohydrates to eating a regular diet pattern. “Their body begins to store the carbs it is receiving as fat almost as if it is thinking it may not receive more in the future,” says Richards.
Meal subscription kits should come with guidelines on how to transition from the subscription to a regular diet without gaining weight or reverting back to old eating habits. “Long-term weight loss is achieved through eating a balanced diet, not through extremely low carb or calorie,” said Richards.
How to know if you’re getting a good deal on a meal kit
There are a few things to consider when trying to decide if a meal kit is a good deal. Obviously look at the price first. While we all know that these kits are usually more expensive than buying the ingredients separately, they might inspire you to try something new, and the “instructions included” can help even a novice feel at home in the kitchen. These kits also help you avoid food waste (who doesn’t hate throwing out produce they never use?) by sending pre-portioned ingredients. As long as you keep your costs in line, it can be a great coming home to dinner on the doorstep.
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