When I first tried Blue Apron a few years ago, I was so excited. The ladies in my new-moms group raved about the semi-obscure, seasonal ingredients and perfectly curated recipes the whole family would love. Unfortunately, I soon learned the fantasy of food subscription boxes didn’t fit into my reality: Choices were limited, flexibility was lacking, and there were few accommodations for allergies. (My youngest son has a sesame allergy, so I check ingredient lists constantly.)
Fast-forward to now, and the market for food subscription boxes is booming.
Many leading services offer more options and better flexibility at competitive price points. But do any of them fit A) my family’s picky tastes, B) mine and my spouse’s healthy diets, and C) our $200 to $225 weekly grocery budget? I ditched my usual Trader Joe’s frozen burritos and put four meal kits to the test. Here’s how my diet — and budget — fared for the month.
Food Subscription Box #1: Marley Spoon
I’d heard a lot about Marley Spoon from friends, whose simple, yet sophisticated, menus are intended to fit anyone’s lifestyle — kid-friendly entrees, 30-minute meals, easy-to-cook recipes and so on.
For my first delivery, I chose a basic steak fajita labeled “kid-friendly” and a homemade slaw. Of course, I knew “kid-friendly” was a loaded term: My sons are 5 and 3; the oldest would live off carrots, strawberries, and lollipops if he could, while my youngest favors hot dogs and pizza.
Preparing the fajitas was simple enough — chop the peppers and onions, then rub fajita mix over everything. The coleslaw — shredded cabbage with a touch of lime and mayo — was not only easy to make, but so good that I couldn’t stop eating it as I waited for the steak to finish! Because I’d never used a broiler before, I overcooked the steak strips a bit. My kids only nibbled at the flour tortillas.
I did much better with the second recipe: broiled chicken thighs with zucchini and squash with a lemon-Dijon sauce. While the directions were easy to follow, Marley Spoon charged $24 for “two portions,” which consisted of three boneless chicken thighs, one limp zucchini, one lemon, a couple of handfuls of white rice, two Dijon mustard packets and a handful of thyme. I could have bought twice as much at my grocery store for half that!
What I Loved: They stay true to their mission of offering sustainable food sources and supporting small businesses. Recipes were simple. Protein portion sizes were perfect — surprising since protein is costly. Also, the packaging was the most earth-friendly.
What I Didn’t Love: The dishes themselves were just OK for the price. Also, the zucchini was less-than-fresh.
Recommended For: Individuals who love the sustainable farming mission, clean eating and simple ingredients.
Week 1 Food Spending
Marley Spoon: $48 (2 meals/2 portions per meal, free shipping)
Discount for First Week: $10 off
Additional Groceries: $185
Food Subscription Box #2: Blue Apron
During my first run with Blue Apron, I canceled after six weeks. I didn’t want to be roped into a three-meals-a-week plan with only two tracks — all-vegetarian or all-regular — and my husband didn’t think the protein portions were sufficiently sized. Blue Apron 2.0 now offers a two-meals-a-week plan and a dozen different recipes.
For my first, I selected the “spiced chicken and garlic rice with pipian sauce and roasted honey nut squash.” The two chicken breasts were huge, an unexpected bonus considering previous experience. The directions were easy to follow, and I loved taking on a first-time challenge of peeling and roasting squash. My only green-cook moment was accidentally burning the pumpkin seeds I was supposed to “toast.” Fortunately I had pine nuts on hand to substitute.
I was even more excited by my second recipe: seared steaks, mashed potatoes and roasted carrots. But alas, the steaks were so tough, they were almost inedible. It was really disappointing because the carrots and potatoes were easy to make and perfect.
What I Loved: The use of unexpected ingredients to make ordinary dishes, like grilled chicken, extraordinary. Protein portions were great, too.
What I Didn’t Love: The meals were starch-heavy, and the vegetable portions could use a boost. I bought my own veggie sides.
Recommended For: Individuals, couples and families that want to experiment with offbeat ingredient combinations. Also perfect for anyone who wants to try a subscription and occasionally skip weeks without hassle. (Their customer service is awesome.)
Week 2 Food Spending
Blue Apron: $47.95 (2 meals/2 portions per meal, plus $7.99 shipping)
Discount for First Week: $20 off
Additional Groceries: $173
Food Subscription Box #3: Plated
I’d read that Plated is the gold standard for food subscription boxes, so I was excited to try it out. I selected chicken marsala and a vegetarian dish — “roasted heirloom cauliflower with Gruyere-mashed butternut squash and caper vinaigrette.” When I opened the package, I was pleasantly surprised to see a bounty of beautiful fresh vegetables.
Cooking the chicken marsala, an Italian-American classic, was so easy that my 3-year-old could help me whisk together some ingredients. The roast potatoes came out perfectly, and the chicken was easy to dredge and sauté. The second recipe came with pre-cut butternut squash, which I definitely appreciated, as I needed to keep an eye on my toddler. As with the first, the second came out perfect.
What I Loved: Easy recipes and upscale ingredients that are fresh, seasonal and sustainably sourced.
What I Didn’t Love: It’s not easy to skip weeks with Plated. You’re prompted to fill out a questionnaire about why you want to skip and your meal-prep preferences as soon as you select the option.
Recommended For: Couples and families who prefer to indulge in classic dishes with a twist, which take little effort.
Week 3 Food Spending
Plated: $55.75 (2 meals/2 portions per meal, plus $7.95 shipping)
Discount for First Week: $23.90 (50%) off first box
Additional Groceries: $185
Food Subscription Box #4: Sun Basket
I’d thought about trying Sun Basket for months after seeing so many ads in my social media feeds — images of delicious, healthy paleo meals, without a lot of “filler” carbs like rice (which, let’s be honest, keeps the costs down for food subscriptions). But those fresh non-carby ingredients come at a price: Sun Basket is by far the most expensive of the services I tried. Still, I was pumped for my first delivery ... then less so when I had to agree to a three-meal minimum in order to receive the introductory-week discount (which I had to fetch from a third-party site).
Unfortunately, my first recipe — Udon noodle soup with tofu, dashi, and soft-cooked eggs — required a skill set beyond my own. After following instructions to boil eggs for exactly five minutes and dip them in ice water, they were still mostly raw. Fortunately I had a case of eggs on hand, so I fried one for later. The dish was pretty delicious, otherwise. Also, because Sun Basket sent recipe booklets instead of meal cards, I couldn’t see photos of what to do, and how everything was supposed to look. Since all of the other services provide lots of photos, this annoyed me.
My second recipe (braised chicken with mushrooms, artichokes and almond-olive relish) turned out to be a lot less time-consuming, absolutely delicious and exactly the kind of healthy entree I would love to make regularly. And when I made my third recipe (steaks with balsamic-glazed radishes and Brussels sprouts) I was pretty impressed that I’d finally made meal-delivery steak that wasn’t insanely tough.
What I Loved: Eating Sun Basket food is an out-of-this-world experience that fulfills my needs for a higher-protein, lower-carb, vegetable-dense meal. The frequent text reminders that the food box was on its way were super helpful, too.
What I Didn’t Love: I agree with bloggers who’ve said some recipes would be hard to recreate on your own without the included gourmet ingredients. But my biggest issue is the cost. The two-meal-a-week plan is $58 a week (including shipping). That’s $11 a week more than Blue Apron for similar portions. Without the first-week discount (which I had to search for and extract from a third-party site) I would have blown my budget.
However, with Blue Apron and Plated, I supplemented my meals with store-bought veggies, so perhaps the difference wouldn’t be so great.
Recommended For: Anyone who cooks like a pro, enjoys the process or wants a subscription box that’s tailored to health-oriented dietary needs. (Sun Basket offers vegan, gluten-free, paleo and more.)
Week 4 Food Spending
Sun Basket: $78 (3 meals/2 portions per meal, plus $5.99 shipping)
Discount for First Week (through offers.com): $35 off
Additional Groceries: $212
I cancelled Marley Spoon immediately because I can cook more complex meals on my own. (However, I totally recognize they are unique in providing accessible recipes for novice cooks or families with super-picky eaters.) I also cancelled Sun Basket, but for the opposite reason: The recipes are made for people who LOVE cooking and don't mind spending 40 minutes on a dish. The price and effort required is just too much on a regular basis. I kept Blue Apron and Plated to rotate — using each only once a month. This will allow me to learn new recipes and have weeks where I can just heat up Trader Joe's frozen dinners (like the week before Christmas when I’m up to my neck wrapping presents!).