Tech Talk: Meal-kit price and quality vary — a lot

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NEW YORK >> Meal delivery kits can save you time, spare you stress, and might even cut your food bill if you're eating out a lot. But which ones are actually worth it?

I spent a month cooking dinners using ingredients packaged and shipped by Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Purple Carrot, Plated and Marley Spoon. Each box contained makings for three dinners for two. The Associated Press picked up the tab and the companies weren't aware that I was doing reviews.

We've listed the weekly cost for each service, along with what I actually paid as a result of first-week promotions.

You can read my overall review of the meal-kit approach at http://apne.ws/1RfLMTf

Blue Apron

This is probably the best known meal-kit delivery service in America. It's also the least expensive. But I don't think it's the best.

Nothing was bad, but nothing really wowed me either. Some of the entrees tasted generic, like something you'd get at a chain restaurant, including things like un-labeled rolls and premade sauces with no ingredients listed. (Blue Apron will send you the ingredient lists if you request them.) Even though I made the meals myself, they seemed more institutional than ones made from scratch. On the upside, the meats were of good quality and the shrimp came from the U.S.

But if you're counting your calories, watch out. Two of the three dishes I made actually served three, instead of two, boosting the calorie count if you finish the whole thing the way I did with my husband.

The good news: Blue Apron offers six meals to choose from each week, and there's lots of variety. But this was the only service I tried that blacked out certain choices if you selected others. Blue Apron said it does that for internal efficiency, but says it's working on giving its customers more choices.

Plated

Plated stands out because it gives you the option to pay extra for more upscale "Chef's Table" entrees. I paid an extra $12 for a two-person meal of wild Pacific salmon with long beans and potatoes. Even though I overcooked the fish, this was a favorite and worth the extra cash.

The regular dishes also were a step up from Blue Apron's. A pasta dish contained a generous amount of tasty, but funky-looking mushrooms I'd never tried before. A quick chicken stew was nicely spiced.

You can also pay an extra $4 per person to add dessert. This sounded like fun, but the whole-wheat dark chocolate cookies with cranberries I made were disappointing. The six tiny cookies the mix yielded looked like something out of my daughter's Easy-Bake Oven. And even in New York, $8 can buy you a few large, top-quality cookies from a bakery.

Purple Carrot

The fact that these exclusively vegan meals were able to feed my meat-loving husband with minimal whining says a lot.

Backed by food writer Mark Bittman, the meals are designed to help people cut back on their meat and dairy intake, benefiting both their personal health and that of the earth.

The meals were fun and creative. The company's Korean veggie pancakes were a hit, as was a broccoli-and-butter bean pasta.

On the flip side, these also were the most time-consuming meals to make, requiring me to do things like wash, peel and grate multiple carrots. Some recipes even ask you to pull out your blender or food processor.

But the best thing about Purple Carrot is its customer service. I had my subscription paused, but there was a mix up and the company sent me a box anyway. In a panic, I emailed them. Not only did I get a quick and friendly reply, they also refunded my money and told me to keep the box, which was way more than I expected.

Hello Fresh

While customer service may have been Purple Carrot's best quality, it was Hello Fresh's worst. I never received a reminder email or shipping info for my delivery, so I emailed the company. It took them two days to answer. While my box did arrive as scheduled, the uncertainty had me scrambling to buy groceries just in case.

The food itself was fine. Dishes were creative but not too weird, and came together fairly quickly. But some of the ingredients seemed cheap. Little packets of hoisin sauce included artificial red food coloring, while a tube of sour cream included preservatives. And a shrimp dish labeled "make me first," came with a rock-hard avocado, resulting in a last-minute trip to the store.

Hello Fresh supplies complete nutritional information, useful if you're watching your sodium or sugar intake.

Marley Spoon

Hands down, this was our favorite. Of all the companies, it offers the best bang for your buck, with great food at reasonable prices.

The company, which is based both in New York and Berlin, sources many items from high-end New York providers such as meats from Pat LaFrieda and cheese from Murray's. Seafood comes from Sea to Table, which partners with small-scale sustainable wild fisheries.

A strip steak dinner, which I somehow managed to not overcook despite setting off my smoke alarm, included a generously sized piece of meat that was deliciously seasoned with just salt and pepper and served alongside mashed celery root and roasted Brussels sprouts. A vegan dish of crispy tofu and peanut noodles also was excellent.

The company, launched in April 2015, currently serves the East Coast and several Midwestern states, but plans to expand to the Atlanta area and the West Coast by spring.


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