Cooking from a box

plated miso fish

Meal kit delivery services are getting fresh infusions of capital to expand—and potentially lure away more of your customers. Researcher Technomic reports that this segment of the industry, which includes fast-growing national companies such as Blue Apron, Hello Fresh! and Plated, is projected to reach between $3 billion and $5 billion in annual sales over the next 10 years.

The appeal for many customers is value. Friends of all different ages have told me that they are cooking restaurant-quality dinners at home for less money than they would spend on takeout. And they feel more virtuous. They believe the meals are healthier, and they take pride in saying, “Look what I cooked tonight!”

So I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

I ordered a kit from Plated with an online coupon, getting a deal on the $74 package for $39. When I filled out my profile I was asked about food preferences and dietary restrictions; there are options for vegetarians, gluten-free eaters and more.

I knew ahead of time that I would be getting two meals for two people; other weeks, the price includes three meals, but since pricier filet mignon was the featured meat in one of the recipes, Plated counted it for two dinners ($24 per person instead of $12).

My box arrived on time and packed with lots of frozen gel packs to keep the food cold. Two recipes were included: Seared Filet Mignon with Red Onion Jam and Cucumber-Radish Farro Salad and Sambal and Miso-Roasted Fish with Coconut Noodle Salad and Snap Pea Slaw. Both came with step-by-step illustrated instructions, a list of necessary equipment, prep and cook time estimates and calories per serving (730 for the steak and 750 for the fish). Plated provides exactly the quantity of ingredients needed—half a cucumber, for example, or one clove of garlic. They count on the customer to have salt, pepper, cooking oil and water.

bagged ingredients

Now I like to cook and try new recipes, so I didn’t find the chopping and searing to be too labor intensive or annoying. But the prep for the filet did take a little longer than the 15 to 30 minutes promised. There was lots of slicing and dicing. And halving the sugar snap peas for the slaw was a bit tedious.

tomatoes snap peas

However, I was mostly satisfied with the end result of both dinners. The meals were inventive, generously portioned and worth the money (maybe not $74, but definitely $39). And even though I used a lot of pots, pans and kitchen tools, cleanup was quick.

filet onion jam

That said, I did have a few gripes.

  • The cooking steps for the filet were a little off. There was no reason to boil the water for the farro before cutting up the veggies—a step that takes much longer.
  • The recipes should provide alternatives to the utensils and cookware called for. Not every kitchen has a rimmed baking sheet or cast-iron skillet.
  • The recipes filled the plate with vegetables and grains, just as nutritionists have been telling us to do, using smaller amounts of protein. But there was a lot of noodle salad and farro salad left over. Not necessarily a bad thing—I took it for lunch the next day.
  • Although the food was fresh and tasty, I found it a little bland. I would have ramped up the seasoning in the farro salad and added more dressing. But the onion jam jazzed up the beef and the fish had an authentic Asian flavor with the sambal and miso provided.
  • There’s a lot of packaging. Everything is measured out into little plastic bags or containers—even the garlic cloves and radishes. Plastic can be recycled but I bet a lot of consumers throw out all those bags.

Would I do it again? Maybe. But I think these meal kits are better suited for parents with young children, couples (boomers and millennials both) and culinary novices. There are plenty of customers in those demographics to keep these companies thriving.

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