The food-tech space is brimming with meal-kit delivery start-ups: Blue Apron, HelloFresh, PeachDish, Marley Spoon, Green Blender, Green Chef — the list goes on, and the amount of venture capital funding is astounding. I’ve reviewed the majors on this site before but thought it was time to test out some of the newcomers, specifically the new New York Times cooking partnership with Chef’d and another service launched with the help of former Times food writer Mark Bittman called Purple Carrot. (Bittman was involved in recipe development but left the company after less than a year.)
Each of these meal kits arrive in the same fashion: an assortment of individually packaged ingredients crammed into a box full of Nordic Ice packs. The directions are usually pretty basic, offering little instruction beyond just following the recipes. In some cases, the critical prep work is already done for you. A chicken shawarma dish, for instance, came with a premade “spice blend” filled with mystery. You probably won’t learn much about cooking from trying any of these services, but at least there will be fresh food on the table.
Let’s see how these services compare side by side:
New York Times Cooking by Chef’d
Subscription cost for 2 servings of 3 meals: $88 per week, free shipping
Dishes: Oven-Roasted Chicken Shawarma With Cucumber Tomato Salad and Flatbread; Roasted Glazed Salmon; Sausage Ragu
Summary: Directions were confusing, watered-down versions of the Times’ own recipes that produced fine results but not meals you’d want to repeat; nothing special.
Best dish: Sausage Ragu. Sure, if you take fatty Italian sausage and mix it with a can of tomatoes and serve it with pasta and Parmesan cheese, you’re going to get something that tastes good. The ragu was filled with vegetables and light. Reheated, after a day in the fridge, with a mountain of Parmesan on top, it was almost delicious.
Worst dish: Oven-roasted Chicken Shawarma. The chicken, marinated “until ready to use,” had very little flavor. This dish felt like a “Mediterranean” JetBlue snack pack. The flatbread, packaged for the long journey from a processing plant in California to my kitchen in New York, was flaky and inedible.
The good: Huge portions. Chef’d offers individualized meals so you don’t have to commit to a subscription. The no-commitment aspect is really appealing and shipping time is fast. This seems ideal for planning meals just a few days before.
The bad: At around $15 per serving, Chef’d is one of the most expensive services out there. Customer service is terrible. I went to cancel my subscription for the following week before the service’s Tuesday deadline and ended up canceling my box by accident. After a few emails, I was able to get the same meals delivered as the à la carte option. I didn’t like the fact that my box traveled 3,000 miles from California to my office in Brooklyn, New York. There was just something off about eating a piece of spongy salmon that had been frozen and sitting in ice for two full days before it spent another day in my fridge.
Subscription cost for 2 servings of 3 meals: $68 per week, free shipping.
Dishes: BBQ Jackfruit; Moroccan Spiced Millet; Mango Tofu Curry
Summary: Exotic vegan recipes that are labor-intensive and barely feed two.
Best dish: BBQ Jackfruit. I had never encountered jackfruit before this and found its texture to be a strange and wonderful substitute for pulled pork in this barbecue sandwich. Out of the can, the pink spongy fruit looks almost alien in its light pink strips. A healthy dose of tomato paste and chili powder made for an excellent sauce. The potato salad left a little to be desired with its extremely strong mustard and vinegar dressing.
Worst dish: Mango Tofu Curry. With the consistency of Elmer’s glue and a flavor somewhere between bitter orange juice and a watered-down mimosa, this was not a strong dish. Where is the curry? There’s coconut milk from a can and apple cider vinegar, which ended in an unpleasant aroma and tasted like sauerkraut. The addition of whole cloves (without removing them at the end) to the curry killed the whole dish for me. Plus, the portions of brown rice were barely enough for one.
The good: Exotic and impressive meals come together without having to invest in expensive new spices. Purple Carrot takes risks with ingredients (I like that), and all of the dishes are vegan. Definitely ideal for new vegans or vegetarians who may need a little kickstart for meat-free cooking. While two of the dishes were a pretty hard miss, I was delighted to learn how to cook with jackfruit and will certainly be making that dish again.
The bad: Minuscule portions. Directions were sloppy, and cooking times were way off. Millet is a protein-packed nutty grain that was ruined in a spicy tomato sauce. It was edible at best and cooking times were about 30 minutes off since millet is not a quick-cooking grain, though Purple Carrot seems to think so.