Wednesday, 2 January 2019

For those who are short on time, but still long for home-cooked food, meal delivery services might be the perfect solution.

These services have exploded in popularity over the past few years, with Americans spending an estimated $1.5 billion to have ingredients delivered to our doors in 2016. This number is projected to increase dramatically over the next five years.

There are services for virtually any dietary preference: organic, vegan, vegetarian, paleo, smoothies, and more. Meals typically run between $10 to $15 per person.

How meal delivery services work

This is generally how they work, although each service may have its own twist: Customers sign up for a plan based on the number of people being served, food preferences, and the frequency of delivery. Most of the services allow customers to select meals from a range of options. The pre-measured and often already chopped ingredients come in a box delivered to your door, along with a step-by-step recipe for preparing the meal.

Customers can typically manage their plan – select meals, change the frequency, and more — online at the company's web site or with a mobile app. Some are meal subscription services requiring a certain time commitment or minimum purchase, while others do not require customers to join or purchase a subscription. Customers should clearly understand the pricing structures for each plan in order to find the one that best fits their budget.

Will you save money?

Whether a meal delivery service can save you money depends on how you use it.

Experienced cooks who shop smart and don't waste a lot of food probably won't save much money using these services. For these folks, a produce or community-supported agriculture (CSA) delivery box without recipes could a better way to get fun new ingredients delivered directly to you.

But if you're constantly ordering take-out or eating at restaurants because you can't or don't want to cook, meal delivery could save you money. Even more important to some is how much time these services can save. Not having to shop and do meal prep work such as washing and chopping can be a lifesaver for working parents with busy families. Also, some services deliver very generous amounts of ingredients and there are enough leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day, which could certainly result in some savings.

Meal delivery services can also be a good option for those who are just learning to cook, as they can introduce novices to new, exciting ingredients and how they can be used. But again, whether you will save money depends on how efficiently you utilize the service.

Satisfied customers

Jill Ivey and her husband, Ross Currie of Philadelphia, are delighted with their service and have learned how to customize it to meet their exact needs.

“The food is all great and generally pretty easy to make," Ivey said, adding the cooking time for some of the recipes could use a tweak or two, a lesson she learned with some overcooked but still tasty salmon. "And even though we're both adventurous eaters and cooks to begin with, we've still wound up trying new flavors (sumac, anyone?) and techniques."

She also appreciates the flexibility and variety the plan offers, with different options available each week and the ability to double up ingredients in case you are having guests or want leftovers.

Ivey said that in the end, it saves them money. “It's more pricey than going to the grocery store and buying all this stuff yourself, but when you consider what you save in time spent menu planning, time and money spent shopping, and money you're not spending and calories you're not consuming on takeout or at a restaurant, I've found it to be worth it," she said.

Some drawbacks

A couple drawbacks to keep in mind: Sometimes boxes come late depending on the delivery service, so having a plan B for evening meals can be a good idea. And for the environmentally mindful, one common complaint is the excessive packaging and waste in some boxes.

Consumer expert Andrea Woroch says whether meal delivery services are right for you depends on you and your lifestyle.

“Meal delivery services are a fun way to learn how to cook new meals and using new ingredients, but these are not a smart money-saving strategy for the long haul. While I do find they reduce food waste, as many consumers overbuy groceries that just end up in the trash when they go bad, utilizing a meal plan strategy and shopping more often will be the best money-saving strategy," she said.

“However, this is also based on the person's habits and likelihood of cooking from scratch. Some people do better if they are given instructions and step-by-step tips with all the ingredients sent to their doorstep," she concluded.

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