NEW YORK — The price of losing weight for 22-year-old Thomas Ferraro is about $300 a month.
That's how much he pays for Nutrisystem to ship low-cal meals to his doorstep. The food is shelf stable, meaning it doesn't go bad for months even without refrigeration.
"When I first looked at the packaging, I started laughing. It was weird to have everything fit on one plate. It was an adjustment at first," said Ferraro, a recent college graduate who lives with his parents in New York City and is looking to start his own business.
At 5 feet, 9 inches, his goal is to shed 40 of his 230 pounds by summer. It's the first meal delivery program he's tried, but there are plenty others on the market.
You've likely seen the ads in recent weeks, as companies look to capitalize on weight loss resolutions for 2010. Many are running promotions too, or offer ongoing discounts for larger purchases. That's how Ferraro is paying about $70 less than the advertised price for his monthly shipments.
Below are snapshots of a few major programs, including pricing and what you get in return. The company Web sites provide a good sense of the food quality to expect. Most programs suggest you fill out the meals with your own fruits, vegetables and drinks too.
In addition to the national distributors listed below, there may be smaller operations that cater to your area.
SUMMARY: Meals are freshly prepared, flash frozen and shipped chilled. The food stays good for 10 to 14 days. Deliveries are made weekly. You get live support from registered dietitians and personal trainers by phone, and access to online tools and a social networking community at no extra charge.
You have to order one week at a time, but there are no long-term commitments.
PRICE: $19.95 a day ($139.75 a week, $559 a month) plus $19.95 for shipping each week.
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WHAT YOU GET: Breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack or dessert. You can pick-and-choose dishes to customize your plan.
OPTIONS: More than 100 meals. There are vegetarian options, but no full plan for vegetarians.
SAMPLE DISHES: Blueberry muffin, chicken flatbread pizza, lemon herb chicken with wild rice and broccoli, Ghiradelli dark chocolate bar.
ALTERNATIVE: As with most meal delivery plans, you can save by picking a five-day-a-week plan. The company is also running a promotion for a free day of food each week. Type in "FREEDAY" for the promotion code on the billing page.
HEALTHY CHEF CREATIONS (www.healthychefcreations.com)
SUMMARY: Meals are made with organic ingredients and free-range meats. A week's supply is shipped in a cooler by FedEx.
PRICE: $59.95 a day, $419.65 a week, or $1,678.60 a month. Shipping is included.
WHAT YOU GET: Breakfast, midmorning detox shake, lunch, mid-afternoon snack, dinner, mini dessert.
OPTIONS: You can make requests, such as no mushrooms, fish or tomatoes, but otherwise meals are planned for you. You can set specific calorie ranges and vegetarians can be accommodated. The company says the same meal won't appear twice in four months, but many meals can be very similar. Think chicken or red snapper with different sauces.
SAMPLE DISHES: Banana and flaxseed pancakes, mahi-mahi fish tacos, osso buco braised lamb, carrot cake.
ALTERNATIVE: The company also has a custom meal delivery program that isn't for weight loss. You can use it to order a few dishes if you want to get a sense of the food quality before committing. There's also a five-day-a-week weight loss plan, and if you live near the headquarters in Winter Park, Fla., you can lower costs to $44.95 a day by picking up your food.
JENNY CRAIG (www.jennycraig.com)
SUMMARY: Jenny Craig bills itself as a comprehensive "food, body, mind" program. Translation? You need to sign up for the broader program for access to the food. It's $20 for a trial three-month membership; $359 for a year. The food costs extra. Meals are either frozen (delivered in dry ice), shelf stable or canned.
The program gives you access to weight management consultations, either over the phone or in person at one of its 571 centers. You also get personalized menu plans and motivational materials.
PRICE: The food is $12 to $18 a day ($84 to $126 a week, $330 to $504 a month). You can buy food at a center. If you get it delivered, shipping costs are $2.32 a day or $65 for a 4-week shipment.
WHAT YOU GET: Breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack.
OPTIONS: You can pick a planned or personalized menu. There are more than 80 entrees and snacks, and a temporary seasonal item is introduced every six to eight weeks.
SAMPLE DISHES: Oatmeal breakfast square, creamy chicken & corn chowder, spaghetti with meatballs, toffee cookies.
ALTERNATIVE: You can order items a la carte, if you want to try a few dishes first.
SUMMARY: Meals are shelf stable and delivered monthly. You get access to phone counseling with weight loss consultants and membership to Nutrisystem's online community.
PRICE: $369 a month for men, $333 a month for women, plus $18 for shipping.
WHAT YOU GET: Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks (women get one, men get two).
OPTIONS: There are 150 meals, snacks and desserts to choose from. You can pick and choose your meals, or have a preselected menu.
SAMPLE DISHES: Apple cinnamon oatmeal, beans and ham soup, hearty beef stew, chocolate chip cookie.
ALTERNATIVE: The company made new starter kits available at Walgreens and Walmart stores. The 14-day kits are $148. Costco and Sam's Club sell 35-day programs for about $300 a month.
Nutrisystem plans are for 28 days, but you can buy items a la carte if you want to test a few dishes first.
SUMMARY: If you're not ready to commit to a meal delivery program, try building one yourself at home with microwavable diet meals such as Healthy Choice, Kashi and Lean Cuisine.
PRICE: The costs vary depending on where you live, but should be less than $5 a meal. If there's a dish you like, stock up when there's a sale.
WHAT YOU GET: A recent Consumer Reports taste test of 24 frozen diet meals found the quality had improved considerably in recent years. However, the report found the meals often had very small portions and calorie counts, meaning they should be supplemented with fruit, vegetables, soup or salad. Sodium content could be high in many meals too.
OPTIONS: Healthy Choice, Kashi, Lean Cuisine and Weight Watchers each offer an array of options, and regularly introduce new items.
SAMPLE DISHES: Kashi Chicken Florentine, Weight Watchers Santa Fe Style Rice & Beans, Lean Cuisine Cafe Classics Shrimp Alfredo.
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