Should you try a subscription meal delivery kit? A dietitian weighs in

Is a meal kit right for you? A nutritionist shares her tips on who should try one — and who should skip it.
Image: fresh taco ingredients on table
Check out the nutrition facts panel and ingredients to ensure your kit meets your needs and is a healthy option rather than a riff on an indulgent restaurant meal. Shestock / Getty Images
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By Samantha Cassetty, RD

What’s for dinner? That can be a loaded question at the end of a busy day, when your decision-making brainpower is practically used up. Deciding what to eat (for dinner or any other meal) requires some planning, grocery shopping, and time in the kitchen, all of which can feel overwhelming. Faced with these constraints, many people are turning to subscription meal kits. A late 2018 Nielsen survey found that that 12 percent of consumers tried one during the previous six months, but the number of people who were thinking about trying one of these handy kitchen helpers was nearly double that amount. For those in the pursuit of convenience, these kits can deliver, and they don’t compromise on freshness or quality that other forms of convenience might sacrifice. If you’re not sure whether you’d benefit from a meal kit, these pointers can help you decide. And, if you're looking for the healthiest options, I’ve also highlighted a few good services in order to help you get started on your meal kit search.

YOU MIGHT LIKE A MEAL KIT IF:

You’re time-starved or need some menu inspiration

Beyond helping to address the challenge of what’s for dinner, these kits address many common home cooking pain points. They provide more variety and introduce you to new flavors and cuisines that might have more flair than the dinners you currently have on repeat. They also trim the time it takes to plan, shop, and prep meals, which are often bigger hurdles than cooking itself. If you’re intimidated by cooking or just new to it, a kit can ease you into it, with clear, step-by-step instructions, often with great visuals that help you understand what’s involved.

You routinely stop for fast food or takeout

If your backup plan on busy nights is fast food, takeout, or delivery, a meal kit can be a healthier choice. For starters, a meal kit’s entree will likely be more in line with your needs. In a study that looked at the calorie load from popular restaurant meals, researchers found that some of the most popular cuisines (American, Chinese and Italian food) averaged close to 1,500 calories per meal. Sure, restaurants serve over-sized portions, but the researchers found that portion size alone wasn’t to blame; restaurants also use high-cal ingredients (think: butter and olive oil) that are hard to detect, so you can’t possibly know what you’re eating or manage portion sizes to adequately adjust for this.

Sodium is another concern in prepared and restaurant meals. In one analysis of restaurant meals, the average sodium content was over 1,500 mg per meal, which is 65 percent of the maximum daily target. You’re more likely to dodge the high sodium levels — along with over-the-top sugar and saturated fat levels—when you cook at home, and that can include meal kit cooking, provided you’re looking at the ingredients and nutrition facts.

You’re trying to eat healthier or you want to try a new eating style

Do you ever think about trying out a plant-based diet but you’re not sure where to begin? Or maybe you want to go keto or give the pescatarian diet a try, but you want some reliable recipes to get you started. That’s where a meal kit can come in handy. You can find a meal kit suitable for many different eating plans, which makes it easier to change your eating habits — or at least give a new eating plan a test run.

SKIP A MEAL PLAN IF…

You’re a picky eater (or you have one at home)

I’ve spoken to parents who love meal kits because they expose their kids to flavors and cuisines that might not be in the family’s spice cabinet or cooking repertoire. One parent even shared that she felt like a better mother when subscribing to a meal kit because it reduced the amount of fast food she was serving her children and she felt pride in serving them home cooked meals instead. However, if you have picky eaters at home — or you’re finicky about food yourself — a meal kit might not suit you. Many lock you in to a certain number of meals each week and you may not find enough to please your palate, or, if you land on meals you and your family enjoy, they might get rotated out for something else. (Menus change frequently.) Being a picky eater or having kids who are don’t rule out the possibility of a meal kit, but if you’re not open to a wide range of foods and flavors, it may limit your choices significantly.

You have a lot of dietary restrictions

You may not be picky, but if you have food allergies or insensitivities, you may have an easier time managing your own menu. Some meal kits contain sauces or spice blends with undisclosed ingredients, and while you can get in touch with companies to see if they’ll share specifics with you (I suspect they will), this extra hassle might not be worth it every week. Though there are some meal kits that cater to people with certain dietary restrictions (for example gluten or dairy free), if you’re avoiding multiple allergens or foods, it can get tricky.

You’re a kitchen control freak

Some home chefs like to control the quality of ingredients they use (say, organic kale or a specialty sauce or a lower-sugar marinade). When you order a kit, you’re handing over ingredient selection to the brand, and you might not find one that meets your particular standards. This might not be a deal breaker for you — you can always sub in some of the ingredients you prefer — but it’s worth thinking through.

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OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Prepping, cooking and clean up

While meal kits can shave off some of your meal prep time, most don’t eliminate it. You might still have to chop an onion, and cleanup is still on you. Plus, your actual time cooking is fairly similar to what you’d spend otherwise and if you select a complicated recipe with multiple steps, you may find yourself spending upwards of 45 minutes getting a meal on the table.

Browsing options and ingredients

Expect to spend some time on your meal kit hunt, and once you narrow down your service, you’ll also spend time sorting through the menu options. For some, this might feel daunting (though probably not as daunting as the alternative). Also, it’s hard to navigate site menus without providing an email. After that, expect your inbox to get cluttered with offers. If you divulge your email address to multiple meal kit services, make sure to unsubscribe from those that you don’t wish to hear from.

The fine print

Know what you’re signing up for. Services vary — some let you order as you go while others are more of a subscription model (though you may be able to skip weeks or cancel anytime). There are also differences in the minimum orders required. It probably goes without saying, but just in case, check the service’s terms before you order.

Food and packaging waste

Some find a meal kit minimizes food waste because they come with pre-measured ingredients and save you from buying an herb garden when you only need a sprig. However, if you get a last-minute invite to dine out with friends and don’t get around to cooking a meal or having last night’s leftovers (assuming you have them), your kit will contribute to food waste. Be realistic about how much cooking you actually want to do and how many servings you’ll get from a kit and from there, you can plan accordingly.

Though many have concerns about the package waste that stems from meal kits, a new study might ease those. When looking at the big picture of greenhouse gas emissions, which goes beyond packaging to explore the impact of supply chain, transportation, and more, a kit might be a more sustainable option compared to purchasing all of your recipe ingredients from the supermarket. Sure, the packaging is still a nightmare, but it turns out, that’s offset by some of the more sustainable practices, like a streamlined supply chain and pre-measured ingredients that may result in less food waste. If you’re shopping meal kits, choosing a plant-based option will reduce your environmental impact even further.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A MEAL KIT

Check out the nutrition facts panel and ingredients to ensure your kit meets your needs and is a healthy option rather than a riff on an indulgent restaurant meal. That means it should include a generous portion of non-starchy veggies (about a half a plate), quality-sourced proteins (whether from plants or animals), and healthful fats (mainly from plant sources, like nuts, seeds, olives, avocados, or their butters or oils). Ideally, starchy carbs come from veggie sources, like sweet potatoes and butternut squash, or whole grains, like brown rice and quinoa.

If you find your kit’s serving sizes are a little skimpy in the veggie department, go ahead and supplement with extras. Low-prep options include frozen veggies or pre-washed, pre-prepped ones — from salad greens to shaved Brussels sprouts. Since meal kit meals are usually generously seasoned, there should be plenty of flavor for your extra veggies.

MEAL KIT OPTIONS

Meal kits are a growing and evolving market, so there are new ones on the scene (and a few that slip away or merge with other brands) pretty regularly. Here are a few that caught my attention:

Sun Basket

There’s a menu for just about everyone here — from pescatarian to Mediterranean to Paleo to diabetes-friendly. Plus, their sourcing standards stand out, including organic produce and eggs, wild-caught seafood, and antibiotic- and hormone-free meats.

Freshly

For those who crave the convenience of a kit but want to skip cooking altogether, this service offers chef-prepared ready-to-eat meals with an eye on nutrition. Of all the services I looked at, this one made it easiest to check out the menu and complete list of ingredients.

Gobble

Unlike other kits, this one is for people who want to cook but don’t want to fuss with any of the hassles. Gobble’s ingredients come peeled and chopped (though again, you’ll still have to do the dishes). Gobble also has a nifty meal prep lunch plan from which you choose a protein, a veg and a starchy carb.

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