Blue Apron claims the grocery store is “70 percent more expensive” than its service. Home Chef cites a TV news investigation that found a slight savings over groceries. But then I look in my meal kit and see I spent $20 for each meal that barely feeds two people. What gives?
While I enjoy Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, I definitely pay a lot less than $20 for non-kit meals that I make for myself and my husband. So, how can these companies claim they’re cheaper? In part, because they decide what we’ll be comparing. They send out a box with three totally different meals, and to make a fair comparison the experimental grocery shopper buys the exact same ingredients for the exact same menu. Typically the meals don’t share any components, and they often involve an exotic ingredient or two. So yes: if your diet was made entirely of Blue Apron recipes, you’d have a hard time keeping up for $20/meal.
Sensible meal planning, on the other hand, fits your meals together Tetris-style: Monday’s leftover chicken is the base for Tuesday’s dinner, and the scallions you bought for Tuesday will also go into the batch of salsa you’re whipping up this weekend. If you’re smart about this, you can save a ton of money.
It’s this difference in approaches, not the price of ingredients, that affects the bottom line when we compare groceries to meal kits. Let’s take a look at what a week of Blue Apron costs, and what our alternatives are.
Shopping on Blue Apron’s Terms
I looked up prices on FreshDirect for the top three recipes featured on Blue Apron’s website this week: Roasted pork and mustard pan sauce with asparagus and fingerling potatoes, Tandoori style chicken and rice with summer squash and raita, and Nashville style hot catfish with red cabbage, apple, and pecan slaw. Most of the things on my shopping list were not on sale, but I “bought” whatever was the best price, usually for the smallest amount that didn’t look like a ripoff.
Alternative strategy: Build your meal around what’s on sale, and what your store routinely offers at low prices.
Most of the items I put in my cart were bigger than I needed. For example, a five-pound bag of flour when the recipe called for a tablespoon. In real life, I already have a bag of flour at home, because that’s something I’ll use many times before it goes stale. Other items are trickier: I don’t eat much mustard, so an almost-full jar of mustard is, indeed, likely to go to waste. If I really had my heart set on pork with mustard sauce, I’d probably also try to work a few mustard-containing sandwiches into next week’s lunch.
And in that case, I’d probably want to roast enough pork to have leftovers for sandwiches, too. So I’d buy a big tenderloin instead of a one-pound portion. In fact, I could extend this strategy to some of the side dishes. I could buy extra fingerling potatoes and use some of the mayonnaise left over from the catfish recipe to put together a potato salad.
Alternative strategy: make more meals with the same ingredients to get the most out of things you have to purchase in large quantities.
And the Total Is…
I used FreshDirect prices for everything except the Tandoori seasoning, which I found on another website. If I were designing this meal plan myself, I wouldn’t make Tandoori chicken unless I had the seasoning, or knew where to get it. (In fact, I own all the ingredients, so I could mix my own.)
Alternative strategy: Cook what you know (or can reasonably acquire). Less fun but more practical.
The grand totals still show groceries coming in cheaper than Blue Apron, but only when you don’t consider waste or leftovers. (You can see my calculations in this spreadsheet.) Compared to $20 for each two-person meal, my meals came in at $18 for the pork (seems to be an off-season price for the asparagus, hmph), $15 for the Tandoori chicken, and $12.32 for the catfish. That goes down to $10 if I put back the catfish and the spice blend and instead pick up the cajun-seasoned catfish fillets that were on sale.
Here’s what I mean about leftovers. A $3.99 six-pack of Persian cucumbers means I counted a single cucumber as $0.67—but of course I spent a lot more than that. (In real life, I would have to also buy a tub of hummus to ensure I had a tasty way to snack on the cucumbers.)
When Meal Kits Are Worth It
The truth is, meal kits aren’t just a source of food: they are also a service that designs recipes, decides how to combine them, and delivers them to your door. They do this to their liking, so if Blue Apron gets a good deal on bulk Tandoori spices, that’s what you’ll cook with. They give some to you, and some to your neighbor down the street. If you’re doing this all on your own, you get to see to the distribution and consumption of everything yourself.
So as a smart, shopping-savvy consumer, I can conclude that Blue Apron doesn’t plan my meals as well as I would plan them myself.
But I’m not actually that smart and savvy all the time. I’m busy, and when I’m not being busy, I’m kind of lazy. You know what I eat when I don’t have a Blue Apron box on my doorstep? I eat whatever I can buy cheap in the frozen section at Trader Joe’s.
Alternative strategy: Kati pouches, which I am aware are basically hot pockets. Shut up.
So I’m paying the meal kit people to come up with ingredients that taste delicious together (meal kits have rarely let me down), to decide what’s on the menu for this week, and to actually ship it to my house. Sometimes I find recipes I like online, but there’s about a 70 percent chance I’ll let the recipe sit in an open browser tab for literally forever.
On the other hand, $10 for my half of a meal that is still not very filling is what I’d pay at Panera or Chipotle—and there, somebody else cooks it for me. For $13 I can order my favorite Thai curry and not only does someone else cook it, they’ll even deliver it to my door. Those extra few dollars (plus tip) buy me time to sit on my butt during the 30 minutes immediately before eating, instead of standing in the kitchen chopping vegetables and trying to pick all the thyme leaves off their stems.
Alternative strategy: just get something delivered.
In total, the cost of $20 per meal is fine. It’s not amazing, but it’s not a ripoff either. You’re paying for food, delivery, and for freedom from the mental effort of planning meals and using up leftovers. Sometimes I’m a little disappointed when the meal is something I routinely make myself, but other times the kit introduces me to a new flavor (hello, garlic black bean sauce) that I wouldn’t have gambled on otherwise.
Meal kits are only worth it, though, if you enjoy cooking and want to put in the work for a fresh, interesting meal. Otherwise, Trader Joe’s and takeout are always there for you, and they’re cheaper.