When Laziness Beats Frugality: Signing up for a Meal Box

Just like a Thanksgiving Cornucopia, but with more plastic!

I’ve always been a semi-avid home cook; not a Julia-Child Binge Watcher, but always proud I could cook my own food. (And set up my own kitchen.) Well, life has been somewhat hectic lately, and my wife and my desire to cut back on take-out and fast food won out over my natural inclination to not pay somebody else to pick recipes and buy groceries. I caved in and signed up for one of those services that mails you a box of ingredients with recipe cards once a week, and promises easy and delectable home-cooked meals.

This article is not a detailed review of any of the dishes I’ve received; if you want to read that stuff, complete with Instagram-worthy photos of the resulting dishes, there are articles all over the internet. Instead I want to touch on what a service like this means to a self-identified frugal person, and how it’s worked out for me so far.

There are a bazillion services out there, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and copious online reviews that will tell you all about them. I tended towards reviews where the reviewer actually paid for the service; I distrust blogs stuffed to the brim with reviews of free things. I’m certainly not endorsing any particular service, and the only compensation I’m receiving for this article is the customary Billfold author payment.

The particular service I signed up for was Home Chef; generally $10/person/meal, shipped for free as long as you order at least $45 of food. (It is possible to sign up for lunches, fruit, and smoothies, all of which cost less than $10.) Home Chef’s strength is the wide selection every week; you get about a dozen very different meals to pick from. It does not, however, make a point of providing organic/local/small-producer/etc. That’s not important to me, but it may be to some.

Once a week, FedEx Ground drops off a cube-shaped box lined with some plastic filled with ground-up blue jeans as insulation (now you know what apparently happens to your worn-out jeans when you donate them at a thrift shop.) Inside is a plastic bag for each meal, a separate bag with all of that week’s meats, and some ice-packs to keep everything cold. In each meal bag is all the non-meat ingredients you’ll need to cook (except for salt, pepper, and olive oil, which they expect you to have on-hand). That means a bunch of smaller bags, condiment-style packets, and even little bottles and screw-cap containers, all in just the right quantities.

The cooking equipment required is modest. Medium and large skillets, small and medium pots, knives and cutting boards, a baking sheet, cooking thermometer, casserole dish (an ubiquitous 8” square Pyrex is fine), foil, a normal assortment of cooking utensils (tongs, spatulas, etc.), and prep and mixing bowls.

Chef Cat not included, but feline supervision is vital to recipe success!

That brings us to our next topic: the waste. There’s no sugar-coating it; there’s a LOT of packaging waste. Every week I end up recycling the cardboard box, and that’s about all that goes in the recycle bin. Direct into the trash goes the insulated liner, the ice-packs (each of which weighs 2 lbs, and I’ve gotten 3-8 of them, depending on the weather), the meal-bags, and the smaller inner baggies, bottles, canisters, cartons, and clamshells. Not to mention the normal trimmings from preparing meat and produce for cooking. There’s no denying this is a lot of trash. (The ice packs are technically reusable, but they aren’t particularly sturdy, and how many ice packs does one household need? I’ve made some use of them, but most get thrown away. I have re-used some of the bottles and screw-cap containers.) Home Chef is currently owned by Kroger; I’m hoping they’ll start leveraging all the various stores they own, and enable me to pick up my meals (at a lower price) from my local Kroger-owned grocery; at least that’ll get rid of the ice packs and box with insulation.

On the plus side, food waste drops to zero (I don’t count peels, trimmings, etc., as “food.”). Everything they send you goes into the dish. No more slimy herbs fermenting in the bottom of the produce drawer. No discovering a moldy jar of some specialty sauce you don’t even remember buying. No science-experiment dairy products, etc.

I’m sure the prototypical Billfolder is just about recoiling in horror at this point… “Sure, you don’t end up throwing food away, but $10/serving! A box full of trash every week! All that, just so you don’t have to shop for groceries? And here I thought you called yourself ‘Frugal’?!?!”

*Sheepishly*… Well, yeah. And this isn’t necessarily anti-frugal, and the “right” answer will vary by person. If the alternative is several take-out, fast-food, and sit-down meals, then this is absolutely a less-expensive and healthier way to go. If the alternative is a menu exclusively of veggies from your garden, frozen meat, and pantry staples? Well, this solution is probably not for you. For what it’s worth, the meal services claim that they are actually cheaper vs. grocery shopping; I think that’s only true if you are the worst meal-planner on the planet and have literally zero pantry or fridge space and would just throw away leftover ingredients every week.

The big advantage is that all I have to do to plan is pick 3+ meals from a list of a dozen before mid-day Friday, and the next week the food, complete with detailed instructions, magically shows up at my door, ready to cook. This is a very different process from staring at my collection of recipe books and printouts, adapting for a smaller size if it’s not “leftoverable,” reviewing my pantry staples and the contents of the fridge, compiling a grocery list, and taking a trip to the store. Yes, it’s possible to lick the food waste problem by being better at improvising recipes, but that’s a skill I’ve never been able to master. (I love to cook, but I’m no chef.)

Essentially, just like paying somebody to come and clean the house every other week, I’m buying time with money, and this is certainly a cheaper and healthier way of doing it vs. going out. (And I get to cook, an activity which I enjoy much more than meal planning.) If that’s worth it to you, great, but if you are still shaking your head at this point and wondering why I’m blowing $240 a month for a dozen nights of meals, that’s cool too.

P.S. I know I promised that I wasn’t going to do a detailed review of Home Chef itself, but here’s a brief one:

I’ve been pleased with most of the meals so far; over the past couple months or so, there’s only been one I wouldn’t cook again, and some have been both very delicious and something I would not have been likely to cook just by flipping past it in a recipe book. Plus, the recipes are far more reliable than generic internet recipes. They’re especially valuable when working with flavors I might not even be able to find in my regular grocery store, like a specific kind of Thai chili paste, or Caribbean spice rub. The portions are plenty generous; I’ve never finished a meal still hungry.

Some meal services do a lot of the prep-work, like slicing and chopping, before shipment. Home Chef is not one of those services; veggies come whole, with you doing the chopping. I’ll often toss in additional onions/garlic, as I feel the dishes with those ingredients often do not have enough. (They make frequent use of a single shallot when I think they’d be better served with a whole yellow onion.) The same goes for the overall spiciness; I frequently reach for the pepper flakes or spice rack to add some additional flavor, and rarely have I made one of their Mexican-style dishes without adding some splashes of Chipotle Tabasco to my plate.

They do take some effort to keep the dishes to a minimum. Lots of “line a baking sheet with foil” or “Re-use the skillet; no need to wipe clean.” You will, however, use quite a few little prep bowls; they are big on getting all the chopping and dicing done before you actually start tossing stuff on the heat. Most dishes take anywhere from 30–60 minutes. They give you a binder and the recipes contain full ingredient lists, so if you ever want to strike out on your own, you can totally prepare their recipes yourself.

Lastly, the instructions are really geared towards a semi-experienced home cook. The instructions are rife with steps like add food to the “hot” pan… how hot is hot enough? I can tell based on the type of cooking they are about to ask me to perform and the heat level they suggest, and I know what that level of “hot” feels like; a novice cook is left in the dark. (And I have a bone to pick with “doneness” for their veggies; they have very different standards than I do on when a veggie is cooked.) If you are just learning to cook, expect some surprises, like things not done when the recipe says they should be (stoves and pans vary, it’s not unusual, but they often don’t provide much guidance on how to tell when something is done), or head-scratchers like asking you to cook shrimp until the interior reaches a certain temperature; how do you stick a meat thermometer inside of a shrimp? (That’s just food-safety butt-covering; you should cook until firm and opaque all the way through.)

I have left scribbled notes on most of the recipe cards with changes I’d make if preparing it again (mostly around flavoring tweaks), but rarely anything major. (One recipe had you cook meat undisturbed for a while using olive oil in the pan; the oil smoked heavily, and we were glad I have a good exhaust fan. Another one had me adding a thick sauce to a very hot pan with quite a bit of oil in it; it spattered all over the place, making something of a mess.)

Overall we’ve been pleased, but your mileage may vary.

Peter Mescher spends all his days hunched over a computer screen while sitting at his kitchen table in Raleigh, NC, and yet inexplicably looks forward to evenings standing over a stove. He’s as elusive as a Yeti on social media, but you can find him in quality comment sections all over the internet under the handle “SirWired.”

Photos courtesy of the author.

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