Broyles: Putting delivered meal kits to the test

Updated Aug 19, 2014

Frozen meals used to be one of the only steps between “home cooking” and “eating out.”

Hamburger Helper had its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, and then food companies started releasing even more “helper” products and kits to make it easier to get dinner on the table.

In the past decade, grocery stores have seen the money to be made in culinary shortcuts and started selling prechopped fruit and vegetables, marinated meats or even kebab or stew kits with prepped vegetables and meat.

But now, delivered meal kits, packed with at least one recipe and all the ingredients you need to make it, are having their breakthrough moment.

Nationally, companies such as Plated and PeachDish ship insulated boxes packed with ingredients, and on a local level, Greenling Organic Delivery, Gourmet By Numbers and Fairy Tale Meals deliver meal kits to homes or offices at least one day a week. (For the most part, customers have to be home or at the office for the drop-off, but Greenling deliveries are packed with cold storage that allows the box to sit outside for up to four hours if you aren’t home when they drop it off.)

Three of the big players, Blue Apron, HelloFresh and Fresh Direct, whose ads you might have seen in your Facebook feed, do not deliver to here. The grocery delivery service Instacart recently added a feature that allows customers to select ingredients for same-day delivery based on recipes displayed on the site, but it’s not exactly a meal kit. (Click here to read Sunday’s story about the changing prepared food and grocery delivery industry.)

PlateJoy, which only recently started delivering to Austin, allows customers to select a week’s worth of meals, with endless filtering for eating preferences and dietary restrictions. Shoppers in Austin buy the ingredients at the grocery store of the client’s choice and then deliver the food within 24 hours. It’s a bigger buy, but instead of buying a meal or two, you’re buying just shy of a week’s worth of groceries.

The ingredients themselves come in varying states of preparation, depending on the company. Plated’s vegetables are shipped whole and packaged in light plastic bags. Gourmet By Numbers and Greenling do most of the chopping and dicing for you, except for ingredients like tomatoes and potatoes that don’t hold up well after slicing.

Fairy Tale Meals require very little active cooking or prep work at home, and Plated and PlateJoy don’t include pantry staples and spices, which cuts down on the additional packaging required to portion out every tablespoon of vinegar or teaspoon of dried basil.

Almost all of these companies require at least a few days’ notice for mail or hand delivery, but all three of the local companies pointed out their geographic advantage. By delivering across town instead of across the country, the ingredients are more fresh and local than what a national company can ship in a box.

Greenling, which only sells organic ingredients, was the first local company to offer meal kits, and they’ve remained a popular choice for customers, who pay between $6.50 and $10 per serving for entrees and less for side dishes, breakfasts and salads.

Their selection has grown to more than 100 meal kits and prepared foods at any one time, and they recently added a seasonal Meal Kit of the Week, which features dishes such as Southwestern Chicken Tacos with Avocado Salad or a Three-Cheese Veggie Skillet Lasagna with Italian Fennel Slaw.

Greenling spokeswoman Aspen Lewis says that chicken meal kits are among the most popular and that they’ve added Paleo, gluten-free and vegan options in recent years, per customer requests.

To cut down on waste, which was my only complaint when I first tried the kits several years ago, the company has also started using recyclable BPA-free cans and compostable plastic containers.

Heather Amalaha launched Gourmet By Numbers this summer, but she’s been sitting on the idea since she first started thinking about it a decade ago when she was at NYU studying nutrition and food studies.

She’d been studying meal assembly companies, like Super Suppers, and wanted to come up with a convenient way for you to cook at home without having to spend all the time prepping the ingredients.

After she had her first child, Amalaha, who worked at Dell at the time, had a new understanding of just how hard it was to get a home-cooked meal on the table while juggling day care and work.

Over the summer, she started selling her kits at the Pflugerville Pfarmer’s Market from 3 to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and, in recent weeks, she’s started taking online orders and making deliveries just about anywhere around Austin.

“My philosophy is eat what you want, just cook it yourself,” Amalaha says. “You can reduce the fat, sugar and salt that you would normally eat with takeout if you were just cooking the food yourself.”

She offers six dishes at a time, and every ingredient in the recipe is included in the kit, including the pantry items like spices and oil. “I wanted the kit to be something that anyone could cook, as long as you have a pot or a pan.”

Customers hold on to the most popular recipes, including chipotle vegetable posole and steak with red wine mushroom sauce and bleu cheese mashed potatoes, so they can cook them again later.

Her meals cost between $10 and $12.50 per serving with a $5 delivery fee. “People are extra busy, but they are also looking to return to real food and home cooking, and they need help to do that,” she says.

Allie Ash and Kristen Low run Fairy Tale Meals, whose meal kits are almost fully prepped when they arrive at your home or office.

Ash, who has a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu, and Low, who has a background in finance, attended Westlake High School together and launched the company in October 2012 with the goal of making family dinner a little more approachable.

Most of the meals are created to cook in a slow cooker, and they are designed to please palates both little and big with very little active cooking beforehand. Ash says that by having many of the ingredients already assembled, “your chances for success are higher.”

Their meals, including crowd-favorites like maple Dijon chicken or beef stroganoff, cost between $4.50 and $10 per serving, and they are able to accommodate gluten- and allergen-free requests.

The tilapia verde I tried from Fairy Tale required opening a vacuum-sealed bag of marinated fish, placing it on a foil-covered pan and heating another bag of garbanzo beans that arrived in a lovely chimichurri-inspired olive oil dressing. No knife required, and I had enough leftovers for days.

They recently launched a lunchbox line, whose meals are fully cooked and assembled so you can reheat them later. In keeping with the family-friendly approach, the five meals that come in each week’s order are designed for three tiers of eaters: 3- to 7-year-olds ($4.50 per day), juniors ages 6 to 12 ($5.50 per day) and the rest of us ($7.50 per day). Low says that plenty of customers are ordering the lunchbox line and eating the meals for dinner.

“Our meals are ready to go, but we want you to get the credit for it and have the rewarding feeling of providing it for your family,” Low says. They deliver to homes all over the Austin area on Sundays and offices on Monday morning. Delivery is free for orders of more than $50 and $3 for less than $50.

At $15 per serving with a two-meal minimum, Plated is easily the most expensive option, but I liked getting to have a more active role in preparing the dinner by chopping the vegetables, making the marinade and broiling the chicken.

Would I be willing to pay so much for the privilege again? Probably not.

Finding the right price for the right meal kit and the right customer can be a challenge.

Another Austin company, Peasy Meals, which sold kits out of a food trailer at Burnet Road and 45th street, closed late last year, posting on Facebook that the “business model didn’t work as well as we had hoped. While the food received rave reviews and orders were increasing, the profit margins turned out to be too slim to support the business.”

But Gourmet By Numbers and Fairy Tale Meals remain optimistic. Both are working on brick-and-mortar locations that they hope to open in the coming year.