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How Tasty and Healthy Are Top Meal Kits?

A nutritionist tries out four popular brands to find the best options for flavor, diet, cost and more

Various meal kit companies offer a variety of dinner options.
Oscar Wong / Getty Images

As a dietitian, I've had a number of people ask me what I think about meal kits, the increasingly popular delivery services that send you the ingredients and instructions you need to cook dinner straight from the box. My standard response: “They're great if you need a little help in the kitchen!"

But I was never sure they'd be right for me — someone who loves wandering around a grocery store, trying new recipes and improvising in the kitchen. That said, everything is different in 2021, a year in which I've prepared roughly 1,368 meals for my family at home (but who's counting?), with few visits to restaurants to break up the monotony of our go-to dinners. These days, the convenience and variety these kits provide can seem very, very appealing.

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I also appreciate how these delivery services can help anyone cut back on food waste, since they send just the right amount of ingredients for the recipe you've ordered (that could be especially helpful if you're cooking for one or two people, I imagine).

With those advantages in mind, I signed up for four popular services. Through their websites, you pick your preferred meals about one week in advance, and they arrive at your home in an ice-pack-cooled box (with most packaging easy to recycle or even compost).

While their selection and delivery processes are similar, the services I tried have very different personalities, and there are plenty of reasons why one brand may work better for you than others. Here's what to know.

Hello Fresh's Warm Lentil Salad with roasted butternut squash recipe
HelloFresh's Warm Lentil Salad with roasted butternut squash.
Sian Victoria / Alamy Stock Photo

HelloFresh

Best for: not-so-adventurous eaters, those seeking relatively less prep work or minimal time in the kitchen

Sample meal options: Middle Eastern Chickpea Bowls, Mexicali Black Bean Soup, Sweet ‘N’ Smoky Pork Tenderloin

The tasty meals from HelloFresh were some of the fastest and simplest to make of the brands I tried. The website makes it easy to choose between two and six meals each week for two or four people and to sort by preferences like “Calorie Smart” and “Quick and Easy.” If you have other preferences, however, like gluten-free or dairy-free, you'll have to closely look at each recipe. The meal options were interesting and flavorful, though a little on the more conventional side compared with other services I tried.

Highlights:

  • No more than six steps per recipe
  • Recipes take up to 30 minutes to prepare
  • Nutrition information available? Yes
  • Nutrition notes: Meals tend to be on the higher side for calories and sodium; you can choose a Calorie Smart meal plan in which all the dinners are around 650 calories per serving.
  • Choose from over 27 meals per week.
  • Customization options: Calorie Smart, Quick and Easy, Family Friendly
  • Organic ingredients? The majority of foods are not organic.
  • "Free-from” options: While some meals are gluten-, dairy- or nut-free, you cannot sort meals by these criteria, but you can review each recipe before ordering to determine which are right for you.
  • Plant-based meals: Each week offers six vegetarian options; many contain dairy.
  • Cost: Starts at $7.50 per serving plus delivery
Meal kit and finished prepared meal, Sunbasket’s Spicy Jamaican Black Bean Tostadas with Sweet Peppers and Mango Slaw
Sunbasket’s Spicy Jamaican Black Bean Tostadas with sweet peppers and mango slaw.
Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN

Sunbasket

Best for: organic eaters, those seeking global flavors or following dietary restrictions

Sample meal options: Spicy Jamaican Black Bean Tostadas with Sweet Peppers and Mango Slaw; Quinoa and Tofu Bowls with Pickled Vegetables and Cashew-Lime Dressing; Kimchi and Edamame Pancakes with Green Mango-Bok Choy Salad

The Sunbasket meals were enticing and didn't disappoint tastewise. It was effortless to scan for dietary preferences, and you could easily choose from two to five meals for two or four people each week. I loved that most of the chopping and shredding were done in advance for the meals I selected, which all turned out to be flavorful and interesting. Less work + delicious dinner = win!

Highlights:

  • Minimal chopping if you choose pre-prepped meal kits.
  • Most recipes take no more than 30 minutes to prepare.
  • Nutrition information available? Yes
  • Nutrition notes: Calories per meal vary widely; Carb-Conscious options are a good choice to help manage blood sugar.
  • Pick from around 43 meals per week.
  • Customization options: Paleo, Carb-Conscious, Gluten-Free, Lean & Clean, Diabetes-Friendly, Chef's Choice, Vegetarian, Pescatarian, Mediterranean, Fresh & Ready
  • Organic ingredients? Sunbasket claims to provide mostly organic produce as well as “responsibly sourced meats” that are free of antibiotics and hormones, and seafood that's wild caught or sustainably raised.
  • "Free-from” options: Meals are labeled if they are dairy-, gluten- or soy-free.
  • Plant-based meals: Meals are labeled if they are vegetarian or vegan.
  • It's easy to add on breakfast, lunch, snack and specialty meats.
  • The Fresh & Ready option offers meals that require no prep; just heat and eat in as little as 3 minutes.
  • Cost: Starts at $9 per serving plus delivery
items from a "family-plan" Blue Apron box are displayed on a kitchen counter on June 28, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The online meal-kit delivery company is going public and has lowered their upcoming IPO price range from $15 to $17 a share to $10 to $11 a share.
Ingredients and directions from a Blue Apron box.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Blue Apron

Best for: aspiring chefs, gourmet eaters, spice enthusiasts

Sample meal options: Niçoise-Style Black Lentil Salad with Roasted Potatoes & Basil Pesto; Sambal-Glazed Salmon & Cilantro Rice with Marinated Carrots & Sesame Broccoli; Ancho Honey Chicken & Quinoa Bowl with Guacamole & Cotija

Blue Apron's website was a bit harder than others to navigate. If you're flexible on the foods you eat, you won't have a problem, but those seeking a higher level of customization may have trouble easily finding what they're looking for. The meals themselves seemed more involved than many others, but the results were incredibly satisfying. Blue Apron's kits were the closest I came to creating restaurant-grade meals at home. If you have a little time on your hands and like being in the kitchen, this subscription will work well for you.

Highlights:

  • Most recipes take 25 to 55 minutes to prepare, with many on the longer side. Prep time is clearly labeled when you choose your meals.
  • Nutrition information available? Yes
  • Nutrition notes: Overall, meals tend to be higher in calories and sodium; the service's WW [formerly known as Weight Watchers]–approved meals are lower in calories and list points per serving for those following the plan.
  • Select from around 14 meals per week.
  • Customization options: Vegetarian, WW Approved and Wellness
  • Organic ingredients? Some
  • "Free-from” options: Menus are not labeled this way, but full ingredient lists are available with each meal, so you can scan them to see what works for you.
  • Plant-based meals: Vegetarian meals are labeled; you must check the ingredients to find a vegan meal.
  • There's an option to add on a subscription for wine or to shop for kitchen supplies and more through your account.
  • Cost: Starts at $7.50 per serving plus delivery
L: Purple Carrot’s Kung Pao Cauliflower with Garlic Cucumbers & Speckled Rice; R: Lemon Zucchini Noodles with Cashew Cream and Crispy Artichoke Hearts. 
Two Purple Carrot meals: (left) Kung Pao Cauliflower with Garlic Cucumbers and Speckled Rice; (right) Lemon Zucchini Noodles with Cashew Cream and Crispy Artichoke Hearts.
Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN

Purple Carrot

Best for: plant-based eaters, cooking enthusiasts, global flavors

Sample meal options: Lemon Zucchini Noodles with Cashew Cream & Crispy Artichoke Hearts; Kung Pao Cauliflower with Garlic Cucumbers & Speckled Rice; Spicy Red Curry Coconut Noodles with Crispy Tofu & Bok Choy

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Purple Carrot's visually pleasing website makes it easy to select at least three flavorful plant-based meals per week (though you may want more). You can also let the service choose meals for you. While most of my at-home cooking is plant-based, Purple Carrot's meals all had innovative twists that I wouldn't have thought of on my own. An added bonus is that each weekly shipment comes with a recipe pamphlet for all of the meals offered that week, not just the ones you ordered.

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Highlights:

  • Most recipes take 20 to 40 minutes.
  • A bit more work is required, as vegetables are not pre-chopped.
  • Nutrition information available? Yes
  • Nutrition notes: Plant-based doesn't mean low calorie, low carb or low sodium. If you're looking for reduced-calorie options, stick with the meals labled “< 600 calories.”
  • Choose from around eight meals per week.
  • Customization options: High-Protein, Gluten-Free, Quick & Easy, Chef's Choice
  • Organic ingredients? Most non-produce items, like beans and tofu, are organic; produce is less likely to be organic.
  • "Free-from” options: soy-, gluten-, and nut-free options are all labeled. All options are vegan, so they are dairy- and egg-free.
  • Plant-based meals: This plan is 100 percent plant-based. All meals are vegetarian and vegan.
  • It's easy to add on breakfast, lunch and plant-based grocery items.
  • Cost: Around $12 per serving, including delivery

Rachel Meltzer Warren is a registered dietitian nutritionist and writer. Her work has appeared in Consumer Reports, Eating Well, Women's Health, Prevention, and New York Times Parenting.

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Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.