Meal kits have been the craze for a few years now, and apparently they're booming extra hard during the pandemic. It makes sense that they would - people who are now working from home and have fewer options eating out don't necessarily want to meal plan for the whole week. Having a menu to choose from and having that variety without having to think about it? Awesome! So I've decided to do a segment reviewing Meal Kits to see if they're worth all the hype. You work hard for your money, and time is hard to come by. Let me help take some of the guesswork out of the equation! Up first is HelloFresh.
Table of Contents
First of all, I suppose I should set some guidelines for my reviews so there's some kind of consistency involved. I have devised a rating system based on the following eight metrics: Variety of Options, Cost, Ease of Recipes, Average Time Spent (Start to Plate), Clarity of Directions, Flavor, Recyclability of Packaging, and Could I Recreate On My Own? I'll also have a Notes section that I'll use to pass along any other information to you that is applicable.
Variety of Options
In this category, HelloFresh is quite impressive. For the week that I ordered, there were a staggering 21 different options for meals. That's basically a full service restaurant! With that kind of variety, there's pretty much something for everyone unless you're following a regimented diet. I also appreciated that the options seemed to take into account seasonality, with the majority of recipes feeling appropriate for summer weather.
The three recipes I tried were 1.) Pork Bulgogi Meatballs with Carrots & Zucchini over Rice, 2.) Black Bean & Poblano Flautas with Guacamole & Pico de Gallo, and 3.) Yucatan Citrus Chicken Bowls with Poblano, Smoky Red Pepper Crema & Pickled Onion.
HelloFresh offers a discount on the first 3 boxes ordered through the service. The total cost of my box was $32.33 for 3 meals, each enough to serve two people. That means the meals were $5.66/person. While that's certainly not an outrageous amount of money to spend per person, I should state that for the ingredients involved, you could definitely make the meals for less. But remember, the benefit of the Meal Kit phenomenon is having someone else do all the portioning and grocery shopping for you!
You should also remember that this was the discounted price. The cost after the initial three boxes goes up, meaning the meals cost over $9 per person longterm. Apparently you can earn credits towards your account by enrolling friends, but that clearly isn't a longterm strategy. For me personally, that's a bit rich for my blood. Most of the time when I cook for Joe and I, the cost of our meals is less than $3/serving. But if you're in a higher income bracket and $9/person is a reasonable spend, good on you!
Final note: the Flauta recipe yielded 6 flautas, meaning a serving should've been three apiece. That said, Joe and I were both full after only two each, so Joe had leftovers with the remaining two for lunch the following day. BONUS!
Ease of Recipes
The three recipes I chose were relatively easy and didn't use any seriously difficult techniques. The most difficult was probably the Flauta recipe, as there was a ton of filling to fit into 6 little tortillas. But the recipe did give the tip of using a toothpick to keep them shut while pan-frying, and that worked out really well. I'd rate the Ease of Recipes at ⅘. (For reference, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would rate a 5/5, while a grilled cheese would be closer to a ⅘).
Average Time Spent
While all of the recipes stated that prep time should take 10 minutes, only the Flautas succeeded in that aim. The Chicken Bowl and Meatballs each took me about 15 minutes to prep. That said, all of the meals were on the plate within about 45 minutes of starting, which is not too shabby for a home cooked meal.
While I'd personally rather keep my active cook time to about 30 minutes when I'm in the midst of a busy week, the extra 15 minutes spent on these recipes is evened out by not having to do the whole grocery shopping thing. Even though my closest grocery store is about a 5 minute drive, with parking, bagging, loading and unloading the car and putting everything up, basically every shopping trip takes me at least 45 minutes start to finish.
Clarity of Directions
Generally speaking, the directions were quite clear. I personally really appreciate the use of bold fonts when describing ingredients used in each step of the recipe. I have a few small issues I would have liked addressed, though.
My first complaint is that for the Meatballs recipe, the minced ginger and scallion whites weren't put in bold in Step 2. Granted, I should've read the recipe start to finish before starting. But since I couldn't see them highlighted by a bold font, I just acted impulsively and added them to the meatball mix. Turns out I was correct in my assumption, I just wish someone hadn't overlooked that small edit. It would've saved me a few minutes scanning the page for the ingredients, as well as the slight discomfort of "not following the directions" that I felt when I acted on impulse.
My other complaint is that for the Flauta recipe, there is no note that indicates that a non-reactive bowl should be used for the pico de gallo. While I personally knew that acidic foods shouldn't be mixed in certain types of containers, I don't know that everyone has that same level of food knowledge. In my humble opinion, Meal Kits should be educational and teach their clients important rules of cooking.
That said, I actually learned a technique for quick pickling in the Chicken Bowl recipe. I had never even thought to use a microwave to speed up the pickling process. While it resulted in limper pickled red onions than I'm used to, I was thoroughly impressed with how quickly they took on flavor.
Arguably, this is the most important metric of them all. Because if the meals don't taste good, WTF is the point?!? HelloFresh did a pretty great job in this category. While nothing was mind-blowingly delicious, the meals were all quite enjoyable.
Of the three recipes I chose, the Flautas and the Meatballs were deemed HelloFresh Hall of Fame worthy, meaning they had received enough high-star ratings from customers to earn the title. Since we're judging here, I'd rank the dishes from my most to least favorite as follows: Flautas, Meatballs, Chicken Bowls. That said, they were all pretty tasty.
The two things I would've changed? First, the tomato for the Flauta recipe was pretty awful. It's TOMATO SEASON y'all. There's just no reason to send a flavorless, poorly colored and watery substitute. (Side note, I ended up using some of the juice from the pico in the black bean filling, and I think it contributed a lot of flavor. Acid is important!)
Second, the zucchini they sent for the Meatballs was very tiny. In the photograph of the recipe, the carrots and zucchini look roughly equal. In reality, there were probably two times as many carrots as zucchini. I wish it had been just a little bit bigger so the meal was more balanced.
Recyclability of Packaging
My biggest beef with Meal Kits is the amount of waste involved. Y'all know I'm a Californian at heart when it comes to Earth-friendly practices. If there's gonna be a bunch of extra packaging necessary to get the items to the customer in good shape, my hope is that the packaging is recyclable. On that metric, HelloFresh rates about a ⅗.
About a third of the plastic wrapping used could be recycled. Anything that had sauce, meat or dairy in it had to be chucked in the bin. And while I know from an operations standpoint putting two scallions in a plastic bag makes sense, it kind of hurts my brain. At least that plastic could be recycled. But jeez, people. Is it really necessary? If your packing crew can count a single tomato without a plastic wrapper, doesn't it follow that they could count two green onions without one? Sorry. Rant over.
The cardboard box the order arrived in, as well as the paper bags that the ingredients were sectioned out in were all recyclable. Hooray! But the foam insulation in the packaging isn't recyclable anywhere in Tennessee, which is a huge bummer. That said, I personally kept mine to use as reflectors for my photography. The tri-fold design and the reflective material were an upgrade over my last salvaged foam pieces, but some foam still had to go in the trash. Ugh.
Finally, the ice packs had bags that were recyclable, but the filling had to be tossed in the garbage. Isn't there some other filling that could go down the drain and enter the water system safely? Do we really need stuff that'll fill a landfill?? All that said, HelloFresh has committed to offset 100% of their carbon emissions, so clearly they are trying to be environmentally minded. At least there's that.
Could I replicate these dishes on my own?
In each of the three recipes, there was at least one element that came pre-mixed and wasn't necessarily something you could easily find at a store. For the Meatballs it was bulgogi sauce. I could certainly make my own using items that are normal for my pantry, but may not be part of everyone's base ingredients. I also searched my two closest grocery stores - Kroger and Aldi - and neither of them carried a packaged version. I'm certain that a nicer Kroger, a Publix or a Whole Foods would carry pre-made bulgogi sauce, but depending on where you live, it might be a little difficult.
For the Flautas, there was a "southwest spice blend" that didn't list its ingredients. From what I could smell and taste, cumin and coriander were big components. Honestly, it tasted like taco seasoning without the salt. I could probably recreate that recipe quite easily.
Finally, for the Chicken Bowls, there was both a "Tex-Mex paste" and a "Smoky Red Pepper Crema." These items imparted a lot of flavor for the dish, but those aren't necessarily easily replicable items since they don't list ingredients and aren't things you can find in the store. In the paste, is it annato? Achiote? Different chilis? And for the crema, did they make it with chipotles? Or bell peppers? All in all, I'd rate HelloFresh at a ⅗ in this category.
While HelloFresh wouldn't be a great option for people who are following diets like Keto, Paleo, or Whole30, they do offer the option to add on lunch recipes for two (4 options/week), sides (2 options/week), extra proteins (6 options/week, some fully cooked!) and even coffee beans and a dessert. This is a hugely convenient resource for those of you that are super short on time and really don't have it in you to grocery shop. While the add-ons section is definitely not as comprehensive as an online grocer, I'm quite impressed by this offering and can definitely see the value of it.
The Overall Review Conclusion
As far as meal kits go, HelloFresh seems like a pretty solid option. With the initial discount on your first three purchases, the price is quite reasonable. The portion sizes were fair, with one meal having enough leftover for a single lunch serving the next day. The variety was definitely enough to keep me interested, and the flavors were solid. And the add-ons section is a huge convenience factor.
If you fall into any of the following categories, I think HelloFresh could be a good option for you:
- You're in a cooking rut and want to shake up your recipe routine
- You're new to cooking and want to try your hand at some exciting (but not too complicated) recipes
- You don't have time to spend a lot of time meal planning, but you still want to cook for your household several times per week
- You're coming back from travel and don't have time to grocery shop before starting a new week
- You don't like to grocery shop (I don't get you, but I respect you.)
If you are curious about trying it out, here's a code for $40 off. I'm not an affiliate, but if you order through here I'll earn credits towards future orders. I know I have a bunch more of these services to work through and review before I'll use 'em, but who doesn't love free food? Until next time, friends. I hope you have a delicious day!
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Eileen Schuering says
A wonderfully written post. I am educated at a level that otherwise I would not have been. I’ve never ordered these meals but come winter I will definitely give them a try. Thank you for the thorough reporting.