Eat, Drink, Blog

Food Subscriptions: What Are They Good For?

dougpairingLately, I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz—not to mention strategically placed Facebook ads—about Blue Apron, one of the biggest players competing to deliver “meals in a box” to time-strapped consumers who have time neither to shop nor to cook. While there are others competing in this emerging business model, Blue Apron recently received $200 million in venture capital and is currently delivering more than one-million meals across the US every month. It’s one of several dinner kit companies on the market (PlateJoy, Hello Fresh) with more expected in the near future (The Munchery). All these food subscription services are delivered on a weekly basis, priced per portion (typically two, four or six meals in a box), offer up recipes that lean more towards gourmet than comfort food, and anticipate busy Americans who want to be in the kitchen without all the hassles that typically go into making a restaurant-quality meal.

When it comes to cooking, I’m very practical: real food, locally sourced (with a few exceptions: I will never give up lemons and probably not coffee/tea) that is well-balanced and nutritional. When it comes to Blue Apron, I can still stay within my food paradigm (one of their warehouses is in Jersey City, so that is local for me; they claim to source from area farms, which would imply northern NJ, northeast PA, the Hudson Valley and/or Long Island). I tend to be very no-frills in my approach to cooking; I own quite a few cookbooks but I don’t think I’ve opened one in years. My dishes are pretty simple: protein, starch, veggie. A typical meal for me would be fish fried in coconut oil (former locally sourced, latter, duh, not) with some steamed broccoli and perhaps rice. Or steak and mashed potatoes with a side salad. My kids love kale, and frequently my daughter will just have that for dinner (yes, true story, although it is sauteed in olive oil – not local – garlic and lemon juice).

I thought that ordering Blue Apron would be a nice change of pace. Lately I’ve been in a bit of a funk and relying too heavily on Seamless to get me through the week. Blue Apron makes claims of dinner in 35 minutes or less. I figured it was worth a try. My first (and all the subsequent) box(es) came with three well-designed recipe cards (one card is a “tips” sheet); the cards are definitely meant to be saved among your cookbooks. The food was portioned out but not prepped, meaning you need to chop any vegetables that come with your delivery. The produce was fresh; the meat well kept and possibly well sourced (the Apple Cider-Glazed chicken came with breasts that looked like they were from the same suppliers of Whole Foods, having a “3” sustainability sticker on the label). As omnivores, we didn’t opt for the vegetarian only meals, although we do have limited flexibility in choosing what we want delivered every week including skipping the delivery altogether.

PoBoyHowever, it turns out there are a lot of negatives to using a food-subscription service (while I have not tried anything other than Blue Apron, I have read that there are not significant differences between the brands). First off is getting it delivered. Because they are shipping fresh food kept cold with ice packs (i.e. not dry ice), Blue Apron has a “no signature” policy via FedEx. The first week, FedEx dropped my box at the door and never even rang the bell. I lucked out that one of my neighbors found the box before it could be stolen. I tried contacting Blue Apron customer service and could find no phone information. An email complaint took four days to answer (granted, I sent it on a Friday, so two of those days were over the weekend); the lack of customer service there is a definite downside, not to mention the sketchy way FedEx often behaves. After the first week I was ready to abandon Blue Apron altogether.

The food is expensive. Blue Apron claims to be cheaper than shopping at the grocery store, but even when you factor in only buying what you need (e.g. two tablespoons of crème fraîche as opposed to an 8-ounce tub; rare ingredients that might require multiple shopping stops but are easily substituted with something more common), Blue Apron is significantly more expensive than Whole Foods, a store that already has exorbitantly high prices. Compared to the greenmarket where I typically shop, Blue Apron is as much as twice as expensive. You are definitely paying a premium for the convenience of pre-portioned delivered food. That said, I was looking at Blue Apron as a substitute for my Seamless orders, not as a grocery expense. Compared to a restaurant, Blue Apron seems comparable or cheaper (I pay about $70 for eight portions—two family-sized meals per week—or $8.75 per meal, which works out to $11.66 per person, since there are only three of us).

Which brings me to the next point: The portion sizes are really small. Yes, they are no doubt healthier (more on that below) as we Americans typically overeat. But for a family of three, we rarely have any leftovers from our four-portion meal. If we do have leftovers, it’s no more than that additional fourth serving. When we do have decent sized portions, they tend to be very carb-heavy (e.g. the Catfish Po’Boy that is served on a hoagie roll). These are not the large meals you get in a restaurant setting, so that $35 per dinner suddenly seems like less of a “deal” as compared to a restaurant where we could take home a second day’s rations.

SearedCodExpense aside, the other issue is packaging. Because everything in your Blue Apron box is portioned out (Blue Apron labels these ingredients “knick knacks”), there’s a ton of waste. The first box came with instructions on how to recycle the containers, but every week now I’m throwing away an insulated bag full of melted ice blocks. I certainly cannot store them indefinitely (or at all) in my tiny freezer. This is a definite downside to using blocks rather than dry ice, which may contribute to carbon emissions but don’t tax our landfills. I wish at the least that Blue Apron would pack all the produce in one bag or devise some kind of compartment system to cut down on all the plastic that comes with each meal.

Finally, the recipes themselves are lacking in accurate instruction. You must read them very thoroughly (which can be difficult if you have three different cooking procedures going on at once). I miss a step almost every recipe that leaves out an ingredient that cannot easily be added in at the end. The recipes over-rely on salt and pepper as spices, almost making me wonder if they aren’t mimicking the high-sodium processed food taste; sure you can opt out of the salt, but it seems a bit ridiculous to add salt multiple times during the cooking process. Also, the cooking times are vastly understated. In the case of the turkey breast I made for Thanksgiving (with only three of us, there’s not point in a whole bird), the cook time was absolutely wrong; I had to cook the rolled breast twice as long as the recipe called for. For a Thanksgiving dinner, this isn’t a huge issue, but for a harried professional just trying to get dinner on the table, that “under 35 minutes” is rather spurious. Anticipate at least an hour to make most of these dishes.

At this point, it may seem that there are no upsides to a food subscription service, and long-term, I don’t think there are. However, Blue Apron does offer a few upsides:

  1. It reminds me how easily it is to overeat: Americans are getting fatter and fatter, and while a lot of this has to do with eating “food with no food in there,” it also has to do with portion sizes. Intellectually, I understand that I don’t need to consume more than 4-6 ounces of meat at dinner, but you forget just how little that is. Blue Apron would be great for people who are trying to lose weight and comparable in price (and superior in quality) to a cuisine-based  weight-loss program (a la Nutrisystem).
  2. These recipes really do taste great. If you aren’t a creative chef or you have gotten into a cooking funk, these recipes may give you back your culinary mojo. I certainly wouldn’t have made Seared Cod and Garlic-Ginger Rice, a fairly simple dish that was excellent.
  3. They are convenient, especially if you have a small kitchen. I live in Brooklyn. My kitchen, including all the counters, the stove and the refrigerator is 32 square feet. Really. I don’t have space to spread out and make a multi-course meal (see my typical fare above). Because the recipes are pre-portioned, they take up very little space in my fridge and are easy to prep.
  4. They are perfect for non-cooks who want to learn.

A new “Cook” in the very small kitchen!

Which brings me to whyfour weeks inI am still subscribing to Blue Apron. When my daughter, who struggles to boil water, saw the individually assembled ingredients, she instantly became interested in learning to cook. Whereas my son has always gravitated towards the kitchen (he has basic knife skills, can make an omelet or a cheesecake, for that matter), my daughter has eschewed learning how to cook. I’ve never forced her to learn, and she is among the growing number of young people worldwide who don’t know how to cook. The convenience of ordering take-out or buying pre-made food at the grocery store has trumped making one’s own meal. Because everything was set out for her, she found making the food quite easy (of course, I still have to supervise; she knows nothing about how to use a knife properly, and her first foray into gathering “four cloves of garlic” to chop resulted in her pondering why we only had two heads of garlicyes, her brother did make fun of her for that). However, she managed to cook her first meal (the aforementioned cod dish) and it was really good. She has committed to making one of the two meals each week.

Thus, for as long as she wants to learn (or just cook so I don’t have to), I’m willing to shell out the $70 per week. There’s a generation of kids now who barely know how to prepare a meal, and it’s a contributor to general ill health among the public. While my daughter lives with me, she has access to well-made meals, but sooner or later she’ll be on her own. A food-subscription service is a small price to pay to become competent in the kitchen.

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