Our Totally Unscientific Food Box Experiment

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Screenshot from plated.com, the recipe and food delivery service.

For a few months this spring, our household had trial memberships to two recipe and food delivery services: Plated, the “Chef-designed responsibly-sourced recipe and food delivery service,” and Blue Apron, which features “Fresh ingredients, great recipes, delivered weekly.”

I called it our food box thunderdome experiment.

“Why?” said the spouse. “For science!” said I.  (Also, I was sick of all of our recipes and we were both working late hours. The family was in a cooking rut and time-crunched. And, both Plated and Blue Apron had trial offers that made testing them out fairly affordable. Cheaper than a babysitter + dinner + a movie, at least.)

“Science?” he said. “This isn’t scientific. To be scientific, you’d have to control for date, time, temperature… essentially getting two boxes on the same week and then comparing to groceries on the same week—and no. That is not going to happen.”

“No problem,” I said. “I declare this a totally unscientific food box experiment, all mistakes and impressions are my own doing, and reproduction of this experiment is at your own risk.”

And away we went. We ordered nine different meals from Plated, including their “first two plates free” trial. Plated’s “recommend your friends” option also gave us more free meals. Thank you, friends! Then, we ordered nine meals from Blue Apron, including their “first three meals free” trial.

For both services, there were hits and misses. Here’s the totally unscientific breakdown:

Delivery: Both boxes arrived when they said they would, with thorough insulation.  Box size is nearly identical. All of the produce was fresh and ready-to-cook: Avocados were ripe, fruit was ripe, vegetables were ripe. There were no rock-hard avocados. This was fantastic.

Home Ec 101: A base order is two Plated meals of two plates each or three Blue Apron meals (feeds two to three people each) per delivery.

Selection: We could select meals from an available menu at Plated. We had to list our preferences and a selection was chosen for us by Blue Apron.

Minimum Cost Per Box: (This was per our experience only. YMMV depending on the number of family members and how well you work those refer-a-friend deals.) Blue Apron was $59.95 (three meals, no choices aside from dislikes and allergies). Plated was $48 plus the monthly membership (two  meals/four “plates,” with multiple delivery options).

The Breakdown: Three meals from Plated costs $72, plus membership; three meals from Blue Apron costs $59.50. This is a $12 difference, plus Plated’s membership fee.

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Screenshot from blueapron.com, a recipe and food delivery service.

Membership Fees:

Plated has three options: $10/month billed monthly; $8/month billed annually; and pay-as-you-go (this puts the per-plate cost up to $15/plate). There is no minimum monthly order, although each Plated order must include four plates.

Blue Apron has a minimum three-meal plan, but you have to un-check the calendar when you don’t want a box or else, surprise, a food box will appear on your doorstep. (This totally bit me in the butt a few times.)

A very not-scientific gut feeling: Our feeling was that many of the recipes from each service could be made for much cheaper. That’s obvious with some of the tomato-and-cheese and chicken items. But not all of the recipes were a budget blow-out, especially when we factored in driving around for ingredients and the cost of certain spices. With Plated, we were able to pick the menu items that provided the most bang for our buck. With Blue Apron, we weren’t able to choose. We also found ourselves less motivated to cook the third meal of the week from Blue Apron, especially since we didn’t pick it. That’s pretty expensive apathy.

Allergies: We could stipulate no dairy, meat, fish, etc. on both. Only Plated offered no-gluten-added meals, which was really important for us and led to much less food substituting versus Blue Apron.

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While a lot of produce arrived bagged in a group, with a contents labeled, we received wrapped single items from Blue Apron—always carefully tagged. Photo: Fran Wilde.

Packaging: Plated’s packaging seems more environmentally conscious. The items aren’t individually wrapped unless they need to be (sauces, grains). Both Plated and Blue Apron send liquids in bottles that can be re-used. Other packaging can be recycled. There just feels like a lot more of it from Blue Apron. And really, non-scientifically speaking, there’s a lot of packaging in general, from the boxes to the cold packs and on. If you got these meals regularly, you’d be drowning in cold packs.

General Impressions About the Recipes (From Me, My Patient Spouse, and Our Child):

Plated

Me: I loved Plated’s recipes. They were beautiful, delicious, and highly intricate to cook. I learned many new techniques.

The Patient Spouse: Was all good.

The Child: Nope. Not for me. Too spicy, too fancy. Too much fish. Nope. nope, nope.

Blue Apron

Me: I also loved many of Blue Apron’s recipes, though it felt like we wasted a lot of food. Three meals a week is more than we wanted, but that was the minimum. We often substituted out the pasta and couscous because of food allergies. And oh my goodness, does Blue Apron love zesting! Lemons, limes. Seemed like every recipe required zesting. We didn’t need that much zest, really.

The Patient Spouse: Was all good. Have you figured out how to stop the boxes from coming yet?

Me: Nope, still trying.

The Child: Some of it was okay. I liked the gnocchi. Can we have more gnocchi? But without those flowers. (There were edible zucchini flowers for one recipe. Those got the nope.)

Pros:

1. The best part of this unscientific experiment was when we all started cooking a recipe together. In the kitchen, all of us, at one time. That happens sometimes, but not always. There’s something that happens when you all have to figure out a new recipe together. It’s kind of like a puzzle.

2. Another big pro: Never having to go back to the store for a missing item on a complex recipe.

3. And not having to buy a big box or tin of something that we’d only use a bit of unless we wanted to be eating elaborate food for a month.

4. And we can reuse the recipes.

Cons:

1. Price and selection—and the contents of each box were a bit overwhelming at first.

2. There was a lot of packaging for each, and there’s no way to return the cool packs for reuse.

3. Being stuck with items one or more of us couldn’t eat was annoying (especially when it came to allergens that were not specifically weeded out).

The Upshot: The upshot is that these boxes are spendy, unless you go with their “suggest a friend” option—and for families, it may be way on the fancy side.

I have some friends whose picky kids turned into gourmet chefs once they started getting into the “build-your-dinner” kits. Not mine. Nope.

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I’m no food photographer. And this was delicious. Photo: Fran Wilde.

But for an occasional “night-out” dinner in? The fun of cooking together again without having to remember anything at the store? Or having to figure out which recipe? That was so good. That means, for us, Plated would be a better choice.

Both services seem to default to auto-enrollment in regular/weekly food deliveries. Plated’s team helped me work that out pretty quickly. It took me forever to figure out how to stop the boxes from coming on Blue Apron. I unchecked everything on their widget. Twice. They still came.  (Eventually Blue Apron did help me fix this; thanks you guys!)

Our Favorite Recipes: Blue Apron had catfish and jicama slaw with amaranth and watermelon radish. So very good. A hands-down winner. Pan-seared salmon with lima bean and olive relish was also good, but this is one that we had to substitute out the couscous.

Plated had vegetable lasagna, chicken paillard (so much fun smashing the chicken to make paillard, I can’t tell you.), miso rice portabellos, and chicken tikka masala. It was all just completely awesome. (I wish I could link you to these pages at Plated.com, but I can’t.)

So, one family, two food subscription services: Plated and Blue Apron. When we emerged from beneath our pile of boxes (oh so many boxes), we discovered something: We liked cooking again.  I’ll call that a win.

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Fran Wilde writes science fiction and fantasy. Her first novel, Updraft (Tor, 2015) is called 'Soaring' by Publishers' Weekly and Barnes & Noble SFF blog, while NPR Books says it was "one of the most original fantasy novels I've read this year." Her next novel, Cloudbound releases in September. Fran's short stories appear at Asimov's, Nature, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Tor.com. She writes for publications including The Washington Post, SFSignal, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, iO9.com, and GeekMom.com/GeekDad.com. She can also program digital minions, tie most of the sailor's knot board, and re-load a fountain pen without spattering herself with ink (usually). She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and their tween-minecraft fanatic / book addict / budding Scratch programmer.