How Healthy Are Food Delivery Services?

We know we should eat healthy, but it’s easier said than done. Pleasing picky eaters, working around family activities, and finding the time and energy to cook wholesome food at the end of a long workday — it’s no wonder Americans now spend more at restaurants and fast food places than for groceries!

One of the newer solutions is the food delivery service: companies that pack up a box of groceries and recipes and deliver it to your door. They claim to save you time and make it easier to feed your family right. Does this really help?

We tried out Blue Apron, a food shopping service available here in Northwest Arkansas, to see how it worked. We also spoke with families who’ve been using it for a while.

Blue Apron offers a weekly box with three meals for couples or families. Some of the families we talked with use a two-person box for parents and young kids, but most agreed that the two-person box is really just enough for two people.

You can choose which dishes you want, pause your subscription when you have other plans, and change the number of people if you’re expecting guests.

All the ingredients arrive fresh and cool, with ice packs and insulated packaging.

Is it healthy?

Yes. Nutritional information is included with your dish, and you’ll find that each meal is a wholesome 500-700 calories, with about 40 grams of protein, and more fiber than sugar. We used the Fast Food Nutrition Calculator to compare these numbers with typical take out meals, and we can say with confidence that this is much healthier than the average take out dinner. It may not be healthier than your home cooking, depending on how you usually cook, but it’s certainly healthy.

Each meal includes lean protein and fresh produce, plus mostly whole grains. We’d rather have all whole grains, but it’s not bad. And it’s all real food — no desserts, sodas, or highly processed foods.

Is it easy?

You’re cooking from scratch and cleaning up afterwards. If you know how to cook from scratch, it’s nice to have everything pre-measured. If you don’t know how to cook, you get a chance to learn. There are photos, and even videos you can access on your phone. Sara, who uses the service off and on, says one of the things that she really likes about Blue Apron is getting to learn new cooking techniques.

People who’ve been using the service for a while often said, “You don’t have to think.”

Richard said, “I know that I don’t have to think about cooking till an hour before dinner and I’ll still have something good on the table at dinner time.” No thinking, planning, looking up recipes, or trying to figure out how to time everything to be ready at once.

Sara pointed out that you need a good knife and several pans to be able to cook these meals easily.

Is it affordable?

Blue Apron runs $8.00 to $10.00 a serving. A good home cook who is also a careful shopper can feed a family a wholesome meal for $3.00 to $4.00 a serving, so Blue Apron is not the most economical option. But most of us aren’t actually choosing the most economical option at the grocery store.

Enemies of healthy economy:

  • Waste. We may buy fruits and veggies at the market, but a lot of us throw them away at the end of the week because we went for more convenient options. Some estimates claim that 40% of produce is trashed in American homes. Blue Apron just brings you the amount you need for the meals you’re going to fix that week, and provides interesting ideas for using it. A sweet potato may not exactly sing to you by itself, but roasting it with jalapenos and cheese is another story.
  • Convenience foods. That $3.00 to $4.00 a serving is based on a healthy meal cooked from fresh ingredients at home. If you skid into the kitchen after a long day and start opening cans and boxes, you spend more than that for a meal that is not as healthy.
  • Grocery store temptations. Shop with your kids and you may end up with cookies, crackers, cakes, sugary cereal, sodas, and lots of other high-priced, low-nutrition foods in addition to the healthy basics. Even without kids, you’re probably making some impulse buys. Market researchers say that 20% of the average American family’s grocery bill comes from impulse items.
  • Too-large quantities. Blue Apron provides just-right amounts of spice mixes, special vinegar, mirin, coconut milk powder, unusual flavorings, and other items that most of us would have to buy especially to cook these dishes. If you have to buy full-size packages of all these exotic items for one meal, that meal will run you a lot more than $8.00-$10.00 a plate, and these special ingredients often end up going to waste when you don’t use them again.
  • Fast food runs. Americans now spend more on meals out than on groceries. Add take out runs to your grocery bill for a more honest estimate of your food costs. Blue Apron makes cooking super convenient, and may even provide some accountability or motivation to cook instead of driving through.

Since the ingredients are all high quality and many are special, the comparison with a home-cooked bargain meal might not be fair. Those $3.00 meals are not exotic seafood with trendy vegetables. Market Watch tested a few meals against buying the same ingredients at Whole Foods and figured you’re paying 35% for the convenience, but there are some problems with their calculations. First, they checked only three meals and one cost more at Whole Foods than at Blue Apron. That’s one third of the meals. Another came in at half the Blue Apron price… but they made some substitutions. It’s also hard to decide the precise cost of a tablespoon of verjus in a useful way.

A more realistic comparison might be a restaurant meal; Blue Apron is cheaper than even an average fast food meal, and certainly will cost you less than the same meal in a restaurant.

After using the service for a few weeks, we think that you can spend about the same total amount on groceries with Blue Apron for some of your meals, especially if your self-planned meals are frugal home cooking.

Is it tasty?

We found the Blue Apron dishes flavorful and enjoyable. The Blue Apron fans we asked usually said that they enjoy the opportunity to try out different dishes and discover new flavors. We would not have thought of making tacos with creme fraiche and radishes, but we’ll certainly do it again in the future.

Many of the people we spoke with said that their Blue Apron dishes included more veggies than they would usually fix for themselves — that was one of the healthy aspects of the meals. Eating kale, leeks, sweet potatoes, and the like three nights a week encourages Blue Apron families to enjoy more vegetables on their other nights, too.

The conclusion: Blue Apron can definitely be a good tool for people who want to eat healthier and aren’t sure where to start. It’s also going to be a big help for those whose idea of healthy food is a grilled chicken breast and a salad — till the sameness gets to them and they give up. Variety, healthy ingredients, and a lack of temptation can reinforce your healthy eating habits.