Consumers Tried Meal Kit Delivery Services. Here's What They Found.

CR evaluated consumers’ experiences cooking with these services and took a close look at how healthful the recipes are

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An illustration of a person cooking in a kitchen surrounded by the logos of meal kit delivery services: HelloFresh, Sun Basket, Dinnerly, Home Chef, and Blue Apron.

Meal kits—boxes of pre-portioned ingredients and recipes delivered to your door—quickly became trendy when the first ones, Blue Apron and HelloFresh, came onto the scene almost a decade ago. Since then many more players have entered the market, but consumer interest has cooled. That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and these services have experienced an uptick in sales. For example, revenue at Blue Apron and HelloFresh increased by 29 and 20 percent, respectively, between April and June of this year.

There are a few reasons for the renewed interest, says Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst with the NPD group. People had to cook more at home, and going to the grocery store became far more complicated and stressful than it used to be.  “Consumers are looking for even more shortcuts to get through the day,” he says.

For some, these services have also become more affordable. The cost per serving of a four-person family plan can be anywhere from about $6 to $12, not including any shipping fees. Seifer notes the high price was the main reason customers moved away from these services pre-pandemic. But with people spending less on travel and activities such as movies or dining out, these services may be more attractive to those who now have extra room in their budgets.

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To see how these services are meeting consumers’ current needs, CR decided to evaluate five popular meal delivery kit companies: Blue Apron, Dinnerly, HelloFresh, Home Chef, and Sun Basket

We enlisted 30 volunteers, ranging in age from 22 to 57, who were either the primary cook in their homes or who equally shared cooking responsibilities. They were evenly split between new users of meal delivery kit services and those who’d been subscribing for 6 months or longer, and they had varying levels of cooking experience.

The volunteers scored the experience and ease of five aspects of the service they used most often: ordering, the quality and condition of the packaging and ingredients, cooking, how the meals turned out, and overall usability. Across the board, the services received high scores.

In a separate study, CR’s nutrition experts reviewed the nutritional information provided by the services and the recipe ingredients for one July week’s worth of their meal offerings. The five services mostly offer unprocessed ingredients and fresh veggies, and promote cooking at home, a habit that has been associated with better diet quality. But there were some nutritional pitfalls. 

Below, we explain some of the common findings of each part of our analysis. And CR members can see detailed results of our evaluation of each service.

What Our User Experience Study Found

A few common threads emerged from our participants’ evaluations of the meal kit delivery services.

Many people were price sensitive. These kits can be an expensive option compared with shopping for groceries and cooking your own meals. Dinnerly cost the least per serving, and participants seemed to be more forgiving of its shortcomings because of this, says Linda Greene, a test program leader in CR’s Consumer Experience and Usability Research program. Some of our volunteers said they subscribed to more than one service in order to take advantage of promotions offered by other providers.

The services really were convenient. Several users, especially those who started their subscription as a result of the pandemic, felt it helped take the stress out of planning meals and shopping for groceries. “It has really been a huge help to our family. It’s taken a load off my mind, trying to plan meals,” one new user said. And both new and long-term users said they experienced few hiccups—such as damaged or missing ingredients or banged up packaging—with the delivery service. For the most part, contacting customer service rectified any issues that arose.

Meal choice variety was mixed. Some participants complained about repetition, noting that some weeks were better than others for meal selection and that they adjusted their orders accordingly. “If 6 things look good, we will pick 6 things; if only 3 things look good, we will only choose those,” one participant said. A number of our volunteers subscribed to more than one service in order to maximize variety in their meals. 

The kits usually contained high-quality ingredients. Overall, the participants’ impression of all of the services can be summed up by the experience of one long-term subscriber: “I’ve always been satisfied with the quality of the ingredients. I’ve never had an issue with freshness with the vegetables or the meat or anything like that.”

In a few instances, participants received ingredients that were different from what they expected or vegetables that were bruised or on the verge of being too ripe, and in some case items were missing from their orders. But most participants reported that their complaints were handled well when they called customer service.

Recipes were easy to follow. The services we evaluated provide step-by-step instructions for each recipe, and some had photos that accompanied each step. Our participants found the recipes’ estimates of cooking times to be mostly accurate. 

The meals were tasty. Our volunteers were generally happy with the quality of the food and the resulting meals. “It was delicious. Couldn't have asked for more, felt as if I was eating at a restaurant," reported one volunteer. Another participant said, “It definitely made me feel a boost of confidence in myself by being able to produce something like that."

How Healthy Are Meal Kit Meals?

These services provide nutritional breakdowns for their recipes—with some listing more information than others—but, in our study, few people ever checked it, let alone used it to help select their meals. Our nutrition experts say you should. 

“We found the nutritional quality of the meals, especially the amounts of sodium, varies quite a bit,” says Amy Keating, RD, a CR nutritionist who conducted our analysis.

On the plus side, “these services have a real potential to introduce users to novel ingredients and increase the variety of types of food in their diets,” Keating says. The ingredients are mostly whole or minimally processed foods (such as canned tomatoes), and the meals are a big improvement over restaurant takeout or unhealthy ultra-processed foods many consumers rely on. 

Still, some of the recipes are too high in nutrients you should limit and low in those most people need more of.

Saturated fat, which can contribute to heart disease risk, is one of them. Though we saw a few dishes high in saturated fat in all three services that supplied that info, several of HelloFresh’s recipes had more saturated fat per serving than many people should eat in a day. The recommended daily limit is no more than 10 percent of the calories you eat—that’s 17 grams of saturated fat for someone eating 1,500 calories and 20 grams for someone eating 2,000 calories. Two HelloFresh dishes—Pork Sausage with Roasted Pepper Pasta with Creamy Parmesan Garlic Tomato Sauce, and Crispy Cheddar Chicken with Loaded Bacon Mashed Potatoes & Asparagus—had the most we saw in our study, 27 grams per serving.

Blood pressure-raising sodium was a particular problem across the services, but almost half of the dishes featured at Blue Apron during the week of our evaluation had 1,000 mg or more, before any salt called for in the recipe was added. The Salmon & Shrimp Poke Bowl with Avocado and Spicy Mayo was the highest among all the meals we looked at, clocking in at 2,130 mg of sodium per serving, or 93 percent of your daily limit of less than 2,300 mg.   

And the actual amount of sodium you’d get can be far higher, if you follow the recipe instructions. Almost every recipe we looked at called for adding salt—in some cases four or more times. For instance, Blue Apron estimates its Seared Chicken & Fregola Sarda and Lemon-Caper Sauce would go from 360 mg to 1,090 mg sodium per serving if you added salt every time the recipe said to. Keating advises ignoring at least some of the “add salt” steps. “When we prepared and tasted recipes from various meal kit delivery services in 2016, we found that you still get a tasty result without all that salt,” she says.

Another concern: Though vegetables were part of many dishes, you don’t always get a healthy-sized portion—1 cup per serving or more—according to our estimates. And in the week of recipes we reviewed, there were few dishes with legumes or whole grains, such as quinoa, farro, or whole-grain rolls. That prompted our nutrition experts to look at recipe options in the surrounding weeks. They found that for the most part, recipes featuring these foods were lacking there, too.  

Meal kit companies should make it easier for people to eat healthfully, Keating says, first by offering plenty of recipes that include legumes, whole grains, and vegetables, which studies show help reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. Also ideal: having 8 grams or less of saturated fat, 500 mg of sodium or less, and 8 grams or more of fiber per serving. In our evaluation, Sun Basket had the most recipes that met these parameters. 

Below, members can see our detailed analysis of each service. These are listed from highest to lowest consumer experience score (though note that all received high scores). Prices are based on the weekly cost of ordering three meals per week for a family of four, and nutrition information is based on an evaluation of one week’s recipe offerings for each service.

Meal Delivery Kit Scores and CR's Takes