The cardboard box arrived on my doorstep emblazoned with great promises. “Transformation starts from within (this box),” it proclaimed. “With every delivery, you’re a step closer to your best self.” Inside the insulated packaging, the key to my salvation came in the form of attractively labeled plastic tubs containing meals to last me three days, several sachets of detox tea, vials of mystical-sounding beauty and detox concentrates, and a prim card summarizing the menu.
I had signed up to try an online service called Sakara, which offers organic, dairy-free, gluten-free, refined-sugar-free, non-GMO, “life-transforming, plant-rich super meals delivered to your door,” according to its website—for a mere $210 for three days of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or $420 for five days, mailed to my delivery location in Colorado. (Price varies by region but generally starts at $239 for three days.) While I relish rolling my eyes at slick marketing—and high prices—I also wanted to like this idea. Sakara promises to have you eating fresh, healthy food with zero effort. But how good could food out of a cardboard box really taste?
Sakara is one of a new crop of heat-and-eat meal-delivery services that are increasingly populating the internet. These offerings stand in contrast to Blue Apron–style meal kits, which cannonballed into the food-service scene in 2012 but whose growth is now starting to decline. These new companies generally send single-serving frozen or refrigerated meals that require no cooking, and some food-industry experts say they could take over the online meal-delivery market, a space that could balloon to $10 billion by 2020, according to the market and consumer-data company Statista.
“The meal kits are absolutely dying,” says Brittain Ladd, a global-strategy and supply-chain consultant for the food industry. “People are not interested in this type of a way to cook—to have to go through this much process. Consumers are looking for something easier, and that’s why the ready-to-eat meals are the only ones that really have a bright future.”
After I received the box from Sakara, I tossed the Sakara Burger (made from carrots, beets, black beans, oats, nuts, and seeds) into the toaster, dressed up the salad greens, smeared the burger with cashew-chili crème, and dug in. The meal was surprisingly good for health food. It was fresh, tasty, creative—like what I imagine Gwyneth Paltrow eats. Was I wooed by the promise of a new, luminous me? I needed someone else’s opinion, so I asked my husband to test it out. “That just came out of that box?” he asked, taking a second forkful. “Damn.”
The internet has no shortage of gimmicky services that promise to transform you into a better, shinier, healthier version of yourself while making your life easier and your wallet slimmer. What makes these meals different from the tired TV dinners you find in the frozen wasteland of the supermarket? I wanted to find out. Over the course of about three months, I tried a dozen services—not because I hate cooking (I really like it) but because I love to eat. These companies promise tasty, nutritious (and the ever vague “chef-prepared”) meals with what seems like too-good-to-be-true ease. It’s a life hack that, if it worked, seemed like it could come in handy, even for an avid cook.
The services come in a dizzying array of options. There are prepared-meal options for specific dietary restrictions, such as keto, paleo, vegan, or vegetarian, as well as for certain goals like athletic performance, weight loss, or managing diabetes. Some get even more specific. Nurture Life, for instance, offers meals just for babies, toddlers, and kids, and Mostly Made offers bulk fillings specifically for enchiladas and lasagnas. Some even offer special diets for brides (Sakara) and anti-inflammation detox courses (Paleta). Other services deliver only regionally, but I only tested those that currently ship nationally and offer complete meals.
When the boxes started arriving, I had to grapple with my aversion to prepackaged food. I quickly learned that the fare often turned out better—especially the texture—when I heated it in a pan or the oven as opposed to the microwave, and it felt more nourishing if I plated it rather than eating it straight out of the tray.
Over the course of my test, I tried meals from vegan service Veestro’s savory croquettes with sweet potatoes to Kettlebell Kitchen’s bison-beef sliders, Factor 75’s paleo butternut-squash lasagna, and BistroMD’s blackened salmon with Creole tomato-okra stew. With the exception of two services, the meals were better than I expected. (I found that Fresh n’ Lean had dry meats and slimy pasta, and some meals even had a faint plasticky flavor. Splendid Spoon had mixed results, with some good soups and smoothies and some that were tasteless or chalky.) I even tried out a few microwave TV dinners from the grocery store by comparison. The ingredients from the mail-order variety generally seemed higher quality, and “chef-prepared” meals are typically more inventive than the standard meat-and-gravy supermarket stuff.
I also developed strategies to maximize my orders. First of all, skip breakfast entrees if they involve eggs, which are pretty much never good reheated. It’s also best to avoid options that are meant to be served right after cooking, like risotto, which should be oozing with savory creaminess. (Across several services, it turned out dry and lifeless.) Fattier meats like beef and pork often taste better than lean meats when reheated, and fish is always better warmed in a pan. Also, don’t hesitate to doctor up your meal with sauces, seasonings, or an extra veggie or two. And if you’re on a budget, you might consider buying one box with a lot of meals and freezing them to save on shipping.
Coincidentally, as I tested out these services, I also started to go through a busy period at work. I’d come home starving and remember that I had ready-to-go trays sitting in the fridge, pop one in the oven, pan, or microwave and—voilà!—instant balanced meal. I even shamelessly served them to some houseguests (to good reviews). It was so easy, I almost felt guilty, as if I were cheating at life.
I was concerned about the carbon cost of mailing a heavy refrigerated box and all that single-use plastic. In some cases, however, I could return the box and recycle the packaging. (MamaSezz, for example, sends a return label.) One service, Kettlebell Kitchen, had biodegradable containers. But with only one tray as opposed to numerous ingredient containers that I buy when I grocery shop, I’m not sure whether these services produce more or less waste than some of my home-cooked meals.
Ready-to-eat food delivery seems like a good tool for when I’m busy or too tired to cook. Still, something about these services made me feel disconnected. Yes, they are healthy, balanced, exceptionally easy meals, but convenience can have unseen costs. I realized how much cooking grounds me. I not only missed the kitchen work, I missed going to my local grocery stores, picking out produce, and actually talking to human beings.
It’s been more than a month since my last box arrived. Some of the services were so tasty that I thought I might sign up again, but I haven’t yet felt inclined. And I did notice that the founders of Sakara, Danielle Duboise and Whitney Tingle (who are known to say things like “food should make you feel sexy,”), just came out with a cookbook. Is it possible that they, too, actually prefer a real-life home-cooked meal? The inside line on some recipes seemed like a good middle ground—I save money, eat supermodel-approved food, and still get to chop and sauté. As I write this, Eat Clean, Play Dirty: Recipes for a Body and Life You Love is winging its way in a cardboard box to my doorstep.
The Ultimate Guide to Meal-Delivery Services
Ready-to-eat meal services aren’t one size fits all. Here’s how to find out which works best for your diet and lifestyle.
Best For: Weight loss.
Founded by a weight-loss physician, this service offers nutritionally balanced daily meal plans that include breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. And they have a glut of specialty options: gluten-free, heart-healthy, diabetic friendly, and even menopause specific. I went with the good old-fashioned standard program. I found that lunch and dinner entrees, such as turkey breast with herbed brown gravy, and grilled salmon with lemon-Dijon dressing, were consistently good. This was my husband’s favorite service. Honestly, I found that the snacks were almost too healthy, and I wanted more sugar and salt. BistroMD also offers consultations with a dietitian and personal trainer as part of your membership.
Fine Print: Gluten-free, diabetic, heart-healthy, and menopause options.
Price: Ten meals for $90 plus shipping.
Subscription Model: Weekly subscriptions.
Best For: Carb- and nutrition-conscious foodies.
Factor 75 touts its use of lean proteins, low-glycemic carbs, and healthy fats. The service offers keto, paleo, and dairy-free options, and members receive a free 20-minute nutrition coaching session with a dietitian. Meals include buffalo chicken breast with cauliflower mash, a burger with roasted radishes, and paleo butternut-squash lasagna. Because they tend to have a fair amount of fat, they felt particularly satisfying. One of the houseguests I served this to liked it so much that he bought a subscription himself.
Fine Print: Gluten-free, non-GMO, soy-free, hormone- and antibiotic-free, grass-fed meats.
Price: Eight meals for $99 plus shipping.
Subscription Model: À la carte boxes or weekly subscriptions.
The Good Kitchen
Best For: Farm-to-table omnivores.
The Good Kitchen differentiates itself from other services by focusing on sustainably sourced, seasonal food, working closely with farmers, ranchers, and suppliers. Meals arrive fresh and include items like roasted chicken breast with spinach and fennel sauté, and spaghetti squash with goat cheese and pesto. The offerings were quite simple, and I felt like some of them could use a touch of pizzazz in the form of a tomato or green beans or a topping of some kind (in the case of the spaghetti squash at least). But one cool bonus is you can order kid-specific meals.
Fine Print: Mostly organic, GMO-free produce; antibiotic- and hormone-free poultry and eggs; grass-fed, pastured meats; Seafood Watch–compliant fish; Whole30 approved.
Price: Ten meals for $130, with free shipping.
Subscription Model: Order à la carte boxes or receive deliveries weekly, every other week, or monthly.
Best For: Value-conscious omnivores.
Originally founded to help bodybuilders and other athletes pack in nutrients and healthy calories, Icon Meals offers plain, healthy food at a good value. Ready-made meals include salmon and saffron rice with green beans, and chicken alfredo pizza. You can also create custom meals by choosing the type and amount of protein, carbs, and veggies. The vegetarian options were lackluster, and I found the fare a bit bland—but nothing that a little seasoning couldn’t fix. Salty-sweet snacks like the protein popcorn were addictive.
Price: $7 to $8.50 per meal plus shipping. In-store pickup at one of the company’s two retail shops or at participating retailers and gyms is available in Texas.
Subscription Model: Order à la carte. No subscriptions.
Best For: Athletes.
Kettlebell Kitchen started by delivering heat-and-eat meals to athletes at gyms across the country in 2013. Two years ago, it also started shipping items by FedEx, differentiating its company from other services by tailoring its nutritional profiles to specific performance aims, like muscle building or endurance training. My husband and I really loved this service (it was one of my two favorites), because the menu items were simple but not boring—like a roasted beet and charred radicchio salad, and shepherd’s pie with cauliflower mash. The food also came in biodegradable trays.
Fine Print: Grass-fed beef; hormone- and antibiotic-free poultry.
Price: Twelve meals for $136 plus shipping
Subscription Model: Order à la carte boxes or weekly subscriptions.
Best For: Veggie comfort-food lovers.
These vegan meals were the most like home-cooked fare—rich lasagna, and eggplant casserole, for example—and came in low-profile sealed Ziplock bags. Each meal was enough to feed two people, and the box came with a pamphlet on different ways to eat them, like serving the lasagna (which had an incredibly convincing cheese substitute) on a bed of spinach or making sloppy joes out of the chili. It sort of felt like receiving a care package from my grandma. MamaSezz also sends a return shipping label customers so the box can be reused. They often have specials that make the service quite affordable.
Fine Print: Meat-free, organic, non-GMO, dairy-free, gluten-free, preservative-free food.
Price: $99 for a Get Me Started bundle, which feeds two people dinner for a week, plus shipping. (Free shipping on orders over $89 from the East Coast.)
Subscription Model: Order à la carte boxes or receive deliveries every week or every second, third, or fourth week.
Best For: Paleo devotees.
Every week, the menu at Pete’s Paleo changes based on what’s available from farmers. Customers don’t choose meals but receive what’s on offer during that time. Menu items include dishes like Persian lamb with kabocha squash and kale, and rosemary-crusted pork tenderloin with greens and roasted purple potatoes. You can also order bone broth and thick-cut bacon as supplements or opt for a 21-day sugar detox. The food is delicious, but my husband found the portions a little small.
Fine Print: Gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, organic, and non-GMO produce; grass-fed and pastured meats.
Price: Ten meals for $189. Free shipping on some orders.
Subscription Model: Weekly subscriptions.
Best For: High-end health foodies.
Sakara offers what I see as health-spa food—super healthy, fresh, delicious, and pricey. Few other services offer fresh salads, relying instead on cooked meals, and you’re paying for fancy ingredients like Himalayan pink salt. Sakara’s breakfast items include novelties like a pumpkin-pie parfait and a “superfood muffin,” which is made of bananas, apples, walnuts, and gluten-free oats. Entrees, such as the kimchi and buckwheat soba bowl, and the margherita flatbread, were consistently tasty. Customers can also add extra items, like daily probiotics and “beauty chocolates,” which are supposed to improve your skin. (Who knows how that works.) The drawback is the price. But the food was top-notch, making this service one of my two favorites.
Fine Print: Organic, dairy-free, gluten-free, non-GMO, meat-free food.
Price: From about $239 for three days of breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Subscription Model: Weekly subscriptions. One-week trials are available for a cost of $20 more.
Best for: Smoothie and soup aficionados.
Splendid Spoon offers three things: smoothies, soups, and something called “reset sippables.” I found some of the smoothies delicious (blackberry basil) and others a bit chalky (the AB and J, which translates to almond butter and strawberry puree). The soups were mixed, too; several were tasty, like the zucchini puttanesca, but others were too acidic or bland, or I just felt like I could have done it better myself. The thing that really turned me off from this one was the sippable soups, which I found nauseating. They come in a bottle so you can sip them, but I find nothing palatable about cold beets pureed with balsamic vinegar, dill, and chia seeds. It reminds me of the gnarly green-blender concoctions my health-food aunt tries to get me to eat.
Fine Print: Vegan and gluten-free fare.
Price: From $9 per smoothie or soup, with free shipping.
Subscription Model: Weekly subscriptions.
Best For: Vegan gourmands.
Unlike most other services, Veestro’s meals arrive frozen and are best thawed for a day in the fridge before reheating. (But you can also reheat them straight out of the box.) It contends that frozen meals hold their nutrients better over time. Options include red curry with tofu, soba noodles in peanut sauce, and veggie empanadas. The savory croquettes were especially yummy. The portions were perfect for me, an athletic 120-pound woman with a fast metabolism, but they were a bit small for my husband. (They do offer a weight-loss option, so maybe that has something to do with it.)
Fine Print: Vegan and organic, with high-protein and gluten-free options.
Price: Ten meals for $117, with free shipping.
Subscription Model: Order à la carte boxes or receive deliveries on a weekly or biweekly basis.
The Vegan Garden
Best For: Vegans and juice lovers.
These home-style meals are ideal for people who eschew animal products but embrace meat substitutes. Options include tempeh chili, plant-powered pizza, and juices and smoothies in an array of colors and flavors. Items like the spaghetti and “meat” balls and the enchiladas were tasty and filling, while the “beef” and broccoli tasted a bit too sweet. The packaging—small plastic bags—was appealingly low profile in comparison to some of the other services.
Fine Print: Vegan.
Price: $150 for the ten-and-ten variety pack, which includes ten entrees and ten smoothies, plus shipping.
Subscription Model: Order themed packages (like soups or fall specials) or a monthly subscription, which includes weekly deliveries.