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Meals by mail put the kit in your kitchen

Though currently in a period of adjustment, these services offer subscribers high-quality ingredients and menus created by professional chefs and nutritionists. Right now is a good time to give one of them a try.

HelloFresh
An example of a HelloFresh box.
Contributed / HelloFresh
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Some years ago, just as meal kits were being marketed as a way to feed yourself or family healthfully and efficiently, I wrote about Blue Apron, one of the first to offer this service delivered right to your door.

The company sent me a box with the ingredients, recipes and directions. I had chosen what I thought would be a straight-forward chicken dish.

Opening that box was the easy part. Prepping the ingredients took me over 45 minutes, as there was a lot of chopping of onions, celery, carrots, potatoes. A marinade also had to be put together for the chicken. The directions allowed 20 minutes for the prep. It took me over 45.

The end result was very good but my takeaway was it was a long run for a short slide. I never did it again, until a few weeks ago when I had the chance to revisit the world of meal kits.

Sarah Jones, a longtime Minneapolis friend, invited me to watch a few movies up for awards and to have dinner. Her sons had given her a few months of Hello Fresh, the top subscription meal kit in the country, so I was very curious.

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She is the first to admit she is not a cook so was excited to try this. The dinner she had chosen was Chicken and Bacon-filled Ravioli with Mushrooms. I was instructed to stay out of the way as she had to "concentrate." With step-by-step instructions on a laminated recipe card, she laid out all the ingredient packets that were included, clearly labeled, on the counter. Water for the pasta was started, produce washed, mushrooms trimmed and sliced, a shallot chopped, a tomato diced for a sauce.

"I'm not a confident cook so I follow directions exactly. This is a learning experience for me," she said. Jones also frequently consulted photos that accompanied the instructions to get a clearer picture of how ingredients should look. The directions estimated the prep work at about 15-20 minutes. Ha! It was more like 45. However, the end result was delicious. Friend Sarah did a great job.

HelloFresh Chicken and Bacon-filled Ravioli with Mushrooms
The final result from a HelloFresh chicken and bacon-filled ravioli with mushrooms meal kit.
Holly Ebel / Special to the Post

Her impressions were interesting and likely not unusual for those who use these type of services. "The prepping time is underestimated, especially if you're not an experienced cook," she said. "There are also a lot of chicken choices and I would wish for more protein variety. Fish was also lacking as a choice. There was also not enough variety in vegetables but heavy on the potatoes.

"Overall it is a great service," she said, "and I really did eat more healthfully. Also, as a widow, I was able to usually get two meals out of one. Doing this was a great experience, educational and a lot of fun. I won't renew as it's getting to be grilling season and that's my preferred way of cooking."

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Meal subscription services have been a real force in the food industry, with over 150 currently offering the service. Most popular are Hello Fresh, Blue Apron and Home Chef. Over 1 billion meals were delivered last year, likely driven by the pandemic but interestingly, there is now a slowdown for their services. The reasons vary but are not surprising: increasing costs of food sources, shipping, and consumers budgeting their food dollars.

In addition, many who used these are now more comfortable with cooking, thanks to the meal kit experience. All offer a variety of menu choices but have also had to explore how to keep attracting, as well as keeping, users. They have added breakfasts, brunches, lunches, quick meals, appetizers as well as Carb Smart and Calorie Smart. Nearly every diet is represented.

These services are not cheap. Generally they start at $60 and go up from there, depending on the order. Now many are also offering deep discounts on first orders or for signing up.

While they all tout this is "cooking and eating made simple," spoiler alert; not quite. They take time, but the end result is worth the effort.

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Grocery stores have also jumped on the meal kit bandwagon. Check and you'll see meals packaged and ready to go into the oven from chicken to pot roast to fish (mostly salmon). Catering by Design has for years offered entrees to take home and bake, quick and easy, and all the prep work done by owner/chef Jeff Windt and his staff. Just turn on your oven.

Regardless of the slowdown, these services started a trend that likely is not going away. Though currently in a period of adjustment, they offer subscribers high-quality ingredients and menus created by professional chefs and nutritionists. Right now is a good time to give one of them a try.

Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to life@postbulletin.com .

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Related Topics: FOODRECIPESHOLLY EBEL
Opinion by Holly Ebel
Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to life@postbulletin.com.
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