How to Choose Between Grocery Delivery, Meal Kits and a Prepared Meal Subscription – CNET

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If you’ve been on the hunt for a little help in the kitchen, meal delivery services are waiting in the wings. There are dozens to choose from, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. If you’re wondering which is a better deal or which kind of delivery service offers more convenience, I’m here to break down all three types: grocery deliverymeal kits and premade meal subscriptions.

I’ve tested dozens of grocery and meal delivery services, which has allowed me to get up close and personal with the cost, level of convenience and general pros and cons associated with each. The various types of services all provide an assist of some sort to the time-strapped home cook, but one may be much better than another for your habits, routine, taste and budget.

I’ll share what I’ve learned during my more than five years of ordering, cooking, reheating and eating. Though food delivery services come in dozens of niche varieties — think gourmet snack box subscriptions, wine clubs and others — for this comparison we’ll look at three of the most popular categories: meal kits, prepared meals and grocery delivery. 

First, a quick description of each type of meal delivery service and how they operate.

Meal kits

ingredients for fish meal kit

Meal kits include all the ingredients to make a dinner for two people or more. 

David Watsky/CNET

These services send all the ingredients, often premeasured and sometimes even prechopped or processed, to be easily cooked into homemade dinners. Popular options include Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Sunbasket and Gobble

Read moreAre Meal Kits Worth It? They Are If You Do This

Prepared meal subscription

Fresh n' Lean meals

Prepared meals need only be heated and eaten. Most can be frozen for whenever your hunger strikes. 

Fresh n’ Lean

These services send fully prepared meals either fresh or frozen that will generally only require heating, plating and eating, with no cooking needed. Fresh N Lean, Mosaic Foods and CookUnity are among some of the more popular services in 2023. The meals come either fresh or frozen to be eaten or popped in the freezer for later. 

Grocery delivery 

hungryroot box of groceries

Grocery subscriptions are another popular way to cut down your weekly to-do list.

Hungryroot

Services such as Amazon Fresh, FreshDirect and Instacart offer a range of food and drink items for purchase a la carte. There are also grocery subscriptions, such as Hungryroot and Thrive Market, which for a modest monthly or yearly fee will send a curated assortment of groceries based on your tastes and preferences. 

Read moreThe Absolute Cheapest Place to Buy Groceries Online

To figure out the best way to simplify your cooking and/or grocery shopping, start by asking yourself what’s important to you. Here are several key factors to consider and how each type of service ranks.

Convenience

Winner: Prepared meals.

cookunity

Prepared meals are the biggest time-saver of the three options, but they’re also the most expensive.  

CookUnity

Though each of the three delivery options means fewer trips to the store, all is not equal once that box of provisions arrives. 

Because it’ll require no preparation or cooking, a prepared meal subscription is the most convenient of the three types. Prepared meal delivery is akin to takeout but typically comes at a lower cost per meal. Prepared meals can also be frozen for later. In fact, most are designed to be frozen, so there’s no urgency to consume them if your schedule changes. (Meal kits and fresh groceries won’t always afford you the same luxury and often have to be eaten or spun into meals within a week or so.)

Meal kits, particularly services that specialize in quick and easy meals, also offer a significant shortcut over cooking from scratch. Most meal kits offer a range of recipes that take less than 30 minutes. Gobble, for instance, sends ingredients that are often pre-chopped and sometimes even precooked to shave off steps in executing a meal.

Grocery delivery will save you the time and energy you’d normally spend at the market. Once it’s time to prepare meals, it’s mostly business as usual.  

Cost and value

Winner: Meal kits.

website page for picking meal plans

At between $5 and $8 a serving, mealtime doesn’t get much cheaper than EveryPlate’s kits. 

Screenshot by David Watsky/CNET

The cost for services within each category varies from pricier, gourmet vendors to simple, budget-friendly options. Though there’s no silver bullet system for comparing the cost of each category, meal kits and grocery delivery will give you the best value per serving. 

Meal kits may have entered the market as a costly date-night splurge, but you can now find services such as EveryPlate and Dinnerly that will run you about $6 per serving, and the meaty middle of the meal kit category — Blue Apron, HelloFresh and Home Chef — cost more like $8-$12 a serving and are cheaper the more meals and servings you order.

Grocery delivery services such as FreshDirect and Amazon Fresh pull from their own inventory and typically have prices similar to in-store shopping but will charge a monthly subscription fee and/or delivery fee of around $6 or $10 a month for the convenience of having groceries delivered. Instacart, one of the more expensive grocery delivery options, sources from your local grocery stores, marks items up an average of 10%, plus fees.

Instacart grocery delivery

Instacart may be one of the fastest grocery delivery options, but it’s also one of the most expensive. 

Instacart

To compare the price of meal kits to groceries, I calculated the total cost of one meal kit with the cost of having the same ingredients delivered by a grocery service. The results were nearly identical. When you factor in the convenience associated with meal kits, they edge out grocery delivery and present the best value of the three. 

Prepared meal services are typically the most expensive. While some budget-friendly services can be had for under $10 a serving, most cost between $10-$14 per meal. 

Variety and versatility

Winner: Grocery delivery.

fresh direct bag with groceries on table

Grocery delivery is the least limiting when it comes to variety and creativity in the kitchen.

FreshDirect

Modern meal kits and meal delivery services commonly offer as many as 50 recipes and update them regularly to limit food fatigue. That said, you’ll never have as many recipe options when you choose a meal kit service or prepared meal delivery service as you would when working with a blank slate of groceries. For people who truly crave variety and creativity in their cuisine, grocery delivery provides limitless variety and is the way to go. 

Healthiness

Winner: It all depends.

harissa-jackfruit

All three types of services can make for healthy eating habits if you order the right things. 

Mosaic Foods

Any one of the three types of services can be used to forge a healthy diet. There are prepared meal delivery services designed for folks looking to cut carbs and calories, eat more protein or manage diabetes. 

With meal kits and grocery delivery services, you may have to do a little more of the strategizing and planning yourself to execute healthy meals. If dietary discipline isn’t one of your strong suits, you might consider a healthy prepared meal delivery service to help keep you honest. Some options I tested, like ModifyHealth, even provide free dietician support with your membership.

Overall taste and quality

Winner: Tie between meal kits and grocery delivery (with one caveat).

blue apron chicken thigh in thai curry dish

Most meal kits turn into some pretty tasty dinners.

David Watsky/CNET

Taste is subjective, of course, making this a tricky category in which to pick a winner. In the end, I’d call it a tie between meal kits and grocery delivery — aka homemade meals from scratch — because, let’s be honest, freshly cooked food is almost always going to taste better than premade food. Extremely picky eaters or people with refined palates who don’t mind cooking should consider a meal kit or reliable grocery delivery service.

The big exception here is for someone who really doesn’t have much aptitude for cooking and has no desire to acquire it. If that’s the case, cooking at home might turn out meals that aren’t as tasty as the ones that come from the kitchens of the best prepared meal services.

Speaking of which, there are a lot of prepared meal services out there. Though many are great, some are just plain awful and not worth your money — trust me on this one. That’s why I suggest perusing this list of the best meal delivery services for 2023 before ordering up.

Prepared meal services make a great supplement for breakfast and lunch

smoothies

Splendid Spoon and similar meal services are geared toward breakfast and lunch.

David Watsky/CNET

Though you may not want to commit to prepared meals for all your at-home dining, certain services are great for a few meals a week. I find this to be especially convenient for breakfast and lunch. Services such as Splendid Spoon and Daily Harvest send lighter fare including smoothies, soups and grain bowls that are particularly satisfying for those morning and afternoon moments when there isn’t time to cook. 

Take advantage of a new-customer discount and then decide

every plate sign up offer

EveryPlate is my favorite budget meal kit. It’s already pretty affordable, but this is how cheap it’ll be for your first few boxes.

Screenshot by David Watsky/CNET

Most meal delivery services offer shockingly low discounts to try the food, with no long-term contracts to worry about. See our list of the best meal delivery deals right now and give one or two a whirl at a fraction of the normal price before settling on a service.

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