From top left to right: (Sun Basket) Turkey Tacos with Roasted-Red Pepper Salsa, Chicken Breast with Honey-Roast Parsnips and Carrots, Warm Couscous Salad with Delicata Squash, (Green Chef) Mustard-Roasted Steak, Chard Paneer, Tuscan White Bean Soup, (The Purple Carrot) Black Bean Burgers, Roasted Vegetables with Quinoa, Saag Paneer, (Plated) Tartines with Squash, Tuscan Ribollita Vegetable Stew, Cheesy Chicken Enchiladas, (Gobble) Red Kuri Squash Fajitas, Moroccan Pistachio Chicken, Chicken Carbonara with Gemelli Pasta, (Blue Apron) Rice Noodles with Coconut-Matcha Broth, Beet & Barley Risotto, Roasted Sweet Potato and Carmelized Onion Pizza

A friend of mine posted on Facebook if any of her friends used services like Blue Apron. I had been considering it for sometime, but just never took the next step of committing to an order. With some renewed curiosity, I decided now was the time to look into a meal delivery service.

What I found immediately is how competitive the market is with a ton of companies trying to provide prep-ready uncooked meals for our busy lives. Since this blog and our decisions at home involve cooking with organic and mostly sustainable ingredients, I narrowed down the services I would try. All of the services here have a focus on local ingredients, though that is very loosely defined in some cases. Few services offer only organic and some dabble by occasionally including an organic ingredient.

I wanted to try a wide range of companies. I included the big ones: Blue Apron and Plated. Part of the experience included a vegan only service (The Purple Carrot) and an organic only service (Green Chef.)

Because the market is so competitive, you can get some amazing deals, at least for your first week of meals. The lowest I paid was only $9.95 for shipping only and 3 meals for 2 for free from Green Chef. Most give you the first two meals free.

Before this endeavor I read several reviews with most of them focusing on one service and every blogger I read had received meals for free. This review is not influenced by free food. The following is a review from someone who actually bought the food with his own money.

Here we go!

Sun Basket

What I Paid: $38.94

Offer: $30 off the first order.

Sun Basket and Green Chef were the two I was most interested in since they both focus on organic and small farm producers, but of the two I found Sun Basket’s meal choices to be slightly better.

The box arrived with instructions on how to recycle and return reusable items back to the company. Each meal was packed in its own bag to make it easy to pull from the refrigerator.

From top left to right: Sun Basket, Green Chef, The Purple Carrot, Plated, Gobble, Blue Apron

A stack of recipe cards arrived in the box with a full ingredients list and portions making it useful in case you want to make the dish again. I really like how they had another card focusing on one of the farmers they work with. The personal story, aka “supermarket pastoral” as author Michael Pollan calls it, is a nice touch since I have no personal connection to the source of the ingredients like I do when going to a farmers’ market.

Preparing the Chicken Breast with Honey-Roast Parsnips and Carrots recipe.

Sun Basket offers seven options each week. It’s a good mix of vegetarian and meat plus they share if it is Paleo, Gluten Free or Soy Free. I found the Sun Basket meals to be more to our family’s taste and all three of the recipes we tried tasted great. Not one was a disappointment.

My only issue is I wish they shared more about their ingredient sources. Green Chef offers more details on their website about suppliers and I would like to see the same from Sun Basket.

Green Chef

UPDATE: They have since added vegan and vegetarian box options. However, I highly do not recommend them as they do not send out notifications to check your weekly selections, so you may get a surprise box like I did without any notice. Others like Sun Basket, Hello Fresh and Purple Carrot all send out weekly emails asking to review the coming week selections before sending you anything.

What I Paid: $9.95 (shipping only)

Offer: Initially Order 2 Meals and get 4 Free Meals free. When checking out on the website they offered all 6 meals to me for free since I was in a geographic area where others are using their service.

After an impressive first week of meal delivery with Sun Basket, I was a bit surprised by how mediocre the next week was with Green Chef. The meal arrived in a box that was better packed with cold packs than Sun Basket, but the ingredients were put in the box without grouping them for each recipe. So every time I went to make something, I was looking throughout the refrigerator like any normal night cooking at home. I was a bit spoiled by Sun Basket who put each meal’s ingredients in a brown paper bag.

Food prep is a big help with meal delivery. Green Chef’s organic ingredients are nicely separated and labeled.

The sheets Green Chef provided for cooking the meal had simple step-by-step photos making it really easy for new home cooks. Unfortunately, they didn’t give you the recipe so you could make the meal again; though, it wasn’t difficult to figure out the recipe with the ingredients all measured out.

I made three meals and all of them were okay, but nothing I’d ever make again. Perhaps it was a weak week or I picked wrong. My wife kept telling me “when is this week over. None of these meals are good.”

The other issue we had with Green Chef were the portions. We didn’t really mind as I don’t make big meals, but I would guess most Americans wouldn’t be too happy getting a steak dinner for two with half a steak. Or a meal that was a vegetable soup with a French sandwich roll to split. None of the meals really felt big enough for dinner, more like lunch portions.

I did however like how Green Chef is focused on organic ingredients and their website was the best at showing the source of the foods. Unfortunately, nothing looked that great recipe wise and I decided to cancel my membership.

If you are Paleo, they do offer it as an option and you may also be happier with their recipe selection than I was. So give them a try, just know portions are small.

The Purple Carrot

What I Paid: $68.00

Offer: I was supposed to receive $20 off but the discount was never applied to my order. They are still offering a discount off your first order, but please make sure you get the discount when checking your bill.

My wife and I were really excited about receiving our order from The Purple Carrot, since there was a recipe for a black bean burger my wife had been eying since she made me aware of this service.

I should note that The Purple Carrot is a vegan only service. What also caught our attention was the recent collaboration with New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. A lot of my personal food changes came about from a combination of the documentary Food Inc. and Bittman’s 2008 article titled Rethinking The Meat Guzzler.

Unfortunately, our first meal kind of crumbled to pieces, literally. The black bean burger was just too wet and became quite the mess in the pan and was almost inedible, but we decided to not toss it and order pizza. In the end, it didn’t taste too bad, but was not a positive experience and has the unfortunate conclusion of being the only failed meal during this whole endeavor.

While edible, the Black Bean Burger wasn’t as pretty as the picture on the recipe card.

It was a good thing the next two meals ended up being big hits. The other was a roasted vegetable and quinoa dish and an Indian spiced tofu dish that we both really liked.

The black bean burger situation aside, I really liked The Purple Carrot and they provided beautiful recipe cards along with detailed instructions on how to prepare each recipe. They also used a good amount of organic ingredients. I’m watching to see how Mark Bittman’s influence continues to impact the recipes they offer.

The Purple Carrot had the most beautifully designed step-by-step visual and written instructions. Great for new cooks.

Plated

What I Paid: $48

Offer: Get to 2 free plates with purchase of 4. So basically you pay for 2 of the 3 meals they send with each meal serving two people.

Plated’s website talked about local producers and sustainably sourced ingredients. Like most of the food services they knew the right buzzwords and brought together home cooking with the other trend of farm-to-table.

The meals we received were pretty good. Not one was a miss and I really liked some of their vegetarian options, which were better than other services. The Tuscan Ribollita Vegetable Stew with White Beans and Kale and Squash Tartines were both delicious.

The Plated box did arrive with one minor issue. The butternut squash bag had a slit in it and several cubed squash pieces were roaming freely in the box. I contacted their help team and they made note of the issue. I said I was fine replacing it myself since it was $2 in product and I needed it the next evening. Considering all the food sent to our home over 7 weeks, one bag of cut squash was a minor casualty. The rest of the ingredients from Plated arrived fine.

Out of a total of 18 meals only one ingredients issue happened with a small bag of cut butternut squash.

Overall, I liked Plated but it didn’t make my list of ones to keep. I would love to see them do an all-organic offering, as I do like their meal selection. They also are the only other one with a mobile app making it easy to select meals or skip weeks (Blue Apron also has a mobile app, but there are limitations I didn’t care for regarding meal selection that are mentioned below.)

 Gobble

What I Paid: $23.90

Offer: First four meals free. You pay for one of the meals in a three meals for two people plan.

Similar to Green Chef, Gooble doesn’t share the recipe details for the dishes you make. They also provided the least amount of information about each recipe. For example, there was a cream sauce for Chicken Carbonara and some salsa for a fajita dish that came in containers with no information about what was in them. If you like the recipes, you’re out of luck with replicating them yourself without some guess work.

Individually wrapped and sealed ingredients along with everything showing up on your doorstep is a great convenience.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), the recipes were okay but nothing spectacular so I didn’t feel like I was missing out with recipe details. It’s not that the meals were bad. They just were not good enough to bother making again.

The recipes come packed in separate ingredient baggies and each recipes is bagged in its own separate large bag, making it easy to grab a recipe for cooking each night after work.

Gobble used the least amount of packaging material of all the services; though, it was enough to keep everything fresh and ready to put in the refrigerator when it arrived on our doorstep.

Blue Apron

What I Paid: $39.96

Offer: Two free meals on your first week’s order. You pay for two meals for two people. They give you the third meal for two people for free.

I almost didn’t order from Blue Apron for this review. I figured they were big and enough had been written about them already. Plus they didn’t fit my initial criteria, meal delivery services focusing on organic and/or sustainable small farm sources. Plated and Gobble both moved me away from that criteria too, so I opened up to see how the largest company in this segment does things.

There was a small carton of milk labeled organic. To be fair they don’t focus on organic, but it was nice to see at least a solitary attempt was made. All of the ingredients were in good shape with nothing damaged or bruised.

Blue Apron’s recipe sheets are full back-and-front pages showing the full recipe details and photographed step-by-step instructions are easy to follow along. Every recipe I made came out flawlessly.

The food all tasted great and they were really adventurous with one meal, a squash and onion pizza. That one took some work and more time than most delivery service meals. I found most meals take 30-minutes or less. The pizza from Blue Apron took almost a hour. Fortunately, I have a pizza oven that did the cooking faster at a 700-degree heat.

Blue Apron locks you out of some selections after you’ve made other choices. They were the only one to do this.

My main gripe with Blue Apron was during the meal selection process. Every service gives you around 4-8 meals to select from. Blue Apron was the only one that excluded certain meals after selecting other meals. They group your combinations and this forces you to select more of a group of recipes than say your three favorite recipes.

In Closing

Meal delivery cook at-home service is a great trend and one I hope survives the eventual Silicon Valley investment bubble. There are a lot of competitors in the market today offering very similar experiences, including some I didn’t get to review like Freshly and Hello Fresh.

It’s real food. You do the cooking and like all home cooking you control what goes into your meal.

It is definitely a luxury service. You have to have the luxury of paying for the convenience and the luxury of having time to cook at home. However, if you already do a lot of home cooking and don’t mind the additional $20-$35 fee each week that gets you meal planning, shopping, and delivery right at your doorstep then you won’t mind the cost of cooking this way.

You’ll also need to have some kitchen equipment like pans, knives, oils and on occasion a food processor.

Overall, I found I really like what meal delivery has to offer. I cook at home five to six nights a week already and having a service or two I love to select from on occasion makes planning considerably easier. In the end, I kept Sun Basket and The Purple Carrot active. Their recipe selection, quality and ingredients fit our family best. I’ll continue to watch how the industry matures and I definitely recommend trying a few services out since you get some great introductory week deals that work to your benefit.

Enjoy! Please share in the comments below any experiences you had or plan to have.

An Appreciation for Home Cooking Begins at Home

On April 26, 2013, in Family, by Chris Baccus
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I was reading an interview with food author Michael Pollan earlier today. He did an interview with Grub Street NY as part of the promotional tour for his new book Cooked. The interview talked a lot about Pollan’s experience with food through his family and mostly from his mother.

This got me thinking about my own personal experience with food, especially the early days.  I grew up in the late 1970s and 80s when the growth of convenience food was taking root as more families moved to two-income households and family meals cooked by mom was becoming less and less of a normal thing.

In our house it was still the norm. My mom stayed at home. Mostly that is when my parents weren’t separated or later divorced; though, by the time of the divorce I was 16 and I was pretty much done being raised by my parents. The last part of “living at home” was with my grandparents, but that’s a whole other story, and yes home cooking continued at grandma’s house too.

Back to the food.

With a stay at home mom and one who was half Italian and half French, a home cooked meal was pretty much every night.  We had a lot of typical things from the 1970s and 80s so it wasn’t some locavore, sustainable farming exercise.  There were a lot of canned vegetables, especially corn and green beans but I never minded. I loved both and would in fact come home from school sometimes and eat a whole can of corn that I would cook then add a  little butter to it.

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Still there were issues of Gourmet and Bon Appetite magazines that arrived in the mail from time to time.  This was both good and bad. I recall one dish my mom used to make that I never liked, though I do now. She made a ground beef and rice stuffed bell pepper.  She might as well have served me calf’s liver and boiled brussel sprouts.

So there were definitely moments when I could’ve done without Gourmet magazine’s influence, but for the most part home cooking was instilled into what we did at home as a family.

My mom also became known for a particular dish that to this day comes up in family conversation – lasagna. “Barbara’s lasagna” is legendary.  I have the recipe on an index card in my recipe folder; though, I’ve gone my own way with it and make mine in a similar though different manner. Still I’m sure side-by-side my mom’s would win.

387715_2806650369933_124449867_nIt’s that pride that comes from making a stellar dish that eventually made me love cooking. Without a home where that happens, one misses what the joy of cooking is really all about. It’s not about it being a chore; though, yes it can at times feel that way. No it’s about making that dish your family and friends love. Everyone lit up when lasagna was made or another favorite family dish, goulash.  No one ever gets excited when some pre-packaged convenience food from the freezer is thawed and heated up.

Some things have changed with time and it’s a bit different in our home. We mostly buy from local farms and what we can’t find there we buy organic.  It’s also maybe once every 3 months that we have a canned vegetable. We have raised our boys on eating fresh fruits and vegetables with every meal so our kids eat tomatoes, bell peppers, green beans, carrots and just about every kind of fresh fruit.

Home cooking is fun; it’s memorable, but most of all it’s an important family experience I did eventually come to appreciate more and more as I carry the tradition on today with my own family.

Thanks mom.

 

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Michael Pollan at SMU

On March 2, 2012, in Food, by Chris Baccus
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Michael Pollan at the afternoon student Q&A

I had the pleasure yesterday of seeing author Michael Pollan twice.  First at a student Q&A session for a hour in the late afternoon and then later that evening when he gave his talk about Food Rules at the Tate Lecture Series.

As always, Pollan was insightful, thought provoking, and funny.  He entered the stage as if he just returned from grocery shopping carrying about 5 plastic bags full of food from the local Tom Thumb market.  We later learned the contents included things like breakfast cereal bars with the milk processed in them, a couple of the new sugar waters, and white whole wheat Wonder Bread with 37 ingredients.

Pollan’s talk was basically clearing the air around the confusion of how we approach eating.  To maintain the Western Diet, we are constantly looking to demonize one ingredient or nutrient like fat, salt, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, whatever. It always changes.  With this constant shift of “if we only get rid of this one thing the Western Diet we can eat whatever we want.”  Of course, this approach has many flaws and has caused such poor performing situations like the low-fat craze in the 1980s when we made everything low-fat or fat-free, but then replaced the fat with tons of sugar.

Second balcony We also learned about what’s next in the food industry.  Pollan, who reads the food trade publications, found the next opportunity is the addition of more brain foods that are designed to increase our ability to think, remember, sharpen our mental capacity. And the name of the target audience for this new market: “The Cognitive Decline Market.”  So the next time you see someone drinking a food with brain enhancing supplements, just remember to go easy on their ability to reason their food decisions.

He ended with a few learnings from the best nutritional scientist we’ve had in our history. Grandmothers. And our grandmothers are basically culture, showing what we have learned through the ages to inform our society’s decisions.  Culture has taught us many great food rules and you can learn some of them on this video:

I personally disagree with one he shared last night:

“Don’t get your food from where you get your car’s fuel from.”

Obviously, Pollan is not familiar with fine gas station tacos so prevalent here in Texas. Perhaps next time he is in Dallas a stop at Fuel City or The Green Spot will change the rule.

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A Case for “Special Occasion Food”

On September 30, 2011, in Food, by Chris Baccus
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An occassional exception

 

I predominantly make sustainable food choices.  Eating three to four times a week vegetarian, buying my food from local, small farms, and shopping organic when local options are unavailable make up how our family eats.  A big part of being sustainable is avoiding processed and fast foods.

That said it is great making better food decisions, but having a rigid relationship with food takes the enjoyment out of eating and enjoying food should be part of one’s total food experience.  What an excessive fad diet culture and nutrient of the moment fanaticism has created is a food culture in America that forgets eating is supposed to be an enjoyable part of life.

So while our family has reduced eating out, make considered choices when buying food, and have moved to a diet that’s mostly vegetarian with some grass-fed, pasture raised, small farm meats we still do enjoy a break so that we are not so unpleasant that we abstain from moments for “special occasion food.”

What does “special occasion food” mean?

It is a phrase I’m borrowing from author Michael Pollan. “There is nothing wrong with special occasion foods, as long as every day is not a special occasion,” Mr. Pollan writes. “Special occasion foods offer some of the great pleasures of life, so we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of them, but the sense of occasion needs to be restored.” (source NYTimes.)

He is not talking about food at a wedding or party, though they are occasions with food. Pollan is talking about how our relationship with food has become unhealthy by eating fast food and snacks as a normal behavior and that transversely we who make more healthy decisions can become just as unhealthy in our thinking if we deny ourselves foods we enjoy. Just do it from time to time and have a healthy perspective even when making an occasional (there’s that word again) exception from eating sustainable food.

So I have no issue having an In-N-Out burger or a gas station taco from time-to-time knowing that 95% of the time our family is eating food that is responsible to the environment and the ethics of our society.

Now back to finishing up my Double-Double.

Supermarket Pastoral: An Introduction

On August 26, 2011, in Food, by Chris Baccus
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What is “Supermarket Pastoral”?

A full definition is here on the NY Times website. In brief, it’s a phrase developed by author Michael Pollan referring to companies marketing the bucolic life of our food’s origins through their use of language on packaging.

I read a lot of supermarket pastoral as I frequently visit small, health focused grocery stores and of course the best known of these is Whole Foods. We see this packaging everywhere with scenes of cows, farmers, and rolling hills adorning our food as if it comes from the most wholesome place on earth. Of course, Pollan’s seminal work The Omnivore’s Dilemma looked at where our food comes from and exposed some of the untruths about food origin.

I thought I would profile some Supermarket Pastoral examples on this blog as I find them. Not to always discredit them, but rather to have some fun with how our food is being marketed to us.

I was in a small organic food market in Traverse City last week on vacation where they featured some small farm meats – Oryana Natural Food Market. Each farmer was nicely featured in the meat section educating consumers about the source of their food to the most personal of levels – photos of the farmers.

While the pastoral writing above is a way to build relationships with source and consumer I ran into a more common Supermarket Pastoral example at Kroger the next day. This package is more to what Pollan talks about. Giving our food the idea of care and grandeur through language instead of the reality of mass production farming, or fishing in this case.

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