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It's My Dinner-in-a-Box!

Online meal-kit services look to spice up your foodie life.

Food-delivery services aren’t a new idea. You might recall grocery and pet-food delivery services that didn’t exactly survive the last tech boom. But a new crop of food-delivery services are looking to add value beyond just delivering the goods.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been using Blue Apron and Plated, which send a set number of uncooked dinner kits each week for around $10 per meal, with the proper amount of fresh ingredients already measured out for you.

The benefit of these relatively new services is threefold: First, the food kits come straight to your door, so they eliminate the need to grocery shop (sort of). They also help keep the produce in your fridge from getting brown and soupy. What I mean by that is, you’re only storing and using the exact amount of parsley or cilantro or whatever it is you need, rather than buying a whole bushel of green stuff you don’t need.

And they force you to get adventurous in the kitchen. Vietnamese bun cha? I’ve ordered it as takeout, but never cooked it — until now. Mexican mole sauce? I knew it involved chocolate in some way, but now I know how to make it.

I did find that I couldn’t fulfill all my food needs with these kits. They don’t offer a lot of flexibility. You can indicate whether you’re vegetarian or a meat-eater, but if your diet is really strict due to allergies, weight-loss goals, diabetes or religious beliefs, these probably aren’t going to work for you.

And I still had to grocery shop. The kits are really just about dinner. You’ll need your own oil, salt and pepper. And I still shopped for eggs, milk and snacks. (There are plenty of grocery-delivery services out there, too, if that’s more in line with what you’re looking for.)

Blue Apron charges $10 per meal per person and offers free shipping. It’s only available in “states east of the Mississippi and west of Colorado,” as the company puts it.

You can order up to three different meals a week, with enough servings for up to six people. My weekly order of three meals for two people came to $60 per week.

My experience with Blue Apron was very good. The box arrived on a Tuesday, and sat outside my door most of the day until I got home at night, but fortunately both Blue Apron and Plated ship their food in insulated boxes, so the food won’t spoil. The raw ingredients for my meals were packaged in labeled plastic bags.

I ended up cooking six meals over two weeks, ranging from a salmon pastrami sandwich on rye bread to beef ramen noodles. Most took around 40 minutes to cook, and while they seemed ambitious at first, they weren’t difficult to make.

When I asked about freshness and quality, Blue Apron said its food is shipped from different local fulfillment centers, and that the company tries to work with local, family-run businesses and farms. It says it sources meat from a place called Pat LaFrieda, which also provides the meat for Mario Batali’s Eataly, and that its noodles come from a well-known noodle maker called Sun Noodle.

Once you sign up for Blue Apron, you’re automatically enrolled in weekly deliveries. So, what happens if you’re not going to be home for a week? Technically, you can skip a week, provided that you opt out six days in advance. But Blue Apron doesn’t make this very obvious. Plated, on the other hand, sent helpful reminder emails a day before the cancellation deadline.

Plated works differently from Blue Apron in a few ways: It offers an optional subscription service for $10 a month, which means your meals will cost $12 per person per meal. Nonmembers pay $15 per meal. Plated ships to around 95 percent of the country, but isn’t yet available in Colorado and some parts of Texas because those states are too far from the company’s current facilities.

Plated also offers more flexibility in terms of your meal choices and delivery schedule. Each week, it presents seven meals online, which you can select a la carte, instead of the preset three meals that Blue Apron chooses for you. Orders placed by Sunday arrive between Monday and Wednesday, and orders placed by midnight on Wednesday are delivered between Thursday and Saturday.

Like Blue Apron, Plated aims to offer meals that are healthy but not your usual fare, and it says that it tries to source as many ingredients as possible from regional, family-run farms and businesses.

Plated’s meal offerings were as creative, if not more so, than Blue Apron’s. There were little things about Plated that I liked, too — garlic cloves were already peeled, and ingredients for each meal were packaged together so I couldn’t mix up items for different meals.

But I ended up cooking only two meals from Plated, because my order got screwed up.

After signing up as a nonmember (each meal costing $15 per person), I selected two different meals, or four servings total: A redfish dish and a vegetarian tagliatelle pasta dish. A few days later, the Plated box arrived, filled with the raw ingredients. As with Blue Apron, it contained handy recipe sheets for my chosen meals. But I was dismayed when I discovered that the ingredients — a hunk of beef, some chard and cannellini beans — were items meant for other recipes.

Plated said it has a week-to-week error rate of just one percent to two percent, and that it seems my shipment was an isolated error that week. The company offered me a refund on my previous order.

But when I went to reorder the tagliatelle dish, I found out that I’d have to order at least four new servings, since that’s the minimum delivery requirement for Plated (totaling $60). Since the weekend was approaching, and I knew we weren’t eating at home, I opted not to reorder more Plated meals for that week.

If I had to choose between the two right now, I’d stick with Blue Apron, because of price and quality of service.

I do wish that Blue Apron had more meal-selection options, or made it easier to skip meal deliveries, the way Plated does. But Blue Apron does say that it has started to roll out more personalized menu options to select users, so it might improve in that area.

Update: An earlier version of this column said that Plated offers six different meal options per week. Plated offers seven meal options per week. The article has been changed to correct this.

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