Sometime between college and starting out in New York as a broke media person, I became a "five-meal rotational chef," which is to say I’d make the same five simple meals at home over and over again.
Now, several years later, I regularly make stuff like pistachio-crusted catfish, winter mushroom ramen noodle soup and zesty vegetable and finger-lime pozole (I had to Google "pozole"). This is all because of an online meal-kit service called Blue Apron.
I first tested Blue Apron last winter, along with other food-in-a-box services like Plated and NatureBox. I wrote a column about it for Re/code. Plated, unfortunately, screwed up one of my orders. But Blue Apron was interesting and inexpensive enough — $60 per week for three dinners for two people — for me to keep trying it.
It’s rare that we Re/code reviewers get to test new products and services for as long as a year and really get to know the upsides and downsides of them, so this is a revisitation.
The tl;dr: My Blue Apron experience has been 90 percent positive. If you’re in a Blue Apron delivery area, want at least a couple of dinners per week planned out for you, and you don’t mind doing a lot of prep work and cooking, you should try it. But there are still some things I wish the service would improve.
Blue Apron basics
Blue Apron isn’t like Seamless or GrubHub; it doesn’t deliver takeout from a local restaurant. Instead, each week it sends customers an insulated delivery box filled with exact portions of meats, fish, vegetables, cheeses, spices, nuts, sauces and anything else that is needed for that week’s recipes. It also includes recipe cards with step-by-step directions.
It’s free to sign up, and right now there are two different subscription plans you can opt into: A couples’ plan, which includes three dinners for two people per week (a total of six meals) for $59.94, or $9.99 per meal; and a family plan, which includes portions large enough to serve four to five people, and costs about $69.92 per week, or $8.84 per serving.
In terms of delivery areas, Blue Apron currently delivers to about 85 percent of the country, as the company likes to say, which means they deliver everywhere east of the Mississippi and everywhere west of Colorado. However, Blue Apron founder and CEO Matt Salzberg says it will deliver to "all of the areas in between" within a very short time.
My grub gripe: I’m not sure why Blue Apron doesn’t offer a single-person’s plan, though my best guess is that it’s just a business decision. People living solo like to cook, too, when they’re not socializing with couples and assuring them that their children are both cute and brilliant. Just saying.
Food for thought
Now that the basics are out of the way, let’s focus on the actual food. How is it? I’ve found the quality to be very good. Blue Apron says it sources from local suppliers on both sides of the country, and for the most part, the food is fresh. You can specify whether you eat meat or fish, or if you’re vegetarian.
One of the major benefits of a service like Blue Apron is that you don’t have to buy entire bottles or bushels of ingredients for your recipes, which inevitably end up looking like moldy science projects in the fridge. All you need at home is some oil, salt and pepper; Blue Apron provides the rest.
Some of the recipes — like Bouillabaisse fish stew — seem a little out-there or unappealing, especially if you’re an unadventurous eater. But they turn out to be delicious. They taste even better with a side of swollen ego, as you pat yourself on the back for cooking it, and Insta-brag the hell out of your meal with your smartphone.
That’s not to say Blue Apron has been impeccable. On one occasion, a small packet of basil showed up brown and slimy. And in August, the noodles in a "roadside noodle" recipe congealed into a floury ball of mush as soon as we put them in the pot of boiling water (we managed to salvage the vegetables and use them with rice instead).
Still, a few meal mishaps in a year is really not bad.
My grub gripe: Putting on my "Now I live in California" hat for a moment — I wish Blue Apron was even more transparent about where its food comes from. If it’s from local farms and suppliers, why not list which ones?
Skipping deliveries, and pressure (to be) cooking
At least twice this year I’ve considered canceling my Blue Apron subscription, despite the overall positive experience. This is mostly because having the fresh batch of ingredients at home in the fridge each week creates a kind of pressure to cook, despite how insanely busy you might be. And while Blue Apron sends each ingredient in separate little packages for you, there’s still a lot of chopping, dicing, mincing and zesting involved. On average, I’d say it takes 45 minutes to make each meal.
Then there’s the issue of skipping meal deliveries. Blue Apron requires you to log in to your online account and indicate that you’d like to skip your weekly delivery — almost a full week in advance. I narrowly missed the cancellation window a couple of times, and customer service was helpful enough to still call off the upcoming delivery.
But recently, I only had two days’ notice — I had to head out of town unexpectedly for a funeral — and Blue Apron said it was too late to cancel the delivery. Really? I asked a neighborhood friend to come by and take the box so it wouldn’t go to waste.
My grub gripe: The cancellation window is easily one of the biggest drawbacks of Blue Apron.
Groceries and "instant gratification" services
While Blue Apron has been my main food squeeze for the past year, I’ve tried other services, too. That’s because Blue Apron isn’t going to fulfill all of your weekly food needs — you’ll still need to buy milk, or eggs, fruit, coffee or anything else you might consume on a regular basis.
Fortunately, the San Francisco Bay Area offers on-demand delivery services for so many different items that it’s worthy of parody, or even an entire series about the "instant gratification" economy. I’ve used Instacart a few times, like when I had the flu and going to the grocery store was just a bad idea.
And one of my new favorite services is Munchery, which delivers already-prepared meals from local chefs at prices comparable to Blue Apron’s. All you need to do is pop it in the oven and heat it up for 10 minutes.
My grub gripe: In addition to paying $60 per week for three meals for Blue Apron, it’s quite possible that you’ll have to spend just as much if not more (depending on how many are in your household) on other groceries, too. So it’s not a be-all service.
When you’re knee-deep in food-delivery options, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that at least 14 percent of households in the U.S. (17.5 million households) were determined to be "food-insecure" in 2013, according to the nonprofit group Feeding America. In other words, a lot of families go hungry each week.
One of my favorite discoveries about Blue Apron was that, each Thanksgiving, the company offers subscribers the option to donate their food boxes to families in need. These go to local food rescue organizations, like City Harvest in New York City and Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano. Around 35,000 boxes were donated this past holiday.
Blue Apron is also pretty generous about gifting its subscribers with a handful of free boxes to send to friends, for a one-week trial of the service. While it’s an obvious marketing ploy, it’s also a nice way to treat a friend who you think could use it.
My grub gripe: I’d like to see Blue Apron offer more options to donate boxes, not just around Thanksgiving.
The bottom line on Blue Apron
If you like to cook, don’t have too many dietary restrictions, can handle the weekly commitment and are fine with the fact that you’ll likely still have to buy food elsewhere, Blue Apron is a no-brainer.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.