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Hands-on with Home Chef: We taste test a meal delivery service in real life

Are meal kit ingredient delivery services worth it? Why would you order a box containing stuff you can buy at the supermarket? Intrepid fast foodie David Gewirtz puts actual cooking to the test (and his conclusions are surprising).

Video: Healthy meals delivered to your doorstep

the guide

The 11 Best Meal Kits That Deliver to Your Door

Looking to eat healthier, spend less time in the kitchen, and/or get the kids more involved? There's a meal delivery service that's perfect for you.

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Home Chef (along with competitors Blue Apron, Plated, HelloFresh, and others) is one of a growing number of so-called meal delivery services. The first thing you need to get your head around is that they're not meal delivery services, they're ingredient delivery services. Turning those ingredients into food is entirely your responsibility.

Read also: How HelloFresh uses big data to cook up millions of custom meals

My wife and I have been using Home Chef now for four weeks. Every week, a box from Home Chef arrives at our doorstep. Inside are three bags, corresponding to the three meals we've selected, as well three proteins (usually steak, fish, and chicken) sitting under some ice packs. Everything is packed in an insulated container.

The packing materials, for many, could be the first objection to Home Chef and the other meal delivery services. Because these meals come in cartons with packing materials, you'll have an increased trash load to manage. Since we get so many of our purchases from Amazon Prime, one more shipping carton doesn't make our weekly box processing all that much harder, but for some of you, it might be a deal breaker.

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We're not sure which is more scary: David with power tools or David cooking.

The online experience

You might be wondering what a food review article is doing in ZDNet, but keep in mind that these services depend on the web to provide their storefront to consumers.

Beyond the basic web presence these sites offer, they also have to create menus that meet with the logistics involved in home delivery, along with all the supply chain operations necessary to keep food fresh, pick and pack boxes unique to each customer, and source and manage vendors.

Normally, those logistics are never seen by customers -- unless they screw up. In our case, Home Chef screwed up one meal on our first trial order, providing the wrong set of ingredients to accompany the protein source, and the wrong cooking directions for one of our three meals. To their credit, they made good on the mistake and gave us a free meal the next week.

Read also: Kroger buys Home Chef meal-kit delivery service - CNET

When I called the company before placing my first order, I was told that each box came with absolutely everything you need to cook each provided meal. That's not strictly true. You're expected to have salt, pepper, cooking oil, and a variety of pots and pans.

This, in fact, is a bit of a peeve I have about Home Chef. It may reflect my lack of cooking skill, rather than any limit to Home Chef. I am quite good at cooking eggs, making sandwiches, grilling hot dogs and burgers, and ordering from Uber Eats. I excel at drive-throughs. But cooking actual meals with complex recipes -- that's a skill I never developed.

Each week, a few days prior to getting your food, Home Chef sends out an email reminding you of what's coming. Each recipe requires different cooking utensils. Our most recent -- steak with horseradish-herb cream, potatoes pressé, and wilted spinach -- required a muffin tin for the potatoes.

If I were still single, there's no way I would have had a cupcake pan. Fortunately, my wife had one, so we were able to make the meal. What I'd like to see is Home Chef include a list of gear required to complete the menu as part of that weekly email. The company is fundamentally a data-driven service, so it shouldn't be all that difficult to add those details to the notification email.

Pricing and delivery

But let's get back to how the service works, what you get, and what it costs. Home Chef offers a variety of subscription levels based on how much food you want delivered. We get two portions of each meal, and get three meals a week. Each meal portion is $9.99. If there are more people in your family, you can order more portions, and if you want to cook more nights in a week, you can order more meals.

We decided to start with the default, so we get six portions and spend about $60 a week. The available menu varies week by week. You can choose from about 10 different items, depending on your taste preferences. You can pre-schedule your meals about five weeks out. If you don't pick your meals prior to the shipping day, Home Chef will chose for you.

Read also: Amazon Meal Kits now serving in Seattle - CNET

When you set up your account, you pick the day of the week you want your meals to be delivered each week. In the case of a holiday, Home Chef delivers either just before or after the day you select. They're quite good in letting you know via an email update when they're changing the delivery schedule.

Making the meals

So far, we've cooked 11 meals. My wife cooked eight, and I cooked three. Because we have considerably different skill sets, we have considerably different opinions of the process. Here are the meals we've made so far:

  • Harissa chicken tagine
  • Teriyaki ginger-glazed salmon with stir-fried bok choy and carrots
  • Chile Rellenos chicken with chipotle butternut-carrot mash
  • Prosciutto pasta primavera with yellow squash and toasted walnuts
  • Steak Wellington with roasted carrots and mushroom demi-glace
  • Classic french green peppercorn pork tenderloin with mashed carrots and roasted asparagus
  • Chicken with basil-pecorino cream sauce and roasted red potatoes
  • Salmon with brown-butter tomato relish and wild rice
  • French onion pork chop with glazed carrots pignolo
  • Steak with horseradish-herb cream and potatoes pressé and wilted spinach
  • Ricotta and mozzarella cheese tart with blistered grape tomatoes and arugula-caramelized onion salad

My wife finds making the meals to be kind of fun (her own words). These are essentially meal kits, in that all the parts are in the package, but assembly is required. Because she doesn't have to plan the meals, or run to the store (or stores) to source all the various ingredients for some of the more complex meals, and it's all just in the bag, she doesn't mind cooking the meals.

She says, "It's kind of cool making meals I would probably never attempt otherwise. Some of them pretty fancy, from a kit. I just use the bag the ingredients came in to put the veggie peels and trash in, and it makes cleanup easy. I'm usually jazzed by the results. I'm like, 'Ooh, I made Steak Wellington.'"

Read also: Drone deliveries in the US could happen 'within months' - TechRepublic

By contrast, I have found myself in a generally foul mood by the time I've finished my hour-plus of meal prep. The company claims all meals take a half hour. They lie. They take Denise 45 minutes to an hour and me, well, an hour or more. One meal, the one with the potatoes mentioned above, was very poorly timed, because the potatoes took far longer to cook than the recipe specified.

Anyway, I'm in a generally foul mood, because I don't find the directions complete enough. There are no pictures of individual ingredients, so it's not clear sometimes what a particular ingredient looks like. For example, one instruction line said "Peel and mince shallot." What is mince? What is a shallot?

After a while, the process of elimination helped me figure out that a shallot was like an onion and Google helped me find out how to mince (which is really chopping into small pieces -- not that they'd actually say "chop into small pieces.")

This is an important point. You need to do the food prep. They include the ingredients, but if you're having sliced carrots in your meal, you have to peel and slice the carrots yourself. They don't come cut up for you.

Another direction contained the phrase: "Trim off woody ends of asparagus." What are the woody ends? Again, to Google. In that same recipe, there was some instruction where you were supposed to use demi-glace and sherry. From the packages, it wasn't clear which was the demi-glace and which was the sherry, but by the end, I only had two packages, so I threw them both in.

But here's the thing: I made something described as, "A creamy demi-glace sauce studded with shallots and briny green peppercorns accent tender pork perfectly. Savory mashed carrots and roasted asparagus provide hearty and delicious sides." Seriously. I made that. Me. And it was outrageous.

I also made something, called Harissa chicken tagine, described as having "a touch of the exotic, but also large dollops of the familiar: A sauce of tomatoes and zucchini transformed by a dash of harissa, a red pepper paste from Tunisia that brings smoky notes, adding complexity." It was really delicious.

Previously, my personal best was throwing chunks of ham into a pan with scrambled eggs.

While I was preparing and cooking the food from the kits Home Chef provides, I had a feeling of desperation, rage, and impending doom. That said, having eaten the meals (and handing them to my wife and having them actually be good), there was definitely a rather pleasant feeling of pride and accomplishment.

Portions and food quality

I am a big guy. I like big portions. However, eating big portions isn't healthy and I've reluctantly learned to practice portion control over the years. There is really a certain amount of food you're supposed to eat so you've had enough, but not feel full enough to pass out.

The portions provided by Home Chef are just enough. That's it. They're filling, but not to the point where you might not want a late-night snack. The amount of protein (the most expensive part of the product for them to provide) is adequate for what most dietitians recommend in a protein portion. There is never enough for leftovers.

I've ended each meal feeling satisfied enough to not feel ripped off or feel the need to rush into the kitchen and forage for cold cuts.

Read also: Here's how 3D food printers are changing what we eat - TechRepublic

Food quality is quite good. A few of the meals were actually insanely delicious, most are very tasty, and only one or two bordered on meh. Definitely beat the heck out of the fast food it's been replacing.

I wouldn't say the foods are low calorie (we've had carbs and some cream sauces), but they are certainly more healthy than fast food. In almost all cases, you get a protein and a vegetable, and sometimes also some carbs. It's very well balanced.

We had one pork chop meal that was very tough, but otherwise the quality was as good or better than we would find in the local Safeway. The fact that the meal kits come with the seasonings and the weird stuff (like demi-glace and shallots) all in a bag is very helpful.

Home Chef was recently purchased by supermarket giant Kroger. This should make for easier sourcing for the company, but it will be interesting to see if the quality remains as high.

The reasons why

I decided to sign up for Home Chef on a whim, based on an actual Facebook ad I saw. My wife and I are very busy and have found it challenging to eat healthily. When we cook at home, it's been very simple foods, because the extra time it takes to hunt around the supermarket for specialty ingredients just has not been a priority.

In many cases, the supermarket isn't even open by the time we finish our work days. We've relied on Shipt and InstaCart for supermarket delivery, but the problem is that you can never count on the selection of the shopper for any given recipe.

The Home Chef ad offered a half price promotion, giving us six meals for five bucks each. I thought that, for $30 (delivery included), how bad could it be? I called the Home Chef folks and they promised I, with my minimal cooking skills, would be able to turn their ingredients into food. As I've discussed, I have some issues with that, but my idea was I'd do the cooking and see if I could pull it off.

I did not expect my wife to really welcome the idea. I just wanted to see what Home Chef offered. As it turns out, my wife loves it, which was a surprise. We've had really nice meals, with no hassle finding all the ingredients.

That said, these are $10 dollar meals (including delivery cost). They're more expensive than if you can shop at the supermarket and cook at home regularly, but they're less expensive than my regular diet of living off meals delivered by Uber Eats. Honestly, they're less expensive than a Dominos delivery, if you add enough sides to make it interesting.

What's wild is the almost political level of debate on Facebook about Home Chef. Some folks love it and some are deeply, deeply offended by the idea of a convenience service for something you can shop for on your own.

Read also: A lot of robots touch your food before it gets to you

I haven't done an item-for-item cost comparison between Home Chef and the supermarket, but I don't think that's actually possible. For some of the ingredients, you'd have to buy a lot more than a meal's worth in a supermarket. In the past, I have spent a lot of of money on food that I never used and had to throw out instead.

Worldwide, The New York Times reports, we waste 1.3 billion tons of food a year, or about 30 percent of all our food. Here, in the US, one report says that Americans waste so much food, 15 percent of the food we buy is thrown out -- still in its original packaging and within the printed expiration date.

We're not alone. Londoners are estimated to throw out the equivalent of about $600 of food a year, per person. In New Zealand, the average family throws away about three "trolleys" (which, I gather, are shopping carts) of food every year.

My point is, we're not using the food we buy efficiently, and it's not just me. We buy packaged foods, we over-allocate so we don't run out, and we're suckers for those great Costco and Sams Club deals.

Getting food pre-apportioned out, so you get only exactly what you use, may seem criminal to some folks, but in light of all the food waste, it's actually not a bad idea.

Convenience is important, too. It seems like such a first-world problem to have pre-picked and portioned ingredients show up in a frozen box every week, but many of us are so busy we don't have the time to feed ourselves properly.

Back in the day, it might have been considered the job of one family member to stay at home and prepare food while another was the so-called bread winner. But in our modern world, most adults have to work, some of us work a tremendous number of hours, and food preparation, sourcing, and quality is sacrificed to that lack of time.

There's a nasty side effect to quick food: Poor health. Those of us who live off of fast food, or quick-to-prepare foods, are often feeling health effects, gaining weight, and losing fitness. Anything we can do to reverse that, to get healthy food back into our lives, in the context of how we actually live our lives, is of considerable value.

Read also: Food gadgets for the best holiday dinners

With all that, paying $10 a meal (including shipping) for something that is not only healthier and tastier, but also helps us increase our cooking skills (I now know what shallots and mincing are!) can't help but be a good thing.

As for whether Home Chef is better than Blue Apron, Plated, HelloFresh, and the others, I can't tell you that yet. I can tell you that the meal kit ingredient service concept does have legs. We'll probably keep this up, and if we experiment with the other services, we'll let you know how they turn out.

As for my wife and I, I just finished cooking "Ricotta and Mozzarella Cheese Tart with blistered grape tomatoes and arugula-caramelized onion salad." It involves baking pastry dough. I actually made it (me!), and it was delicious.

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Tonight's dinner: Ricotta and Mozzarella Cheese Tart with blistered grape tomatoes and arugula-caramelized onion salad. I actually made that myself.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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