Last year I wrote three posts in an “Outsource Your Cooking” theme, but stopped because the food was always too pricey, underwhelming, or both. I thought Hello Fresh might be a better alternative, but sorry to say, this isn’t a panacea either.
If you like to cook from scratch but really don’t have time to plan meals or shop, it might be an option, but there are still some significant downsides. The food isn’t bad, and it’s certainly healthier than what most restaurants offer, but I wasn’t impressed with the excessive packaging and cooking time, relative to what’s promised.
(Note: Clearly this is not a sponsored post. I don’t do them. We paid for it just like everyone else.)
How Hello Fresh Works
Hello Fresh is one of a newish crop of meal kit delivery services. Others include Chef’s Plate (Canada only), Rooted (vegetarian, Calgary only), GoodFood (Eastern Canada only), and Blue Apron (USA only).
You sign up online and then once a week they deliver a nifty climate-controlled package with just about everything you need to prepare a meal. (They assume you have salt, pepper, sugar, milk, cooking oil and butter.)
Hello Fresh has three plans, each providing three meals a week, which you can supposedly get on the table in 30 minutes, except the pronto plan, which promises 20-30 minutes:
- Pronto – speedy meals, for two or four people
- Family – “hold back on the spice” to make the meals more kid-friendly, for four people
- Veggie – vegetarian, for two people only
We ordered the Family Plan and had plenty of leftovers for lunch the next day, especially considering our kids ate very little of it. Experimenting with new food isn’t generally a kid’s idea of a good time.
There isn’t much choice: You select three of the four meals available each week, at least with the Pronto and Family Plans. During the two weeks we participated, they offered two each of pork, beef, chicken, and vegetarian. No fish. With the Veggie Plan there is actually no choice, so hopefully you like the three meals offered.
Here’s what you get when you open the insulated box (minus the excited little helper):
Each of those brown paper bags contains everything you need to create a meal, except the meat, fish, or chicken.
Pull the three bags out and you’ll see a divider, beneath which you’ll find the meat, sitting on icepacks to keep it cold.
I ordered in November, when the temperature outside was around freezing, so I let the box sit inside for a couple of hours, to simulate what would happen on a warmer day. Then I checked the chicken with a meat thermometer. No problem, it was still nice and cold.
When you’re ready to cook a meal, you just open the paper bag and off you go. Here’s where I started to like Hello Fresh a bit less. Holy cow, look at that packaging. If you order for four, many items come in two (or more) packages, as you see below. While this might be logistically helpful for Hello Fresh, it’s not great for the planet.
When I first posted about doing this, a friend commented that the packaging was excessive, so I emailed Hello Fresh to ask about that. The friendly response reassured me, but upon seeing the offering, I’m not convinced.
If that’s what reduced packaging looks like, I hate to have seen what it looked like before! While many of those packages are recyclable or compostable, not using them in the first place would be better.
On the other hand, because the food doesn’t detour to a supermarket on the way to your kitchen, Hello Fresh claims a 14% reduction in energy, water, and labour waste. (Not sure what “labour waste” is, but reducing retail energy and water waste make sense.) And they claim that pre-portioned meals reduce food waste by 47%. That’s assuming people like it enough to eat it all. Still, I can’t justify all that packaging, week after week.
Unrealistic Time Estimates
My other Hello Fresh disappointment was in the time I spent cooking. They promise that meals will be on the table in 30 minutes, but nothing took me less than 40, and some took up to 50. And that’s mostly active time, not just waiting around while something roasts in the oven. And it doesn’t include clean up, which is not insignificant.
It reminds me of a reluctant cook I had once as a client. He tried Chef’s Plate and reported back: “You know you still have to cook right? It’s a lot of cooking!”
This service might save you from meal planning and (some) grocery shopping, but it definitely does not get you out of cooking and cleaning. I’m all for cooking, but let’s be honest with people about it.
Cost and Food Quality
These services are not inexpensive. The website says “from $10.83 / meal” for the Family Plan (the others are slightly higher), but that’s really per serving. Each meal is $43.33 (or more). Is that a lot?
Cook from scratch and your food cost certainly can be less, but what about the value of your time? Meal kits save you time in the grocery store, but don’t replace it entirely. Same with meal planning. So you save perhaps an hour a week? Worth it for some, I know.
On the other hand, if you took a family of four to a restaurant for food of this quality, you’d pay at least that, likely more, but you’d get to put your feet up.
Speaking of quality, I must say, the produce was very fresh, even though some of it waited in our fridge for 3-4 days before I cooked it. The rare seafood offering comes from Hooked Inc., which promotes sustainable fishing, and the meat is sourced from Artisan Farms, a co-op of small family-owned farms across Canada (although not organic, if that’s important to you).
As you may know, I look at things through the heart health lens. Hello Fresh food beats restaurant food for that, but I wouldn’t recommend it as something you’d have regularly. Why not?
- Fish fail. The Heart and Stoke Foundation suggests eating fish twice a week. Hello Fresh offers it just three times during the ten weeks between October 21 to December 29. And only one is an omega-3 rich fatty fish (Salmon Cakes).
- A paucity of plant proteins. Ideally, you’d have a vegetarian meat alternative like beans or lentils on your menu at least once a week, but Hello Fresh offers them just twice during that same ten-week period. (Not counting the chili cashews on the Kung Pao Mushroom dish, which were more like a garnish, contributing to just 17g of protein per serving.)
- Whole grain scarcity. Again, Heart and Stroke recommends at least half our grain foods be whole grains, but we didn’t see any during our two-week trail. And there were plenty of opportunities. The Cheesy Chicken Enchiladas could use whole-grain tortillas instead of white, Greek Lemon Chicken could use whole wheat couscous, Kung Pao Mushrooms could use brown rice or quinoa.
- Sodium. The sodium in Hello Fresh is lower than Earls or other restaurants, but still higher than ideal for everyday eating. Two of our six meals exceeded 1000mg of sodium (recall that Hypertension Canada recommends 2000mg/day), two were low enough to meet the “low-sodium” criteria from Health Canada, and two were in-between.
- Carb overload. As with restaurant food, adding extra pasta or rice is a cheap way to fill up your customers, and Hello Fresh does it too. Three of our six meals exceeded 85g per serving, or the equivalent of about five slices of bread. Nothing against carbs, but that doesn’t qualify as moderation.
- Vegetables. One pro: There are definitely vegetables! Not always the ideal half-your-plate, but you could do worse.
If you currently eat most of your meals at restaurants or out of boxes, Hello Fresh will be an improvement. But we can do better.
But how was the Hello Fresh food?
If I haven’t turned you off with tales of over the top packaging and less than ideal nutrition, I’ll finish by saying the food tasted pretty good, but not great. Again, it depends on what you’re currently eating, and your preferences. But you’ll get to try some interesting new things, anyhow. A few examples:
The Cheesy Chicken Enchiladas were easily my favourite. Hard to go wrong with enchilada sauce and melted cheddar. Unfortunately, this was also the highest sodium offering.
We like vegetarian food, and we quite enjoyed this Pasta e Fagioli (pasta and beans), especially with the parmesan frico, crispy crouton-like bits of baked parmesan, which I would never think to do on my own.
The kids were lucky I didn’t eat this entire sheet of parmesan frico while I was waiting for the soup to finish. YUM!
The Greek Lemon Chicken with roasted vegetables and feta was interesting, but I wasn’t a fan of the dried mint and other herbs they added in an effort to keep the sodium low. Points for that though, this was the lowest one we tried. And the chicken breasts were surprisingly moist and plentiful. We were tucking extras into the kids lunches for a couple of days.
The Honey-Glazed Pork with carmelized sweet potatoes and green beans was as bland as it looks. Sorry, I’m not exactly a food stylist, and I could’t do much with this one.
Italian Spaghetti and Meatballs was the kid-favourite. Rich tomato flavour, piles of noodles, and they loved the pork meatballs. Unfortunately, I had a heck of a time figuring out when they were done. They never did get to 160F, even after I cooked them for ten minutes longer than the recipe advised, so we finally just microwaved them until we were sure no one would get sick. (Cooking meat is not my comfort zone.)
Maybe… Just Cook
The idea of someone else planning and delivering your food is enticing, but ultimately disappointing. I’ll finish like I’ve finished past Outsource Your Cooking posts. Mass produced food never quite matches simple meals you prepare yourself.
If you need help with ideas or cooking skills, check out the affordable cooking classes at Calgary’s South Health Campus. If you just don’t like to spend a lot of time cooking, here are some of my favourite quick and easy meals. If you just want to mix things up for variety, explore my ten favourite vegan meals. You never know, you might find a new favourite! And if meal planning is your sore point, check out the behind the scenes look at my meal-planning system. Cooking is doable. You’ve got this.
Have you tried Hello Fresh? Another meal kit delivery service? So curious to know what you thought. Comments welcome on the Sweet Spot Nutrition Facebook page.