Food: Healthy meal-delivery

Healthy, whole foods, delivered to your door — too good to be true?

Ready-to-cook meal services say they’re offering fast, easy, healthy dishes at home. Here’s a look at whether they deliver.

By Kate Jonuska
Special to The Denver Post

Forget about looking for recipes, making lists, grocery shopping or reading labels. While we’re at it, throw out most of your measuring cups, too. Oh, and the meals are healthy as well as fast. That’s now how easy it can be to cook at home, according to a growing food-delivery industry.

DENVER, CO - JULY 30: Kate Michalowski reads over the instructions for one of the dinners from her box from Green Chef on July 30, 2015 at her home. Green Chef is one of the food delivery services in the Denver area which many have options for athletes and people with special diets. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)
DENVER, CO – JULY 30: Kate Michalowski reads over the instructions for one of the dinners from her box from Green Chef on July 30, 2015 at her home. Green Chef is one of the food delivery services in the Denver area which many have options for athletes and people with special diets. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

“One of the big exciting things we do is get people back in the kitchen by overcoming barriers to cook,” says Rebecca Washa, a registered dietician and culinary project manager for HelloFresh. Working on a subscription model, HelloFresh sends fresh, pre-measured ingredients and instructions for cooking a healthy meal in 30 minutes or less right to your doorstep.

Other subscription food companies work in similar ways, with different focuses, and all tout themselves as healthy options.

But is it all too good to be true? We asked registered dietician Amanda Turner, founder of Active Fueling, if the companies’ nutritional arguments hold water.

Argument 1: You’re managing portions

Open up your box and you’ll find all the ingredients for your recipes pre-measured — which also means pre-portioned, an especially vital point in a country known for its gigantic food portions.

“We portion everything. That’s new. It’s hard to compute what a real portion is without weighing your own food,” says Michael Joseph, founder and CEO of subscription company Green Chef. “We’re giving people the ability to say, ‘I want this many meals,’ and there’s no waste and they know exactly what they’re eating.”

Most of the new subscription food-delivery services report their meals fall within the 500-800 calorie range. According to Turner, automatic portion control is indeed a good feature, when taken as a guideline.

“But keep in mind that may not be the appropriate portion size for you,” she says. “That (range) could be way too much for someone trying to lose weight, whereas for an athlete trying to maximize performance, it might be too low for them.”

Most delivery companies allow customers to choose from a selection of meals with different proteins, preparation and calorie counts, which could allow you to find your personal caloric sweet spot.

Argument 2: You’re cooking whole foods

“Our customers are the ones in control, as opposed to when you go out to eat, because you don’t know what’s in that food for sure,” says Hello Fresh’s Washa, who says clients can expect fruits, vegetables and grains in their shipments rather than boxed or frozen foods. “What you’re eating are whole foods. You’re not eating a lot of processed ingredients, which is so different from the way most Americans eat.”

Plus, working with the ingredients yourself and keeping the recipes afterward is a great way to learn to cook. Turner agrees that learning to cook and using whole ingredients is a vital skill for a healthy lifestyle.

“Learning to cook is a difficult thing in general,” she says. “With these services, you’re paying for the food, and that perhaps gets you into kitchen and practicing — and the only way to get better is practice.”

The nutrition of that food will depend on the ingredients provided. Butter and cream, for instance, are whole foods that are still high in saturated fat. When choosing meals from a service, keep an eye on ingredients.

“If sauces and things like that are provided, be cautious with those items. They can add a lot of excess fat and sodium,” adds Turner. “Or if the recipe calls for adding salt, you don’t have to.”

Argument 3: Delivery services banish temptation

Checkout stand and junk-food aisle purchases become almost impossible when you never set foot in a grocery store. “It’s much easier to plan your actual diet this way, because impulse buying goes by the wayside,” says Joseph. “There’s simply no opportunity for that anymore.”

In the case of snack-delivery services, the same is true. We eat what’s at hand when we’re hungry, so stocking up on healthy choices in advance makes healthy snacking that much easier.

“I agree (delivery) makes it simpler and easier to stay on track,” says Turner, who nonetheless cautions that temptation is inevitably an internal battle. “There’s always opportunity to cheat. If you have a craving, there’s nothing stopping you from going out to get ice cream.”

Other considerations

Food-delivery services are not without drawbacks, cost being one. Most services offer discounts for first-time customers. If you take into account that nothing goes to waste — unlike when you buy a head of lettuce and use only half or buy a jar of spices for one recipe — the cost can be competitive with fast-casual restaurants.

The other drawback for Turner is that people should not mistake these services for a diet quick fix or weight-loss solution, but instead part of a more long-term, sustainable eating program.

“For a general healthy person trying to maintain, that range (of 500-800 calories) is pretty close to what they need,” says Turner. By that she refers to people who get about 30 minutes of moderate activity on a daily basis who are not necessarily looking to gain or lose weight.

And if a meal-delivery service gives you a few more minutes in the day to be active, she says, it might help your health in more ways than one.

Delivering in Denver

Blue Apron

Format: Pre-portioned ingredients to make three seasonal meals for two people, or two or four meals for four people.

Subscription: Yes, but skip weeks or cancel anytime

Diet choices: Omnivorous and vegetarian

Price: $59.94 per week ($9.99/meal) serving two; for four people, $69.92 for two meals or $139.84 for four ($8.74/meal)

Meal stats:

•500-700 calories per serving

•Average of 35 minutes for prep and cooking

•10 recipes choices per week that never repeat within the year

Features:

•Skews relatively gourmet, teaching even ardent home cooks new tricks and regional cuisines.

•Specializes in providing artisan and/or hard-to-find ingredients, allowing experimentation without waste, expense or shopping at multiple stores.

•Website includes a shop to purchase tools used in recipes to aid chefs building their kitchen.

Details: blueapron.com

Green Chef

Format: Pre-portioned ingredients to make three meals for two, four or six people.

Subscription: Yes, but skip weeks or cancel anytime

Diet choices: Omnivorous, vegetarian, carnivore, gluten-free and Paleo

Price: $11.99/per person, vegetarian meal, $13.49/omnivore meal, $14.99/carnivore or gluten-free, $16.49/Paleo

Meal stats:

•450-800 calories per serving

•20-30 minutes for prep and cooking

•9-12 recipes a week in 20 different combinations

Features:

•A Colorado-based company that’s USDA Certified Organic, able to trace ingredients farm to table.

•More sous-chef work like chopping or mixing is done for you, allowing for quicker and easier meal assembly.

•Most varied offerings in terms of dietary choice and choice of recipes per week.

Details: greenchef.com

HelloFresh

Format: Pre-portioned ingredients to make three meals for either two or four people.

Subscription: Yes, but skip weeks or cancel anytime

Diet choices: Omnivorous and vegetarian

Price: Three meals for $69/two-person and $129/four-person omnivore ($11.33 and $10.75/meal), $59/two-person and $109/four-person vegetarian ($9.84 and $9.08/meal)

Meal stats:

•500-800 calories per serving

•40-110 g carbohydrates

•15-26 g fat

•15-58 g protein

•8-10 g fiber

•Less than 900 mg sodium

•30 minutes for prep and cooking

•Omnivores choose three of five recipes/week, several gluten-free; vegetarian choices currently limited

Features:

•Includes difficulty level on recipes, and offers loads of easy choices for beginner cooks.

•Offers more complete nutritional information, and has a registered dietician as culinary project manager.

•More food-allergy friendly, with allergen information on every meal and three gluten-free choices per week.

Details: hellofresh.com

Plated

Format: Pre-portioned ingredients to make two, three or four meals for two people.

Subscription: Yes, but skip weeks or cancel anytime

Diet choices: Vegetarian and omnivorous choices, but no set boxes for either diet

Price: $48 for four meals ($12/meal, but $6 shipping on orders less than $50), $72 for six meals ($12/meal), $96 for eight meals ($12/meal).

Meal stats:

•450-850 calories per serving

•Other nutritional information available on each recipe

•Average of 30 minutes for prep and cooking

•9 recipe options per week with three vegetarian

Features:

•Meats are antibiotic- and hormone-free, and seafood is sourced with Sea to Table standards.

•More flexible on number of meals per week, and includes at least three gluten-free and one dairy-free recipe per week. Occasional Paleo and vegan recipes.

•Offers dessert add-on for $4/serving.

Details: plated.com

The Feed: Food for Athletes

Format: Snack and meal-supplement delivery service, available by flexible subscription or by the item. Focuses on food to keep up your energy for athletic pursuits, with boxes tailored for runners, cyclists, triathletes, hikers, skiers, strength training, active families and even variety packs suitable for offices.

Subscription: Only if desired

Diet choices: Paleo, vegan and gluten-free options

Price: Boxes start at $26, but average about $40

Features:

•Variety of products in each box is greater than in even health-food stores, keeping eating healthy fresh and fun.

•Colorado-based company that actively searches for small, high-quality suppliers.

•More flexible subscription options.

Details: thefeed.com

Nature Box

Format: Subscription snack-delivery service. Offers more than 100 different snacks, searchable by dietary and taste preference. No snacks contain high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, flavors nor colors.

Subscription: Yes, but skip a month or cancel anytime

Diet choices: Vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO, under 150 calories, high protein, low sodium, dairy-free, soy-free, egg-free and nut-free options

Price: $19.95/monthly box, which includes five full-sized snack bags of either your choice or the staff’s curated selections

Features:

•A team of nutritionists approves every snack.

•Offers healthier sweet treats for indulgence in addition to more standard healthy offerings.

•For every box NatureBox delivers, they donate one meal to the food insecure through Feeding America.

Details: naturebox.com

This article published in the Denver Post on Aug. 4, 2015.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s