Cooking is one of life’s simple pleasures.
Deciding what to eat, hauling groceries from the store, and figuring out how to smush them together into something edible (let alone delicious)? Those aspects are not such a pleasure. Not after a hard day’s work, anyway …
Luckily, we live in the future now. A meal subscription box is like a 3D printer for restaurant-style home food. You just tap your preferences into your computer, pay your fees, and wait for a weekly recipe box to arrive with precise ingredients for you to piece together calmly.
But some recipes burn a hole in your wallet more than others. That’s why Top Dollar opened up the box to see what really comes with your subscription, assessing the US and UK meal boxes that cost the least and those that offer the most value compared to buying the ingredients separately.
The Cheapest and Best Value Meal Boxes in the US
We collected all the recipes available online for each meal box company and added up the cost of the ingredients if bought at a popular local supermarket chain. Then we averaged out the price and cost for each subscription company. Each figure is equal to 4 meals for 2 people (i.e. 8 portions) as standard.
EveryPlate prides itself on being “affordable for everyone.” And its box is not just the cheapest in our study, it also provides the best value. With an EveryPlate meal, you’re paying an average of just $12.76 on top of the cost price. At the other end of the scale, the separate ingredients in a Sunbasket vegan meal box cost just $3 more than EveryPlate’s – but the box itself costs more than twice as much (Sunbasket $95.92 vs. EveryPlate $39.92).
However, these two companies are playing to different markets, as the recipe names suggest. Compare, for example, chicken sausage penne with pink sauce plus zucchini and melty mozzarella (EveryPlate) to mushroom tostadas with pinto beans and cabbage slaw (Sunbasket).
EveryPlate reputedly delivers simple, satisfying after-school dinners, while Sunbasket offers chic, healthy, organic meals with a wide range of dietary options. You’re also paying a slight exclusivity premium with Sunbasket – the price tag itself lends a feeling of luxury.
Dinnerly is price-positioned as an alternative to EveryPlate, but nearly half of what you pay for Dinnerly disappears before you even get to the first ingredient. Green Chef and Purple Carrot offer vegan boxes to rival Sunbasket’s price, and you get a few extra bucks’ worth of food for your outlay.
Mindful Chef and Riverford Battle for UK’s Top Premium Recipe Box
Meal box firms are prospering in the UK, despite recent Brexit/Covid-led stock availability challenges. Lockdown boredom drove Brits into the kitchen, their consciences eased by studies showing that meal boxes can have a lighter impact on the environment than store-bought groceries. (The supply chain of the food itself offsets the additional packaging that some subscriptions include.)
HelloFresh, the owner of US company EveryPlate, offers both the best value and the lowest prices in our UK study. However, Gousto is second-placed for both cost and value, and there is just £3 price difference between the companies, and just over £4 difference in value. Gousto’s biryani is “a comforting b*****d, and ready in an astonishing 35 minutes,” according to the Guardian.
At the deluxe end of the UK recipe box market, FeastBox charges £60 for ingredients that cost less than HelloFresh. With that in mind, it’s worth paying three or four pounds extra to get around 30% more ingredients from Mindful Chef or Riverford.
Mindful Chef’s unique selling point is a focus on nutritional planning, social responsibility, and “recycled denim insulation.” Yum! (No, really, though – it’s also “delicious and unusual.”) Riverford, meanwhile, is an employee-owned, farming-oriented cooperative that initially emerged to deliver simple veggie and grocery boxes, before later diversifying into meal subscriptions. Riverford also offers the best-value vegan recipe box.
There are undoubted pleasures in the meal subscription box: the unboxing, the presentation, the ease of preparation, and – if you follow the instructions! – the restaurateur levels of achievement unlocked with that delicious first bite.
But the costs are significantly higher than shopping for the ingredients alone. And if it’s sometimes nice to “buy off” the time you’d need to spend trawling grocers for bits and pieces, remember once in a while to ask yourself: what are you really spending your hard-earned cash to buy off? Isn’t the pleasure sometimes in the hunt?
METHODOLOGY & SOURCES
We collected all the recipes available online for each meal subscription box to find the ingredients and portions. We standardized boxes by taking the price charged for 4 meals for 2 people (or 8 portions). We then cross-referenced the prices of those ingredients against a popular local supermarket chain in each country. Using this information we calculated the difference between the average cost of ingredients and the amount charged for the subscription box. We then ranked the results by price difference, and then by ingredients’ cost.
The data was collected in Aug-Sept 2021.
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