If your weeknight dinner fantasy looks anything like mine, it involves an endless variety of healthy meals that are as easy to prepare as they are equally loved by every member of your family. Likewise, if your weeknight dinner reality is anything like mine, it involves a rotating cast of moderately good-for-you meals that were quite possibly prepared by somebody else and are pretty much liked or at least tolerated by most members of your family. And while I’d like the reality to more closely resemble the dream, a host of problematic factors always seem to get in the way whenever I try to introduce a new dinnertime option into the mix: Either the kids can’t agree on something they like, or I don’t have time to make it to the store, or — and this is the biggest issue — my husband (who fortunately happens to be an amazing cook) is too preoccupied with a million non-dinner-related responsibilities to even think of interesting new mealtime ideas.
So when I heard about meal ingredient delivery services like Blue Apron and Plated, I was intrigued: For a reasonable amount of money, premeasured ingredients for several nutritious, interesting dinners just show up on your doorstep — and you don’t have to give yourself a headache scouring recipe sites for hours beforehand. The concept sounded like it was worth a try. After checking out a few different companies' websites, we decided to start with Blue Apron (arguably the leader in the field), which offers home delivery of “farm-fresh ingredients from family businesses” and "exciting, seasonal recipes."
The first step — choosing our menu — was probably the most fun. With only four options per week (based on either the family or two-person plan), Blue Apron gave my family just the right amount of choice without being too overwhelming, and my kids were more open-minded than usual (I’ll chalk that one up to the novelty factor). We went with Crunchy Pork Chops with Summer Squash Slaw and Roasted Potato Wedges for our first night and Summer Squash Cavatappi Pasta with Fresh Mozzarella and Chopped Salad for our second. We chose these for a couple of reasons: First, we hadn’t made any pork dishes at our house in forever (the kids decided they didn’t like it a long time ago, though I can’t remember why); second, we figured the pasta would be a surefire winner if the pork was a flop. Kids do love themselves some pasta, after all.
The food arrived, on time, efficiently packaged. No measuring! It was like being on a cooking show, where the host has a magical supply of preportioned ingredients in little bowls at his or her disposal. The produce was well chosen — no bruised basil leaves or shriveled summer squash, which I’d been concerned about after a couple of bad grocery delivery experiences years prior. And there was a surprisingly decent amount of food — the pork chops weren’t puny.
What surprised me was the amount of chopping required for the recipe. Because I’m lazy and in need of sharper knives, I’d been secretly hoping the summer squash for the slaw would come pre-chopped and the potatoes would come pre-wedged. Alas, no. But at least that gave me something to do while my husband coated the pork chops in panko breadcrumbs (I hate handling raw meat and am not particularly adept at cooking it, so according to our informal division of labor, he generally handles entrées involving meat, and I usually take care of the sides and dessert). And the entire process — from unpacking the ingredients to putting dinner on the table — took only about 45 minutes, all told. The biggest surprise of all? Turns out my kids like pork! And raw summer squash (provided it’s dressed with garlic-lemon aioli, apparently). My husband and I were impressed too, both with the quality of the food and the recipe.
After our pork chop success, we had high hopes for the Summer Squash Cavatappi Pasta (even if we were sort of tired of summer squash after all that slaw). I was especially psyched because it involved bocconcini, those amazing little fresh mozzarella balls we all should eat more often. But while this dish was definitely easier to prepare than the first dish (only a cucumber and a few tomatoes needed to be chopped), it was otherwise disappointing. The “Italian seasoning” used for both the pasta and the salad dressing tasted like the contents of a generic supermarket pouch, and there weren’t any other interesting flavors happening to make up for it.
Still, the meal wasn’t a big enough bummer to turn me off from Blue Apron. I think the lesson we learned there was this: If the name of the dish sounds kind of like something you might throw together on your own without much planning, maybe go with something else.
Keeping that lesson in mind, we decided to really push the culinary envelope (at least for us) with our picks from Plated. Since Plated’s menu is slightly more foodie oriented (meats are 100 percent antibiotic-free, with no added hormones, and all seafood is domestic and sustainably sourced), this was easy: For our first dinner, we chose Lamb and Eggplant Tacos with Za'atar, Pomegranate Molasses and Greek Salad; for our second, we went with Lemon and Herb-Stuffed Pollack with Sautéed Garlicky Green Beans and Potatoes.
The tacos were a gamble for my household — not because we don’t love tacos, but because my 14-year-old daughter was convinced she would hate the lamb, and my 9-year-old son was convinced he would hate the eggplant. (I was pretty convinced they would both hate the pickled red onions that went on top of the tacos, but I was going to insist they tried them anyway.) My husband and I were excited, though. Pomegranate molasses — yum!
I won’t lie: This one was fairly labor intensive. Again, there was lots of chopping and mincing to be done, plus there was the pickling stage and lots of assembly. That said, this recipe also resulted in the biggest revelation for my family: Everybody likes lamb! Everybody likes eggplant! (OK, it’s still not my son’s favorite, but he ate it.) Even the pickled red onions were well tolerated by all.
That left us with the pollack. I tend to avoid cooking fish because of the smell (and because my kids are picky about it), so I was pretty curious to see what they would think about it after not eating any for months. Their verdict? An enthusiastic thumbs-up from both. My husband and I liked it too, though we could have used slightly larger portions. I also found it easy to prepare. (I was relieved that Plated provided parchment paper, since we didn’t have any on hand.)
The only real misstep (at least in my opinion) was the one dessert we ordered from Plated — interestingly, the one recipe I just assumed would be a winner. I’m a fairly skilled baker, so I thought I’d be able to pull off the Profiteroles with Whipped Cream and Chocolate Sauce without too much trouble. But right from the start, the dough wouldn’t cooperate, refusing to pull away from the sides of the pot the way it was supposed to. I ended up having to supplement the flour and sugar they gave me with a bit of my own from the cupboard, which I think ultimately compromised the texture of the finished pastries. I will say, however, that my family really liked the profiteroles, and I have sort of insanely high standards when it comes to dessert, so you might take the above paragraph with a grain of salt.
Overall, my family’s meal ingredient service experiment was a success, I’d say. It pushed us out of our culinary comfort zones, dragged us gently out of our dinner rut and broadened my kids’ palates, for which I will be forever grateful. I plan on using both services again and will probably check out a few of the other ones out there. In between, I’m sure we’ll fall back on our old friend the rotisserie chicken from time to time, but I think we’ll be more likely to try new things more often too.
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