Though our kitchens haven’t quite gone full Jetsons on us, we can thank technology for the slew of meal and food delivery services helping us make our trips to the grocery store a thing of the past. The meal kit business is now a $2.2 billion industry, and people across the country are getting their groceries or ready-to-make recipes and ingredients sent straight to their doorsteps.
And each of these services offers their own unique twist on the meal. For example, Purple Carrot boasts all plant-based dishes, Blue Apron recently rolled out wine pairings to go along your meals, and HelloFresh lets you choose the difficulty of the recipes you want to prepare. Plated lets you add dessert to your orders, Chef’d offers meals that comply with popular weight loss programs like Atkins and Weight Watchers, and retail behemoth Amazon is also getting in on the action with its Amazon Fresh meal kits, which you can buy without even logging out of your Prime account.
The perks? Meal kit services can help you squash the constant debate about what to have for dinner, while expanding your food horizons and offering healthy options. “Using these services can make cooking fun and easy,” says Martha McKittrick, R.D. “You’ll try new flavors and seasonings that you may never have used on your own.”
Plus, portion sizes seem to be fairly average across the board, so meal kits can help eliminate guesswork about how much to put on your plate, says plant-based dietitian Alex Caspero, M.A. And since many meal kit recipes include plenty of produce, they can benefit the many Americans who are lacking in vegetable and fiber intake, she adds.
But which service is right for you? Here’s what the experts recommend keeping in mind as you sift through the many meal kit delivery services out there.
1. Make sure it fits your general lifestyle.
First, ask yourself why you’re interested in using a meal kit service. Perhaps you just don’t have time to grocery shop, want to clean up your eating habits but don’t know how, or want to work on your kitchen skills. “If your number one goal is easy, healthy meals, that might look different than if you’re interested in learning to cook or expanding your recipe knowledge,” says Caspero. Most companies will have a sampling of recipes available on their website, so scan through nutrition information, look at ingredients, and check on recipe difficulty to make sure that service fits with your lifestyle, Caspero recommends. And if time is of the essence, take note of the time required for a service’s recipes. “While not complicated, some can take up to an hour to make or cook,” says McKittrick.
From there, you’ll also want to check how many portions the service delivers (to make sure you’ll have enough, but not too much) and make sure it fits in with your dietary preferences or offers vegan, gluten-free, Paleo, dairy-free, or organic customization. For example, a service that doesn’t let you swap out meat-centric dishes wouldn’t be a fit for a pescatarian, while a service that features pasta with each might not be appreciated by anyone trying to cut back on carbs.
Lastly, make sure you’re paying attention to the delivery schedule and quantity before signing up. “If you have plans to go out several nights that week, you’ll be stuck with a backload of meals, some of which may not keep well or be freezer-friendly” McKittrick says.
2. Don’t overdo it on sodium.
One potential downfall of a meal kit delivery service: Recipes that are jam-packed with salt, says nutritionist and culinary specialist Sara Haas, R.D.N., L.D.N. The CDC recommends keeping sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams per day, so stay away from meals that pack more than about 700 milligrams per serving, she says.
3. Make sure you’re getting enough vegetables.
If you’re going to pay for a meal kit service, you want it to deliver as much health-promoting produce as possible! “Some of these services go heavy on carbs and skimp on vegetables, which can lead to eating a lot more calories than you realize without feeling satisfied,” says Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., I.N.H.C. A good rule of thumb: Make sure half your plate is filled with non-starchy vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, kale, or asparagus, and split the other half between a quarter protein and a quarter carbs, Cording says. When necessary, she suggests bulking up dishes with extra vegetables of your own, and saving any leftovers for another day.
4. Watch your fat content.
Meal services can be a great way to get fresh ingredients daily without much planning, but because companies need to keep customers coming back, they load their meals with fat, warns nutritionist Vanessa Rissetto, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. “People may automatically assume that the vegetarian or low-carb option is healthy, but a lot of times these meals are loaded with excess fat and therefore excess calories, making it not healthy at all,” she says.
Look for recipes that are higher in unsaturated fat and low in saturated fat, and use add-ons like cheese and salad dressing sparingly. Rissetto recommends keeping your fat intake to 25 percent of your daily calories. Take 25 percent of your daily calories and divide that number by nine (the number of calories per gram of fat) to figure out how many grams of fat total you should consume per day. So if you’re eating a 2,000-calorie diet, that’d be 500 calories of fat, or 55 grams per day—so you’d want to limit meals to about 18 grams of fat each.
Of course, calories are important—but so is where those calories come from, says Haas. “If many of them are coming from saturated fat, skip that meal,” she says, also mentioning that while we all have different calorie needs, a meal with between 500 and 800 calories is a good goal to shoot for.
5. Look for protein.
Protein, which helps build cells and tissues and slows your digestion, helps support your weight management goals and keeps you feeling satiated after a meal. “Otherwise you’ll be left feeling hungry and more likely to overeat later,” says Rissetto.
Rissetto recommends shooting for about 0.8 to one gram of protein per kilogram of weight every day. (That’s about 0.45 grams per pound.) So a 150-pound person would need about 68 grams per day, or about 22 grams per meal.