Photographs by Eliesa Johnson
Strolling the grocery aisles on Sunday mornings, latte in hand, while planning the eating week ahead is my church of sorts. But I know there are plenty of people who don’t feel that way, who loathe the experience or simply don’t have time for it. Well, Coborns delivers, and so does Lunds & Byerlys, but there’s something about clicking brands on a screen that’s OK for staples but less inspiring for those who want to actually cook a meal. Enter the spate of dinner-in-a-box subscription services just beginning to hit our market hard (nationally, the trend has been around for a while; see Plated and HelloFresh). These subscriptions promise packages full of fresh ingredients along with recipes to make a meal—all delivered to your door. I decided to test-drive three such services new to the metro and cook like mad to see if they were worth it.
Based in New York, Blue Apron has it all buttoned up. I signed up for a two-person box that included three meals per week for $59.94 (so $9.99/meal/person). There’s also a family-style option with two meals per week for up to four people for $69.92 ($8.74/meal/person). The box that showed up to my house was jammed with insulated packing materials to keep the food fresh. All of the ingredients were good picks and looked healthy. Also inside were glossy recipe pages with easy-to-follow pictorial instructions on the back. My meals included tomato-basil burgers with meat from superstar butcher Pat LaFrieda, a Taiwanese chicken stir-fry, and shrimp and grits—a good smattering of cuisines to keep you interested.
Ingredients were already portioned out, and everything you needed was included, down to little bottles of soy sauce and packets of garlic cloves (Blue Apron assumes you have salt and pepper in your pantry, but not much else). All of the meals were delicious, beyond easy to prepare, and the amount of food in each easily fed the two of us. While you still have to chop and mix things, and you’re definitely cooking, there’s something about it that felt a little bit like assembly. Maybe it was all the packaging you had to open or the complete, step-by-step instructions to follow and the feeling that everything is set (you only get three olives for your aioli—hope that’s enough for your olive-loving self). Beginning cooks will be fine with Blue Apron. More advanced cooks might find it a tad too rote. blueapron.com
Fig to Fork
Locally owned Fig to Fork launched this summer, delivering organic, mostly local ingredients and recipes from area chefs. I was excited from the outset because it’s a local company that delivers to a wide range of suburbs. I ordered a few different boxes, selected delivery dates and times, and prepared for my first package filled with enough farm-fresh groceries for two dinners for two people, along with a few snacks or pantry items, all for $52.95 ($13/meal/person).
Box number one contained recipes from Jourdan Morris of Mill Valley Kitchen. I was excited to see Kadejan chicken, Larry Schulz eggs, and a whole watermelon rolling around in the mix. Nearly everything on the list was organic, but I felt it could have skipped the organic lemons and limes from California and used one more local item. A few recipes called for a lot of ingredients from my pantry—e.g., giving me corn and cilantro for elote, but making me source cayenne, cotija cheese, mayo, and chilies—but at least there was an advance e-mail letting me know what to expect.
The recipes were good and exciting but a bit hard to read printed on card stock with a light, thin font. I don’t need pictures, but I don’t need to squint at the text either. One more thing: I really liked the local ingredients and lack of overdone portioning and packaging, but I didn’t feel like there were actually two meals in some of the boxes. The last one from The Kenwood included ingredients for chicken with polenta and wild mushrooms but no other dish. It was a beautiful, filling, and hearty dish, and we had a bit of leftovers, but not a full meal’s worth.
Overall, I’d say Fig to Fork is definitely geared toward the more advanced cook who feels comfortable in the kitchen, has a stocked pantry, knows how to use ingredients confidently, and likes to riff on a recipe. Also, if organic is the metric that’s most important to you, this service is your best bet. figtofork.com
Another just-launched Twin Cities company, Local Crate is a hybrid of the other two services, promising local ingredients, recipes from area chefs, and pre-portioned meals. The box I ordered had three meals for two adults for $72 ($12/meal/person). Local Crate’s website was the only of the three that allowed me to customize my order with as many meals (and different ones) as I wanted per box. It’s also very easy to pause your subscription for a time or make it gluten-free or vegetarian at will. And I appreciated the charity component that donates a percentage of each purchase to a local hunger relief organization.
Like Blue Apron, Local Crate’s recipe sheets were colorful and full of pictures. Each one featured a photo, bio, and recipe from a local source—in this case chef Daniel Klein’s tomato pasta, Fish Guys’ trout wrapped in Red Table ham, and Prairie Hollow Farms’ beef with cauliflower. The ingredients arrived separated out by meals in bags with handles (save for the insulated cooler pack of meats and dairy), which made it easy to keep things orderly and to not misplace or forget wayward bags for the next night’s meals. There were still lots of baggies and packaging here, but less than in Blue Apron’s boxes. The meals were easy to make, recognizable, tasty, and well portioned. localcratemeals.com
There’s something for everyone here. To my kid outstate who’s in his first apartment, I would send a Blue Apron box to ease him into cooking for himself. For the empty-nester foodists who shop co-ops and are looking for a date night activity at home, I’d recommend Fig to Fork. For the busy cook who wants to eat fresh and local, but needs to be able to bob and weave each week, Local Crate is the answer. Each provides new and fun ways to make cooking at home something to look forward to.