Are Blue Apron and other meal prep subscription boxes worth it?

Blue Apron, Plated, and other planned meal subscriptions have gained popularity as a convenient way to have diverse, nutritious meals at home. Their main selling point lies in convenience, but there are cost advantages as well. 

Richard W. Rodriguez/Invision for Plated/AP
Thai pork larb lettuce wraps with mango are prepared on a Plated promotional tour in 2015.

Meal prep subscription boxes have become very popular and there are plenty to choose from. It's a great way to save time on meal planning and takes the guesswork out of "What's for dinner?" We've covered the best ones here to help you decide whether one is right for you.

While these services are a convenient way to add fresh, healthful meals, are they really frugal?

Baseline Food Costs

First of all, these subscription services are not a frugal replacement for home-prepared meals. Using the USDA's Cost of Food analysis for several food plans, the cost of home-prepared meals works out to $1.80 to $3.57 per meal. The cheapest of the services reviewed here, Blue Apron, costs $9.99 per meal. (See also: Save Hundreds with These 10 Grocery Shopping Tips)

However, where these services do compare well, in terms of cost, is with spending on dining out. Depending on where you go, you may spend between $12 and $30 per person, per meal. This year, for the first time, dining out spending surpassed grocery spending and these services are all aiming to capture some of those dollars. Let's see how they stack up — and if they make financial sense.

What to Expect With Your Meal Subscription

Regardless of which subscription you choose, the pre-portioned ingredients will arrive fresh (ie: refrigerated items should arrive cold, in some type of cooler). In most cases, the only extras you'll need are oil, salt, pepper, and other basic kitchen tools. You will be able to schedule the delivery on a day that works best for your schedule, and skip any week or cancel at any time.

1. Blue Apron

Cost: $9.99 (per person, per meal).

What Makes Them Different

Blue Apron is our pick for the best monthly food prep subscription box. They are the most affordable option, with the best food quality and variety. They also allow you to customize your protein, so you can choose which types of meat you like, or if you prefer vegetarian. Blue Apron will then pick three meals for you each week based on your preferences. If you don't like the dishes they choose, you can swap them out for dishes from other menus. The original recipes are never repeated and should only take about 35 minutes to prepare.

The meals are each within 500–700 calories per serving, and the recipe cards include calorie counts. They also have a large online community, and the members often share helpful feedback on dishes.

Subscription Options

Subscriptions are available in weekly intervals, but you can have the boxes delivered as often as you like. You can sign up to receive three meals per week for two, four, or six people.

2. HelloFresh

Cost: $11.50 for the "classic" box and $9.80 for the "veggie" box (per person, per meal).

Three Meal Cost for a Family of Four: $138.00 (Classic box).

What Makes Them Different

The recipes at HelloFresh are created by nutritionists and professional chefs, so the meals not only taste good, but are really good for you. Dishes take only 30 minutes or less to prepare, so they are ideal for beginners or busy weeknights. You can choose from the "classic" or "veggie" box, and pick which three meals (out of five choices) you want each week.

In several head-to-head comparisons, subscribers found that the servings with HelloFresh are larger than other subscriptions, so you'll end up with more leftovers and better savings. There is also a HelloFresh app, which can help you manage your account and get mealtime inspiration.

Subscription Options

The subscription includes three meals per week, but you can have the boxes delivered as often as you like. You can sign up to receive three meals per week for two or four people.

3. Plated

Cost: $12–$15 (per person, per meal).

What Makes Them Different

You don't need to be a Plated subscriber, so there are no commitments to try it. Instead, you can pick your favorite options from the nine available meals and pay per plate. This is perfect for picky eaters or people with food allergies. They have a large range of food, including low calorie and "no added gluten" options. They also use sustainable and domestic seafood, meats raised without antibiotics or hormones, and locally-sourced produce. While the recipe cards are fairly basic, their site includes more information, like cooking difficulty and suggested wine pairings.

In several head-to-head comparisons, subscribers found that Plated offers better quality overall compared to meals sent through other subscriptions. Subscribers have also found that it would cost much more than the $12–$15 per serving to buy all the ingredients at the market.

Subscription Options

You can just purchase meals from time to time, or choose from weekly or bi-weekly subscription options. You can sign up to receive each dish for two, four, or six people, with a minimum of four plates per week.

4. Gobble

Cost: $11.95 (per person, per meal).

What Makes Them Different

Each meal from Gobble takes only 10 minutes and one pan to prepare, so it's ideal for everyone from beginner cooks to experienced chefs. All the prep work is done for you. The prepared ingredients are locally-sourced for the best flavor and nutritional qualities possible. The meals are each within 500–700 calories.

Subscription Options

The subscription includes three meals per week. They preselect the three meals for you based on your preferences, but you can change them out for the other options. You can also choose to have two meals delivered instead of three, at a slightly higher price per serving. You can have the boxes delivered as often as you like and skip any week you don't like.

5. PeachDish

Cost: $12.50 (per person, per meal).

What Makes Them Different

PeachDish work to create Southern-infused meals with big flavor, with most ingredients locally-sourced from in and around Georgia. The easy recipes take only 30–40 minutes to prepare. PeachDish offers two regular boxes and two vegetarian boxes, and you can choose your favorites each week. While they do not allow any customization (all subscribers receive the same meals), they encourage subscribers to be open-minded and take the experience as a year-long, at-home cooking course.

Subscription Options

You can sign up to receive two meals per week for two or four people. The subscription includes everything you need to make a three-course meal, and you can have the boxes delivered as often as you like.

6. Sun Basket

Cost: $11.49 (per person, per meal).

What Makes Them Different

Sun Basket features gluten-free, vegetarian, and paleo meal options with healthy recipes. The seasonal ingredients are hand-selected and contain GMO-free produce, sustainable seafood, and local favorites. The meals are created by an award-winning chef, so they taste great and are great for you.

Subscription Options

Subscriptions are available in weekly intervals and include three recipes. You can have the boxes delivered as often as you like and skip any weeks you don't like.

7. Green Chef

Cost: $11.99 for "omnivore" box, $10.49 for "vegetarian" box, and $13.49 for "carnivore" box (per person, per meal).

What Makes Them Different

Green Chef features gluten-free, organic, vegetarian, and paleo meal options. It is ideal for anyone with special dietary requirements. The hand-selected, sustainably-sourced ingredients are prepared so that you can complete each recipe in only 20–30 minutes. The recipes are color-coded so that you can easily sort them.

Subscription Options

The subscription includes three meals per week, and you can have the boxes delivered as often as you like.

8. din

Cost: $15.00 (per person, per meal).

What Makes Them Different

Each box from din features some of the best recipes from celebrated restaurant chefs. While the recipes are full of flavor, they should only take about 20 minutes to prepare. You can pick which recipes you want to receive each week, or let Din choose for you. There is also a Din app, which can help you manage your account, see the available meals, and get inspiration.

Subscription Options

Subscriptions are available in weekly intervals. You can have the boxes delivered as often as you like or choose to add additional servings for larger parties.

9. Freshology

Cost: $15.99 (per person, per meal), with discounts available for longer programs. A $3 per day delivery charge will also be added.

What Makes Them Different

Freshology is completely different from all the other services because it is more like having your own personal nutritionist preparing healthy meals for you. They offer special programs for each type of diet, such as the weight loss and fitness program, and specialty menus like gluten-free, vegetarian, low cholesterol, and lactose-free. This is the best option if you have unusual dietary restrictions or are trying to lose weight. All you do is choose your favorite program and pick the meals you want. The meals are then made-to-order by culinary artists.

Subscription Options

You can choose to follow a program with regularly delivered meals, which are freshly prepared on a daily basis, or purchase meals a-la-carte.

So, Is it Worth It?

Based on a strict head-to-head comparison with the USDA's Food Plan Costs, subscription meal boxes are expensive. But each of these plans beats or matches the cost of an average meal out. However, there are other factors to consider.

With everything pre-portioned, these subscription services create less overall food waste, which will drive your food costs down. Subscription services may also save you a trip or two to the grocery store. Most importantly, their ease and convenience make it less likely you'll stop for fast food or take the family out for a fast casual meal, which are often more expensive than subscription meal services. That can quickly translate to to big savings in your monthly food costs. You will also be able to explore ingredients and flavor combinations that you may not have tried before. If you enjoy the meal, you can keep the recipe and continue making the dish on your own in the future, with ingredients you source yourself.

Have you tried a meal prep subscription box? Did you think it was worth it? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

This article is from Andrea Cannon of Wise Bread, an award-winning personal finance and credit card comparison website. Read more great articles from Wise Bread:

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