We kitchen-test and taste-test 8 prepare-at-home meal delivery services

Cooking meals at home can be daunting — there's the time it takes, the shopping and planning involved, as well as the cooking itself. The entire decision-making process can be enough to send you to take-out menus and drive-thrus before you even get to the stove. So it made sense when prepare-at-home meal delivery services started to gain traction a few years ago. Instead of all those decisions, you choose from a selection of available meals online, the ingredients are portioned for you and shipped to you with a recipe. All you do is open a box and follow instructions.

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It's a business model that has worked for Blue Apron, one of the first and most popular services, which is now worth $2 billion. As with any popular service, the world of prepare-at-home meals has now become a highly competitive market, and more companies are launching all the time. How do you know which one to try? We tried eight different services, ordering them all online to be delivered here to our Test Kitchen, where we tried them out for you. Here's a guide that describes what it's like to sign up, order, receive, prepare — and yes, eat — your dinner from a box.

BLUE APRON: www.blueapron.com

Price: $59.94 for three meals that each serve two people. This is a subscription service that will renew each week until you cancel. In order to cancel your subscription, you have to send the company an email, or contact it so that it can send you instructions on how to cancel.

Meal selection: There's a good variety of dishes with an attempt at exotic, but nothing too intimidating. One week's delivery consisted of harissa lamb and beef burgers with carrot fries; roast chicken and potato latkes with savoy cabbage and apple-mustard chutney; and tamarind-glazed cod with lime rice and cucumber relish.

Degree of difficulty: If you can read, chop and stir, the meals are relatively easy. Don't be intimidated by the fact that you have to make your own quick pickles, or work with lamb. For the harissa lamb burger, most of the items are portioned out for you, but you won't end up using everything, including extra spices.

Cook time: A recipe that was quoted as taking 30 to 40 minutes took 41.

Taste: The harissa burger, which included a mix of lamb, beef, diced onion and breadcrumbs, was craveable and restaurant-worthy. If you've never had a lamb burger, or harissa, this could be a nice introduction.

CHEF'D: www.chefd.com

Price: $41 for one dish that serves two people. This is one of the few services that lets you pick individual meals for delivery. It's easy to cancel because you're not locked into a weekly subscription.

Meal selection: You can narrow down your meal choices based on proteins and lifestyle (vegetarian, gluten-free, family-friendly and "gourmet"), and view customer ratings, a breakdown of allergens and suggested wine pairings. Each meal was designed by a chef, so there's everything from a spicy Korean pork farro bowl to lamb curry and turmeric rice.

Degree of difficulty: This depends on the meal you choose. But the meals labeled easy are easy. The recipes also come with a list of required cooking equipment. For the Korean pork farro bowl, some of the items are pre-chopped, so the recipe requires very little prep.

Cook time: One dish called for 30 minutes, but took 41 minutes.

Taste: The name of the dish is spicy Korean pork farro bowl, and you get what's advertised. The meal tasted like a fairly authentic pork bibimbap, just a little on the oily side.

HELLO FRESH: www.hellofresh.com

Price: $69 for three meals, each intended for two people. It's easy to put your subscription on pause, then start it up again, or not. The website features an interactive calendar that allows you to cancel or reactivate at any time.

Meal selection: Decide if you'd like a classic box, "vegi" box or family box, then choose three of five available meals. A recent classic box delivery included creamy coconut fish with rice; Tuscan ribollita; and soy-glazed steak with wasabi mashed potatoes and spinach.

Degree of difficulty: Depends on the recipe, but intermediate ended up being pretty easy. Everything is portioned out for you, including the liquid ingredients. This makes prep extremely easy. The soy-glazed steak with wasabi and mashed potatoes was also a two-pot meal, so very little cleanup. And the finished dish looked identical to the advertised picture.

Cook time: Better than expected. The recipe said 45 minutes; it took 36.

Taste: This dish could have been ordered at an Asian fusion restaurant. The wasabi mashed potatoes were creamy with just a hint of spice and the sauce for the steak was approachable and flavorful.

LIGHTER: www.lighterculture.com

Price: $65 for nine meals, each designed to feed one person. You can order three breakfasts, three lunches and three dinners for one week. It's a subscription service, but it's easy to pause or reactivate your deliveries online.

Meal selection: You'll need to fill out a profile that includes information on how adventurous you are in the kitchen, what your goals are (lose weight, eat healthfully, etc.), if you have a blender and how long you'd like to spend cooking. Based on your answers, the service plans your meals for you. A recent week's worth of food included ingredients for a green smoothie, curried chickpea salad sandwich, pad Thai and a bag of popcorn, an apple and some bananas for snacks.

Degree of difficulty: This service is not as easy as the others when it comes to prepping actual meals. You will need to go online to look up the recipes for the groceries provided. Nothing is portioned out; it's more of a grocery delivery service with some guidance than a prepare-at-home meal delivery kit. If you're planning on making the curried chickpea salad sandwiches, expect an entire loaf of bread. Lighter also uses a third-party delivery service, so you may or may not get a phone call from a driver asking you where to park around your office, and if you'll validate parking.

Cook time: This depends on the recipe. The pad Thai took around 20 minutes.

Taste: If you choose a dish that's considered ethnic, don't expect authenticity. The pad Thai was more noodles with peanut butter and soy sauce than what you'd find at a Thai restaurant.

PEACH DISH: www.peachdish.com

Price: $72 for two dishes meant to feed two people each, plus a couple snacks and bottled sauces. There is a $45 minimum for each order, so if you just want to pick two dishes for the week, chances are you'll need to buy something else from the website, including spices or cookbooks. If you don't choose to sign up for a weekly subscription service, you can pay an extra $7 for each individual shipment. It's also easy to cancel with one click.

Meal selection: This service is meant to be "Southern," but on the lighter side, so expect dishes such as chicken and dumplings; mushrooms over red pepper grits; and sauteéd Swiss chard with tagliatelle blue cheese and walnuts. The recipes come with a short blurb about the chef who came up with the dish, and nutrition facts.

Degree of difficulty: The hardest thing you'll be asked to do is chop some vegetables or herbs; for the most part, the ingredients are portioned out for you. The finished dish was almost identical to the advertised picture.

Cook time: The recipe was quoted as taking 30 minutes; it took about 25.

Taste: The tagliatelle with Swiss chard, blue cheese and walnuts was hearty and satisfying. There was definitely enough for two people, and it felt like a one-plate composed meal.

PLATED: www.plated.com

Price: $54 for two dinners, each meant for two people. If you'd like to add special cuts of meat and market price seafood, tack on an extra $20 for that week's order. Dessert will cost you $8. The service automatically renews each week until you pause your plan.

Meal selection: After filling out a taste profile, the service suggests recipes for the week. The weekly menus include Moroccan tagine with butternut squash, sweet potatoes and turnips; and chicken pot pie with flaky biscuits.

Degree of difficulty: It's relatively easy if you read through the recipes, which also come with tips and a useful list of needed cooking equipment.

Cook time: The recipe card said 35 to 45 minutes; the Moroccan tagine was done in 40 minutes.

Taste: The Moroccan tagine was one of those exotic but far from intimidating meals. This was not a dumbed-down version of a traditional tagine either; the flavors were punchy and there was a real sense of accomplishment.

PURPLE CARROT: http://thepurplecarrot.com

Price: $68 for three meals, each intended to serve two people. The meals will continue to come each week until you pause or cancel your subscription online.

Meal selection: Everything is plant-based (vegan), and the meals are pre-selected, but you can choose alternate dishes if say eggplant comes up one week and you're not a fan. Recent orders included chili "non carne" with masa flatbread; katsudon made with celery root topped with tamari "cream" and pickled pea salad; and red lentil stew with cranberries. Some of the dishes are from Mark Bittman, the cookbook author and former New York Times columnist who is now the frontman for the Purple Carrot brand, and some come from chefs, including Mario Batali. There's a good variety of dishes, with some involving vegetables and grains and others incorporating soy-based proteins.

Degree of difficulty: Although the dishes may seem complicated, most are easy to prepare. With the chili "non carne," you actually make your own flatbread in the oven. This may sound scary but it's not. Most of the ingredients are portioned for you and there's some chopping and stirring involved, but that's about as difficult as it gets.

Cook time: The recipe card said 35 minutes; it took 38.

Taste: If you're not vegan or a little wary of something called "tempeh" (soy protein that comes in a vacuum-sealed package), you'll be pleasantly surprised with the chili "non carne." The flavors were familiar enough, and the texture of the tempeh made it an easy substitute for ground chicken. And the flatbread was something you'll want to make every time you serve anything in a bowl.

SUN BASKET: www.sunbasket.com

Price: $68.94 for three meals, each intended to serve two people. This was the most difficult service to cancel. Once you eventually find and click the link to cancel on the website, you receive an email asking if the company can fix a problem or service issue, at which point you'll have to send an email confirming your request to cancel.

Meal selection: There's a lot of variety from week to week, including gluten-free, paleo and vegetarian options. A recent gluten-free, paleo-friendly box included herb-topped cod in a spicy tomato sauce with braised greens; sausage with pear and escarole salad; and seared steak with artichoke-pepper tapenade and sweet potato fries.

Degree of difficulty: The herb-topped cod required light chopping and mixing, but was pretty much a one-pan meal. The directions are easy to follow and the recipe card includes a list of what you'll need from your pantry and specific cooking equipment. But the finished product looked nothing like the picture on the recipe card.

Cook time: The recipe card stated 45 minutes to prepare and finish the cod dish; it took 24.

Taste: The cod, having been previously frozen, was on the rubbery side, though the sauce was rich and great on its own. (If you're particular about fish, maybe choose a meal that features another main ingredient.)

jenn.harris@latimes.com

Twitter: @Jenn_Harris_

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 02, 2016, in the Features section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Order. Prepare. Enjoy." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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