When the rich and famous want to go organic, get in the Zone or visit South Beach at dinnertime, they can count on their personal chefs to bring together a strict diet and fine dining on one plate. For the rest of us, there’s a growing number of meal delivery services that promise to keep us (and our hips) on the straight and narrow.
They’ll do the planning, the cooking and the portioning. They’ll deliver daily meals in an insulated bag, each dish in its own plastic container.
Such services have been around a few years, but now several have taken the idea to the next level. They’ve teamed with chefs and caterers who ought to know a thing or two about good food. One even has a former Bastide sous-chef at the helm.
But is it really possible to order diet food, put it in the microwave and, at the beep, dine on a delicious meal?
I decided to find out.
In my search, I came across dozens of meal-delivery programs created by nutritionists, personal trainers, restaurants, raw and organic chefs and other specialty firms. Some deliver several days’ worth of meals at one time. About half a dozen offered a combination of fresh-daily home delivery (to avoid wilted, days-old fare), meals based on the latest weight-loss theories and the promise of satisfying a picky palate.
I found that the companies with the most appealing menus operated along Zone diet guidelines. That is, each of three meals and two daily snacks is balanced with 30% protein, 30% favorable fats and 40% carbohydrates, reportedly to keep a dieter’s blood sugar levels steady. A few firms also promised that snacks would be made of fresh food, not prepackaged protein bars.
That sounded good to me, and needing to lose a few pounds anyway, I tried three of the newest daily-delivery companies for one week each: Zone Los Angeles, Zone Chefs and Fresh Dining. All their menus promised a level of cooking unseen in most diet programs. Each used nutritionists to help develop meals; each offered short-term tryouts, delivered across a wide area and allowed for at least minimal customization. The prices ranged from $30 a day for a one-time promotion to $55 for a gourmet, organic program.
None of the services required that I navigate a complicated menu or delivery chart. I simply phoned each to arrange delivery and place my special requests.
Zone Los Angeles
Zone Los Angeles, which debuted in January, is a new branch of a Seattle-based service that uses a team of local caterers who cook according to Zone guidelines.
I was charmed by the warmth of the customer-service representatives, Jeff and Arlene Sherman, the mother and son who own the company. With about 100 clients, they’re able to maintain a high level of customer contact. Talking to them, you get the feeling they want you to succeed and to like their food.
But the meals didn’t match my expectations. Several snacks seemed overly simple: half a sliced orange, cottage cheese with berries that got smashed in transit, and black bean chips with unremarkable guacamole. One lunch was a Mediterranean wrap made of deli turkey rolled around asparagus. This, I thought, I could do myself. Dinner was more asparagus with spinach and wild salmon that dried out with reheating.
The following days showed many improvements, such as a satisfying raisin-nut granola and yogurt breakfast, and large, tender tiger shrimp on baby greens for lunch.
I either ate only a bite of or skipped items that I found odd or unpalatable: hard-boiled eggs filled with a hummus that tasted too much of tahini, a Waldorf salad made with edamame, and a Florentine frittata with soy cheese that reheated to a greenish hue and spongy texture.
Dinner one night, though, was filet mignon, my favorite. The steak was tender, reheated well and complemented a generous side of sugar snap peas.
But overall, the meals didn’t seem $45-a-day gourmet.
The executive chef for L.A.'s Zone Chefs, Raj Brandston, was a founding employee of the now-defunct Zone Gourmet. He often scours ethnic markets for unusual ingredients and unexpected ideas for Zone-compatible meals.
That would explain how Asian bean thread noodles wound up in my turkey with tomato sauce, a low-glycemic riff on spaghetti and meat sauce. It was one of those dishes that I expected to be horrific, but I ate the whole thing. That unexpected combination was just the opposite of regimens like the cabbage-soup diet, where palate boredom can doom you from the start.
Zone Chefs’ menu included delicate Chilean sea bass and a nicely grilled rack of lamb. The meals frequently included substitutions for many forbidden favorites, such as cheesecake, cookies and “deep-fried” meats. But they just reminded me how much better the real stuff tastes. And I wasn’t impressed by the breakfast side dishes of plain broccoli and lumps of spinach.
With the services of its own pastry chef, Zone Chefs is able to serve its 1,000 clients in L.A. and 2,500 in New York an expanded selection of Zone-compatible (that is, high-protein) muffins, cakes and cookies.
But not a single dish stood out as exceptional. The company failed to cancel my subscription on time, twice, so I had several more days of meals. It was more of the same -- nothing memorable.
My favorite of the three services was Fresh Dining, a 3-month-old company with a plan that sounded -- and tasted -- positively gourmet. Breakfast might be a Gruyere and spinach omelet with slow-roasted tomatoes; for lunch, a salad of arugula, prosciutto, mozzarella and ice wine dressing; and dinner could be a sirloin steak with mushroom cream sauce. I’d expect nothing less from a chef with Dianna Riffone’s credentials (she was sous-chef at Bastide for two years and at Melisse for two years). And I wasn’t disappointed.
Encino-based Fresh Dining offers a carbohydrate-controlled plan called Fresh Start Diet that combines lean protein, fresh produce and beneficial fats, but not in a strict Zone-specific percentage. It delivers three meals and two snacks daily; can help you hook up with a personal trainer; and includes an organic-upgrade option. The company serves the same meals to all clients daily, yet it also allows some substitutions, accommodating my ban on Mexican food.
By far, the program was the most carefully thought out. Compared with the other services, Fresh Dining’s food arrived in the best condition: It was the coldest, most artfully presented and most gently undercooked to allow for optimal reheating. It was a pleasure just to zip open the cooler and see pansies on the pancakes, or skewers of melon and lychee or the tiny containers of flavorful sauces and garnishes.
The menu sounded elegant and ambitious, with items such as Chambord panna cotta with raspberry gelee, steak with mushroom cream sauce or goat cheese lasagna. Dinners promised black tiger shrimp with Thai coconut broth, a hearty Hungarian goulash with braised red cabbage, filet mignon with gorgonzola butter and asparagus bearnaise.
Lunches weren’t simple sandwiches, but an array of entree-worthy salads, such as marinated flank steak on shaved fennel; mixed greens with currants, apples and walnuts; or arugula with peaches, prosciutto, mozzarella and silky-sweet ice wine dressing. Dipped in that dressing, I’d even eat my pencil.
Fresh Dining offered food so delicious that I would gladly have eaten four servings of each dish. That I didn’t consume the entire contents of my daily cooler in one sitting is testimony to my fortitude, or my fear of fat -- you choose.
Riffone’s cooking credentials are proven, but I also sensed her recent experience with her own detox diets. She employed details that added to the nutritional, aesthetic and psychological appeal. Slathering white horseradish cream and caraway seeds over vivid shaved beets or pouring patterns of basil oil into your coconut broth brought a level of pleasing ritual to the meal.
Still, I had to adjust. For someone accustomed to the sweet crunch of boxed cereal in the morning, it was difficult to choke down breakfast vegetables, such as a green salad that accompanied a smoked salmon omelet. And on my second day, I was starved enough to count the number of lettuce leaves in the breakfast salad: seven.
Snack time is every dieter’s vulnerable moment. Fresh Dining fortified my willpower with an after-lunch lineup that variously included smoked trout (the size of a goldfish) with a creamy chive yogurt sauce; cucumber soup with rock shrimp ceviche; pistachio dip with flax seed chips; and my new favorite combination, French lentils with feta. The dish is punctuated by fresh herbs and lime juice, and the feta is the perfect foil for the earthy lentils.
This was in stark contrast to Zone Chefs’ high-protein pastries, several of which tasted of protein powder, or Zone Los Angeles’ unimpressive olive tapenade that came with the same things I pack in my kindergartener’s lunch -- crackers and string cheese.
Fresh Dining was also a marvel with the microwave. I was wary of the miso-glazed cod for dinner, but one minute in the microwave proved me wrong. It was as fabulous as anything I’ve had in pricey restaurants. The fish was moist and succulent, the glaze a beautiful balance of flavors salty, sweet and tart.
When the week of meals came to a close, I felt as if I’d just had a vacation with four-star room service, but in fact I’d reduced my appetite, my weight (about a pound) and my sugar cravings. I also had more energy and even managed to refuse an offer of fine Oregon Pinot Noir -- I’d have had to give up a snack in exchange.
Temptation is nothing, I realized, when you’ve got a better option waiting at home.
After my three weeks of delivered diet meals, I’m not much thinner (and yes, I know about exercise). But I’m smarter about portion size, the energy-boosting benefits of having protein in the morning and regularly spaced, small meals.
And I’m convinced dieting doesn’t have to be about deprivation. It requires some restraint, yes, but there’s no reason to abandon the pleasures of good food.