You see them advertised on TV, online, on pamphlets, or you might hear friends and family talk about using them at some point. Meal delivery services have boomed in the past several years and are used by many as a more convenient and creative way to cook at home.
There are many benefits of using one of these services, but do they provide a convenient option to healthy and fuss free homemade food?
As a dietitian and nutritionist who has many clients who swear by meal delivery services, I finally took the plunge to try them myself and determine if they are a healthy option for the family. Wanting to be thorough I took advantage of the introductory sales for both Marley Spoon and Hello Fresh, five meals per week for five weeks each.
I will also preface that I don’t necessarily endorse one meal delivery service over another, so this is not a review of which I enjoyed more.
As I chose the two top competing companies, I wanted to consider convivence and creativity, cost, and variety, as well as health. To rate a meal as a “healthy option” I looked at total calories, protein, saturated fat, and salt per serve. I also judged the meals on how many serves of vegetables, they may or may not have contained. So, let’s dive in!
With the introductory sales the meals averaged $6 to $10 per serve. This is pricier than shopping for my own ingredients, but for my family we were looking for interesting options because we had fallen into dinner monotony, so this was reasonable for us at the time.
Creativity and Convenience
On a personal note, the main reason I wanted to use these services was due to meal planning fatigue. I was uninspired and found myself cooking the same things week after week, which caused me to buy more take away food as I craved variety. I give these services a big tick in this department as I felt free to think of other mundane tasks knowing dinner was sorted.
Time wise, they aren’t convenient, if anything it’s more fuss and cleaning up at the end of an evening! If you love cooking for the joy of cooking these are great, you are involved with zesting lemons, crashing garlic, marinating meats. But on a work night it became a chore, and then a battle between myself and my husband of whos turn it was to clean the many pots and bowls left in the kitchen.
Each company offered over 20 weekly dishes, ranging in proteins, flavours, and cuisine types. You could travel the world through food during the week which we enjoyed. I personally felt Marley spoon offered more variety, particularly in the plant-based department, whereas Hello Fresh did repeat the potato and rice sides often which got tiring after 5 weeks. For both companies they each provided a wide range of spices, herbs, and vegetables which we wouldn’t have bought in a normal weekly shop.
Now to the nitty gritty, how did these stack up health wise?
Not so great.
Calories and serving sizes
The recipes came with two predetermined serves. Depending on the chosen recipe the portion size could be so large it easily made three serves, whereas other recipe portions made the portions feels small (particularly the low carb options) which left us wanting more. So, it can be quite variable depending on what you choose.
Most recipes were around the 650 to 750 calorie (2700 to 3200kJ) mark, some of the “healthier options were closer to 500 calories (2000kJ) and others were close to 1000 calories (4200kJ) per serve!! On a personal note, we are pretty weight stable in our house and over the two months we did this we each gain on average two kilos, keep in mind we were doing these five nights a week.
Protein per serve
Most recipes were within a respectable 20-30 grams of protein per serve which is a good amount to feel satisfied on without being excessive. However, there were also options that were well over 40 grams per serve which is higher than recommended at a mealtime.
This is a big red fag that was consistent across most of the meals. Unless the recipe was fish based, chicken breast, tofu or bean based, the saturated fat content was large. In favour of taste, the companies used fatty cuts of meat, loaded up on butter and coconut cream, making these recipes high in saturated fat. Not for the faint heart!
Like saturated fat, to add flavour to the dishes most steps required adding a pinch of salt, AND, 1-2 packets of stock cubes! That works out to be one stock cube per serve. Each recipe could easily exceed 2000mg of sodium, which is almost 100% of a recommended days’ worth of salt. For a household who is light handed with salt in cooking, the meals were at times too salty. We started skipping the pinches of salt and halving the amount of stock powder suggested.
These may not be everyone’s favourite part of the meal, but if we are aiming to eat healthier they are definitely a priority. It is recommended that half of your plate at dinner should be full of non-starchy vegetables (think salads or cooked veggies that aren’t potatoes or corn). This is where these meals get another big red cross.
When I was making my weekly selection, I tried to choose recipes which looked like they were full of veggies, in reality they still fell short. Only 1-2 recipes across our time trialling these actually met the recommended amount of veg in a meal. The vegetables in some meals were basically a garnish. We started stocking up on bags of salad leaves and other staple veggies to serve on the sides of these meals to boost their health rating.
Bottom line, if you want to use these food delivery services for healthy meals you HAVE to read the nutrition information on each recipe to carefully choose the few good options amongst the not so good. Aim for meals close to the 500 calorie and 20-30 grams protein mark per serve.
Additionally, you will have to BYO veg, as virtually all dishes fell short, and hold back on the salt and stock powders to reduce salt intake. I also highly recommend these companies employ some nutritionists and dietitians to help shape their recipes into more heart, gut, and weight healthy options.
After our time trialling these meals, we were a few kilos heavier, suffering from regular heart burn and indigestion and ready to go back to our regular simple meals.