David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com

On The Money Happiness and Time (copy)

An example of a home delivered meal from Blue Apron. File/AP

Buying fresh food and cooking it at home is an economical and healthy way to eat, while buying prepared food or dining out is more convenient but more expensive.

Meal kits split the difference. Pre-portioned ingredients and recipes arrive at your doorstep, you prepare and cook the food, and you pay a per-meal cost that rivals takeout and lower-priced restaurants.

Meal kits can help people who are learning how to cook, or have trouble planning meals. They can be convenient for people with limited grocery-shopping options. But at a per-meal cost of about $10, they are expensive, and the resulting meals can be disappointing.

Several days ago my wife and I prepared lime-and-basil salmon for dinner, with quinoa and green beans, and we had leftovers. The groceries cost about $7, partly because a Harris Teeter coupon knocked five bucks off the price of a pound of salmon, which was already on sale — but, that's how cost-conscious people shop. 

Now, if we'd used a meal kit service, we would have paid about $20 to $25 to have the ingredients and a recipe for two small meals delivered to our door.

We tried a meal kit service once. Some of the meals were delicious and fun to prepare, while others were disappointing. Some meals seemed designed to keep costs low for the meal kit company (soft tacos?), and some portions left me hungry, but it was mostly the cost that prompted us to cancel.

Here are some meal kit pros and cons. 

  • Pros: Learning to cook, avoiding shopping, recipes to suit many diets, and little food waste.
  • Cons: Cost per meal, portion size, preparation time, and packaging waste.

Meal kits are a multibillion-dollar business in the U.S. and dozens of companies are competing for your dollars. Young adults are among the largest consumers, with the 25-34 and 35-44 age groups each accounting for 23 percent of Blue Apron subscribers in 2018, according to Statista.

In most cases, a meal kit delivery consists of one box containing the ingredients and directions for several meals with at least two servings each. The weekly cost for three meals that serve two is around $60.  

If you look at a meal kit company website, you'll likely find it's hard to get detailed pricing and meal details without entering all your information and getting to the "checkout" page. One good thing you'll find is that most companies have introductory offers.

There are so many of these companies that, by trying different ones, a customer could have meal kit boxes delivered every week for months without ever paying full price. 

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I looked at HelloFresh, Blue Apron, Home Chef, Martha & Marley Spoon, Plated, Sun Basket, Green Chef (organic), and Purple Carrot (vegan). They all had introductory offers of up to half-off, some of them for up to four weeks of deliveries. Always check the rules and terms, but most companies allow you to cancel any time.

The meal kit concept looks a lot more attractive when the price is $5 to $7 per serving, which is what most of the introductory offers amount to. 

Market leaders HelloFresh and Blue Apron both offer $20-off-per-week for the first several weeks. So do many of their competitors.

Reducing the weekly cost by $20 takes HelloFresh's per-meal cost to as low as $4.99. Blue Apron's drops from $9.99 to $6.66 — three meals per week, each serving two people, for just under $40.

If you already subscribe to a meal kit service, consider taking advantage of promotional offers and trying a different one. You'll pay less while giving the competition a try. 

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.