Thanks to the pandemic, we’ve spent the better part of two years more crunched for time than ever. As a result, we’ve streamlined our lifestyles to keep up with the onslaught of professional and personal demands and heightened safety protocols, all while trying to keep our health on the rails.
It should come as no surprise that many of us are suffering from cooking burnout as a result.
One of the biggest lifesavers in this department is meal delivery services. While you may be familiar with brands like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, which send you all the ingredients you’ll need to cook a recipe and the instructions to follow, there’s a whole new type of ready-to-eat meal delivery service that makes life even easier.
The cook-your-own meal delivery services (think Blue Apron) aren’t for everyone
The whole point of these services is to take the stress out of deciding what’s for dinner and eliminating the need to grocery shop. But if you don’t have the income to buy these services regularly, you might find that even with a meal delivery service, you’re still spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about dinner, doing to the grocery store and doing meal prep.
The result? Meal-based decision fatigue is still on the table, and you still have to cook your dinner. Despite the ingredients being pre-measured and prepped, you might find yourself cooking meals that are more complicated than you’re used to (or know how to do).
“You’ll have to take care to read the instructions thoroughly and unless you know your way around the kitchen, it’ll likely take you longer than what the directions say,” Nicole Avena, a New York-based health psychologist and nutrition expert, told HuffPost.
With many services, you still have to hit up the store for breakfast, lunch and snack foods too, whittling down the convenience factor even further.
The majority of meal delivery services requiring a subscription can also be a problem for some. Sure, the subscriptions are flexible and you can pause or cancel them at any time, but it still gives you another ongoing expense.
“If your schedule’s chaotic or you have a fluctuating income (or both), staying on top of a subscription like this can add to a person’s distress,” Avena said.
Not to mention, it takes a lot of emotional bandwidth to figure out how many meals you can afford to order that week, take the time to make them and arrange who’ll be home for the delivery.
Ready-to-eat meal delivery services might be more your speed
Enter meal delivery services that provide pre-portioned and cooked meals via a straightforward online shopping experience — buy the meals you need when you need them, no subscription required. All you have to do is heat them up.
“I often recommend ‘heat and eat’ meals to clients who need a break from cooking but still want to eat well,” said Samantha Cassetty, a nutrition and wellness expert and co-author of “Sugar Shock”. “They’re especially helpful if you’re experiencing cooking burnout or you’ve got a heavy workweek coming up, since these are the types of scenarios that usually throw us off track.”
These prepared meal services typically cook the meals right before sending them to you. Once cooked, the meals are either flash frozen or vacuum-sealed and delivered in an insulated container (packed with dry ice or gel packs) to preserve both nutrients and freshness. The brands also “break down the nutritional profile of each meal, like how much protein and fiber, which can give you a better sense of how nutritious and filling they’ll be,” Cassetty said.
Another big perk of prepared meal delivery services is how flexible the dishes are.
“You don’t have to eat everything as-is,” Cassetty said. “If a meal is light on veggies, you can always add more. If it’s got an oversized portion of rice, you can serve yourself what you need and save the rest for another meal.”
But because prepared meals are typically higher in sodium than dishes you’d make yourself, chowing down on them more than once a day isn’t ideal (some of these meals contain more than the recommended daily allowance of sodium, so make sure to choose the lowest sodium options where possible).
“If you’re making these meals part of your regular diet, focus on fewer processed foods at other times, since most of the sodium in our diets comes from processed foods and restaurant meals,” Cassetty said.
Making sure you eat plenty of fruits and veggies at your other eating occasions can also help balance the scales, she added: “The potassium in produce will help counter the sodium you get from these meals.”
Depending on the prepared meal delivery service you choose, prices seem to hover in the middle — costing more than making dinner yourself and less than ordering takeout.
If you’re someone who’s prone to buying ingredients with the intention of cooking only to not follow through, these services take the friction out of the equation, ultimately saving you money and time and reducing food waste in the process.
“You can also buy meals in bulk, which often helps save on costs,” Avena said. “So although some dishes may cost the same as restaurant takeout, you’ll ultimately be saving money on delivery fees, tips, and in some cases, takeout fees (for the packaging).”
Nutritionists’ favorite ready-to-eat meal delivery services that don’t require a subscription
“This service was founded by a physician in bariatric medicine and has a health-centric focus,” Avena said. “It offers a variety of meal options for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you can also select meals based on a specific diet, such as gluten-free, heart-healthy, diabetic and dairy-free.”
According to their website, the average Balance meal offers up roughly 20-25% of calories from healthy fats, 30-35% from complex carbs and 40-45% from lean protein sources to keep your body well-fueled sans nutritional imbalances.
“All meals range between 250-400 calories, so you never have to worry about eating too much,” Avena said.
Prices range anywhere from $5.99-$13.99 per meal. Balance by BistroMD ships throughout the U.S. — except for Alaska and Hawaii — and there’s no minimum purchase required. Shipping is a flat rate of $19.95, with orders over $99 eligible for free shipping.
Factor meals are delivered fresh, not frozen, and the menu is switched up each week. A variety of meals are available to suit your dietary preferences, such as vegetarian and low-carb. You can click on each meal to score a detailed description, nutritional breakdown and specific ingredient list that highlights potential allergens off the top.
Pricing ranges from $11-15 per meal, depending on how many meals you want delivered. Factor delivers to all states except Alaska and Hawaii, with a flat-rate shipping cost of $9.99 per delivery.
Your first order will be processed automatically as a weekly subscription, but you can turn off the subscription immediately and order meals on-demand from that point forward.
Veestro is a prepared meal delivery service that focuses on plant-based fare. Prices vary based on how many a la carte meals you order (anywhere from $10-$12 per meal), with a minimum of 10 meals required and you can order up to 30 at a time.
“You’re able to filter meals based on various factors, including high protein, soy-free, nut-free and kosher,” Michigan-based registered dietitian Holly Klamer said. Click on each meal option to reveal an ingredients list (each organic ingredient is marked with an asterisk) and a detailed nutritional breakdown.
Veestro ships to the lower 48 states, with a $9.99 shipping fee for one-time orders.
According to their website, Top Chef Meals uses locally sourced ingredients, no artificial ingredients, GMOs, preservatives, trans fats or high fructose corn syrup. Meals are made to order and flash frozen to preserve the nutrients and flavors during the shipping process.
This is one of the most versatile prepared meal delivery services around — they give you the ability to choose your entree, side and vegetable. “There are a lot of ways to customize your order, like doubling up on veggies or getting a bigger portion of protein,” Cassetty said.
The nutrition key makes it easy to tell which dishes are suitable for various diets (diabetic, low sodium, gluten-free) and the key adjusts depending on the customizations you select.
A couple of caveats, though: “The service doesn’t give you a complete nutrition facts profile, so you can’t tell how much added sugar is in a meal or how much saturated fat it contains,” Cassetty said. “There’s also an incomplete ingredient list for some of the side dishes, which could be an issue for people who need to avoid certain foods.”
Most meals are between $9-$12 each, and Top Chef Meals ships to the entire continental U.S. “No minimum order’s needed, but one is required to receive free shipping and the exact minimum is based on your zip code,” Klamer said.
MealPro has no fixed menus. The pre-cooked meals are made fresh daily, plated in a microwave-safe container and vacuum-sealed to retain freshness. According to their website, MealPro uses all natural ingredients and prepares each meal using cooking techniques that optimize nutrient retention.
“There’s an emphasis on fresh produce and large quantities of white meat, lean cuts of red meat or fish,” Klamer said. “They only serve seasonal and sustainable seafood following the Seafood Watch guidelines.”
The ingredient lists make it easy to see the food quality and if the meals contain any allergens — though the lists don’t seem complete. “One of the meals lists marinara sauce, for instance, but it doesn’t say whether there are onions or garlic or anything else in the sauce,” Cassetty said. “This can be a problem for people who need to avoid certain foods.”
Still, the ability to customize your meals — say, by doubling the veggies in place of a carb side or buying just veggies or just the protein source — is a big plus.
“I always tell clients to think about what the biggest challenge is around making a meal, then whatever it is, see if you can delegate it,” Cassetty said. “This service could be a huge help with this process.”
Most meals are around $10 each, with a minimum order of 18 meals. Shipping fees vary depending on where you live, but it’s usually $10 or less for most zip codes in the Pacific and Mountain time zones.
Delivery takes around 1-3 days per the time zone of your address (Pacific and Mountain, they ship and deliver daily; Central and East, they ship Monday-Tuesday and delivery is Wednesday-Friday).
“They also offer a rewards program,” Klamer said. “You can earn rewards points for every purchase then redeem them for free meals.”
Performance Kitchen’s mission is to make frozen meals that are nutritious and delicious. According to their website, the service uses only 100% grass-fed beef and lamb, antibiotic-free pork and chicken, wild-caught fish, plant-forward options and reduced sodium and sugar.
“Not only do they provide a variety of meals and sides based on diet (Mediterranean, vegetarian, low FODMAP), but they organize meals based on types of cuisine (Cuban, Indian, Thai, Southwest),” Avena said.
All meals are $8.99 and national shipping is available to each state within 1-2 business days (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). Orders over $100 are eligible for free shipping, while orders below that are subject to shipping costs of $25.