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The novelty spurred by the pandemic of cooking consistently, experimenting with new recipes, and even making your own bread is, well, over. I’m exhausted, anxious, and even a little depressed, and there’s some solidarity in knowing these feelings are shared with folks all over the US, and the world. That’s why meal prep companies that design, produce, and deliver delicious food are in the spotlight right now; and there’s such an array to choose from.
I’m in the minority among my friends in that I’m still cooking three meals a day, five to six days a week, treating myself rarely to a special meal out to support a local business. Truth be told, I’d never used a meal prep delivery service, and I decided pandemic was the perfect time to experiment. I made it my personal mission to find the best meal subscription companies, with an emphasis on: Value, Nutrition, Sustainability, Convenience, and Quality.
And I didn’t quite do it alone. Food is the connective thread of my relationship with my girlfriend, Kit. I’m a constantly ravenous, farmer’s market-loving, budding at-home chef. Kit is a former Iron Man and marathoner, pescatarian / vegetarian, health and wellness nut, who also happens to be hypoglycemic. In quarantine in our San Francisco apartment, we talk about meals and plan for them non-stop, even discussing future meals, mid-meal.
We sampled four services over five weeks, and while I (Will) wrote this review, all the “Hot Takes” are from Kit :)
The Skinny: I always strive for the holy trinity of eating well, staying healthy and being active, but the ease of DoorDash’ing cacio e pepe or popping on Hulu can so easily get in the way. Territory Foods gets that struggle, and is on a mission to make eating well a more attainable and consistent ritual.
Their service’s blend of creative, local chefs and smart, nutritionist input makes for tasty clean eats. I appreciated Territory’s impressive amount of customization, allowing you to personalize everything from when you get delivery and what size meals you’d like to the nutritional approach you’re following, ingredients you’d like to avoid and more. Best of all, with every order Territory partners with Feeding America®, recovering more than a pound of food for someone facing hunger.
How it works: After confirming your zipcode is within a delivery zone, choose a 10 ($158) or 18 ($263) meal plan, or customize what works for you and your diet/wallet. You’re looking at about $14-15 per meal, which is about the equivalent of what you likely used to pay when you’d walk around the corner from your office to get whatever local spot was quick and healthy enough.
Memorable meal: Rosemary and aged balsamic roasted pork tenderloin w/ rainbow vegetable medley. In one of my dishes — a saucy delight of roasted pork and vegetables — I could’ve sworn the carrots had been cooking in a Le Creuset with brisket for hours. In reality, I warmed everything up together on a stovetop in five minutes on medium to high heat. The pork oozed with pungent peppery flavor and somehow struck that balance of tenderness that I didn’t expect from this prepared meal.
I could’ve sworn the carrots had been cooking in a Le Creuset with brisket for hours. In reality, I warmed everything up together on a stovetop in five minutes on medium to high heat.
Hot Take: “I liked that it consistently tasted like real food - not some re-heated mish-mash trying to be healthy.” - Kit
Score: 7.5 — Well rounded meals, but not the most consistent quality. Only a couple achieved truly bold flavors. Strong pricing for the amount of food.
The Skinny: Sun Basket is not the traditional meal kit service you may have in your head. And that’s a good thing. While they offer some conveniently pre-cooked meals that can be easily warmed up, Sun Basket’s model is rooted in delivering a recipe and it’s ingredients for you to prepare. Frankly, I planned to test these services for lunch mostly, as it’s the time I’m typically buried in work, cynical with the world, and not looking to put in a ton of effort with food prep. I want something healthy, fast, and filling enough. I’d recommend investing in Sun Basket for dinner, when you have more time to work with and through the recipes, which were all fascinating, creatively constructed, and serve large portions.
How it works: Choose how many people you’re cooking for (two or four) and the number of recipes you’d like for the week (two for $12.99 each, three for $11.99 each and four for $10.99 each. From there, customize your meal preference (everything from “Chef’s Choice” and “Carb Conscious” to “Paleo”, “Fresh and Ready” or “Lean and Clean”) and when you want the kits delivered. Lastly, review the wide array of recipe options and check the boxes of the number of recipes you’ll be getting that week.
Memorable meal: Mu shu bowls with your choice of protein (pork) and hoisin sauce. This recipe was no joke — it took work and focus. Despite being very comfortable in the kitchen, I was at times a little overwhelmed. But the work was worthwhile. This meal was refreshing, loaded with an array of ingredients: dried shiitake mushrooms, organic scallions, organic fresh cilantro, organic shredded cabbage, organic shredded carrots, and a stir fry blend made of gluten free tamari, toasted sesame oil, garlic and ginger. Each bite was rich with flavor, and the variety of textures kept me coming back for more. I basically ate this entire meal, despite being portioned for two people; sue me, Kit doesn’t eat meat :)
Hot Take: “Would recommend tasting consistently before serving, as I found recipes often needed a little extra salt and pepper, or more of the sauce than what was delivered.” - Kit
Score: 7.0 — Giant portions. Quality ingredients. Just a bit more work than expected.
The Skinny: Thistle is a breath of fresh air because they’re making eating nutritious, plant-based foods incredibly convenient and accessible. One of my hesitations with meal delivery services has been freshness, but Thistle flipped the script quickly on that one. Their meals consistently struck a balance of sticking to health and wellness, while integrating bold flavors. And since we’ve been a bit hesitant to hit our local Farmers market during the Pandemic, Thistle’s fresh plant-based haul hit the spot.
How it works: Pick your plan (vegan or omnivore) and how many meals over the span of the week you’ll want (just lunch, only dinner, or three meals a day). Prices range from $43 for three vegetarian lunches a week to $66 for four omnivore lunches a week, and all the way up to six days a week ($203 for vegan and $234 for omnivore).
Memorable meal: Southwestern Black Bean Salad. For me, an ideal lunch. This salad is packed with Southwest-inspired flavors from the spiced sunflower seeds and creamy vegan chipotle ranch dressing, completed with corn, tomatoes, and black beans. It reminded me of my favorite go-to salad spot in San Francisco’s downtown that I used to go to all the time for lunch — fresh, filling, flavorful ingredients that didn’t break the bank. Honorable mention goes to the Sweet Potato Taco Salad, featured above, which was an interesting riff on the classic Taco Salad vibe.
Hot Take: “Thistle was legit — the first service I tried that made me think, ‘I’d order this regularly.’ - Kit
Score: 8.0 — Delicious food. Easy to prep. Perfect serving sizes. Fair pricing.
The Skinny: Sakara is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘with form,’ or the manifestation of thoughts to things. It was clear from the start of my experience that Sakara Life wants to be more than your go-to meal service, they want to inspire your lifestyle. Everything about this experience was premium. The packaging was beautifully designed with countless subtle details that elevated the experience. For instance, wet ingredients were separated from lettuce in a salad so nothing got soggy; crunchy toppings, like shaved almonds, added texture to meals; and in addition to pre-prepped meal ingredients was a clear, plastic bag (it kind of reminded me of what I used to put pens and pencils in for middle school) that included “The Ultimate Guide to the Sakara Life”, a piece of sage that we burned and turned my house into a zen getaway (for 15 min), and a few other Sakara products like detox super bars and teas.
How it works: Choose your program (the signature - $350/week, the detox - $400/week, or the bridal - $1,395 for 20 days), clarify meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a blend), program length, frequency, and lastly your start date. Sakara was the most established brand I tried, the highest quality, and consequently, the most expensive.
Memorable meal: It was a close tie between the Sakara burrito bowl w/ turmeric corn salsa — an ideal size for lunch with surprisingly fresh ingredients — and the zen zucchini muffin w/ coconut bliss creme. Ignore the slightly ridiculous name, and dive into this healthy, moist cake and the out-of-nowhere, light and flaky coconut creme. I tried to split this with my girlfriend; emphasis on ‘tried’ because it was just too good. So good in fact, I forgot to take a photo.
Hot Take: “Really great flavor — and it didn’t feel like something I could easily make myself. So it was special in that way.” - Kit
Score: 9.0 — Beyond delicious. Bundle of items in the package made me feel like I was a part of a premium brand/experience. Just a bit too pricey for a weekly meal plan.
Sakara Life struck a phenomenal chord. Their fresh ingredients designed for creative, filling meals hit the spot with us — for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s just too expensive to do consistently. But we may treat ourselves with it for a week or two here down the road.
Realistically, we love cooking dinner, so our need is more for a consistently quick, healthy, easy to put together lunch. Thistle was a perfect fit for that need, and it’s more in our price range to justify becoming real subscribers.
I appreciated the experiences with Territory Foods and Sun Basket, however, the quality, ease and value was not consistently there for me. I imagine, though, both of these brands will only continue to improve because they’ve got a strong foundation.
If you’re next to test a meal subscription, remember these tips!
- Stick to the schedule. With all of this, there’s a premium on eating everything on schedule, before it goes bad. If you invest in one of these services, don’t give into the urge to order a pizza, or you end up wasting food. Stick to the plan!
- Buzzwords for good. Every one of these meal kit services are littered with buzzwords, but that’s a good thing! From their websites to pamphlets and packaging, you’ll see: ‘harness plant power,’ ‘ethically produced,’ ‘sustainably sourced,’ ‘organic fresh produce,’ ‘clean eating’, ‘recyclable’ etc...and that’s a testament to the farm-to-table culture’s positive impact.
- Convenience with a conscience. I work hard and work a lot, and these meals really do make the meal portion of this new normal, remote work life easier. And with the right service, you can confidently eat knowing the ingredients are responsibly sourced.
- Science-backed services. Dig a little deeper into each brand and they’ll prove the power of their products through their trusted board of scientists, nutritionists and physicians who collectively design and endorse their array of meals and products.