If you prefer not to cook for a few nights each week (or at all), a meal-by-mail service can slice big bucks off of your bloated monthly takeout bill.
Meal delivery services are plentiful in 2023, with more popping into the category -- and our social media feeds -- all the time. At last count, there were well over two dozen meal subscriptions that make and send just about any type of food you could want to nearly any address in the continental US. Many of these services, including Fresh N Lean, Blue Apron and Daily Harvest, are quite tasty, healthy and super simple to prepare. But is meal delivery worth the cost?
I'm no stranger to calling in my favorite order to a local restaurant, but I don't always make the healthiest food or financial decisions in those hungry moments with a menu splayed out in front of me. With my monthly eats bill soaring from some hard-to-break lockdown habits, I started wondering if meal delivery might pose a viable, more budget-friendly alternative to all that takeout and delivery. Perhaps, a healthier one, too.
With dozens of great meal kits and prepared meal delivery services to pick from, all of which send ready-to-eat meals or preportioned ingredients to cook up into dinner, I set out to see how much cheaper meal delivery services are than a typical takeout order. In some cases, meal kits and prepared meal services proved to be more than 50% cheaper than takeout, and up to 75% cheaper than delivery via fee-happy apps such as DoorDash or Uber Eats.
Here's how I did the math and a snapshot of how much meal delivery costs in 2023.
This isn't the most straightforward answer since there is no universal pricing for takeout. Instead, we'll have to use some ballpark figures and averages to find a number to compare to meal kits and prepared meal services.
Restaurant takeout costs vary by region, but this report shows the average restaurant takeout meal costs around $13. To verify, I priced out the cost of takeout in my New York City borough of Brooklyn for a variety of popular dishes at midrange restaurants.
|Chicken tenders w/ fries||Cheeseburger combo||Pepperoni pizza||Chicken burrito||Chicken fried rice||Chicken pad thai||Macaroni and cheese|
|Serving size||1 order||1 order||1 small pizza||1 burrito||1 quart||1 order||2 cups|
From there, I've taken the average of those meals to find an approximate cost per serving for restaurant takeout. Average all those meals out and you get $12.90 for the average takeout meal. Pretty spot on with the other data I found for average meal costs. If you wanted to include a couple of bucks toward a tip for the counter person, it would be more like $15.
Delivery is markedly more expensive since it typically includes app service fees, delivery charges and a bigger tip. For delivery, the average cost per meal with fees and charges is a whopping $21.80.
While these are technically "one-serving" meals, you could certainly argue that the typical order of pad Thai, lamb curry or chicken fried rice is good for more than one serving. That said, most of the meal kits I've made are also good for more servings than advertised. A meal kit "for two" is often more like three meals in my house, and I'm a pretty good eater (just ask my mom). So let's just call that a wash.
In a previous breakdown, we outlined how much cheaper takeout classics are to make at home. In another, we priced meal kits against buying all the groceries to make yourself. Here, we price out how much cheaper it is per serving to use a meal kit versus ordering out. Because meal kit plans vary depending on how many meals and servings you order, I used both the price for an average, middle-of-the-pack plan and the cheapest plan for each meal service to see how they compare.
|Service||Cost per serving|
As shown below, budget-friendly meal kits such as EveryPlate and Dinnerly cost roughly half as much as a typical takeout meal. If you order delivery with all those added fees, your typical meal will cost about three times as much as the cheapest meal kit service. Even the most expensive meal kits cost less than the average takeout meal.
|Service||Cost per serving|
If you choose the cheapest plans -- usually available when you purchase more meals per week -- from the various services, the savings are greater. The cheapest meal kits are about one-third the cost of takeout on average and more than 75% less expensive than delivery."
Prepared meal services such as Fresh N Lean, CookUnity and Factor are a closer match to takeout and delivery since there is no prep or cooking required, just heating and eating. While the delta between prepared meal delivery and takeout is smaller than with meal kits, most services are still cheaper than most orders of takeout and absolutely cheaper than delivery, which sits at nearly $22 per meal.
If you choose a service such as Mosaic Foods (one of my favorites) which has larger family-size meals, you'll save big over takeout with portions clocking in at $6, far less than the cost of the average takeout meal.
|Service||Cost per serving (cheapest plan)|
|Fresh N Lean||$9|
|Pete's Real Food||$14|
There's no easy way to measure the overall healthiness of meal delivery versus meal kits or prepared meal delivery. But I will say this from my own experience: If you're choosing meals in bulk for the week or weeks ahead on an information-packed website, you're probably more likely to select some healthy, protein-packed dishes than you would be if you're hungry in the moment, perusing a takeout menu with all its tantalizing options.
Meal kits and meal delivery services show you all the ingredients and nutritional information as you're selecting them, including calories, carbs, sugar and salt so you can make a sober and measured decision as to what you want on your dining table in the coming days and weeks.
What's the catch? With meal kits, you'll have to do some cooking but most of them do all the measuring for you in advance and some even do the prep, so dinner can take as little as 20 minutes from start to finish. Services such as Blue Apron and Home Chef also have ready-to-cook meals which take as little as five minutes to prepare, plus time to cook. Prepared meal delivery more closely resembles the convenience of takeout.
The bottom line: Meal kits or prepared meal delivery could be the answer to your restaurant takeout budget woes. Choose the right one, like any from this CNET-tested list of the best healthy meal delivery services, and it might just kick your healthy eating habits into gear, too.