Top 4th of July Sales Best 4K Projectors 7 Early Prime Day Deals Wi-Fi Range Extenders My Favorite Summer Gadgets Cheap Car Insurance Target's 4th of July Sale Best Running Earbuds, Headphones

How We Test Meal Kits

We've tested nearly every meal kit service available in the US to find the best fit for any type of home chef. Here's how we do it.

box-kitchen-3x2
Sunbasket

The subscription economy is booming. According to a recent report from online subscription management service Zuora, subscriptions have more than quadrupled the pace set by the S&P 500 over the last decade. An estimated 68% of those are food- and beverage-based and meal kits represent a big slice of that. There are more meal kit delivery services now than ever with specialized services for every type of home cook. 

While they all follow a similar formula -- sending all the ingredients to easily execute home-cooked meals -- there are slight differences, making some meal kits for others for certain types of tastes, diets and culinary skill levels. And some are well, just plain better than others. 

thai-shrimp-before

Gobble's Thai shrimp with coconut rice is ready to cook.

David Watsky/CNET

Here at CNET, we've personally tested every meal kit service we could get our oven mitts on, from the original that launched it all, Blue Apron, to Martha Stewart's meal kits, the more budget-friendly services and Purple Carrot, a completely vegan meal kit service. All this testing is aimed at one thing: helping you find the best meal kit for your taste and budget.

If you're considering a meal kit service with so many options out there, you probably have questions. How much do meal kits cost? Which meal kit services have the quickest or easiest recipes to make? Perhaps you have some picky eaters and need a meal kit with lots of family-friendly options, or ones that can be adjusted to accommodate preferences and large or small numbers of eaters.

We consider all of that when testing meal kits for a review. Here's a bit more on exactly what we do to suss it all out and a closer look at how meal kit services are evaluated at CNET.

gobble-change-order.png

We'll always note how easy it is to select meals and change them from week to week.

Gobble/Screenshot by David Watsky/CNET

Choosing meal plans and the ordering process

The first thing any meal kit subscriber does is choose a plan and that's where we start. Some services have loads of different meal plans at various prices to accommodate larger groups or folks who only want a few meal kits per week. Others have super simple meal plan options with standard pricing. 

If a meal kit has overly complicated plans and pricing, we'll note that in the review. We'll also download and play around with the meal kit's app if it exists. The apps are most handy for changing the order for next week's meals on the fly or pulling up a recipe if you've lost the recipe cards.

Pricing: Choosing the meal plan illuminates the overall cost of a meal kit. There are budget meal kits with recipes as cheap as $5 per serving and others with premium meals that cost as much as $15. Later in the process, after cooking and eating, we'll determine if the meal kit service lived up to the billing and was worth the price. 

screen-shot-2022-02-17-at-9-53-27-am.png

There are budget-friendly meal kits with recipes as cheap as $5 per serving. We always consider value when evaluating a service.

EveryPlate/Screenshot by David Watsky/CNET

Recipe offerings and selections: This is one of the biggest differentiators and something we always consider carefully. If meal kit menu selections and recipe options are too limited it can be hard to find meals that you actually want to make. Conversely, if there are too many to choose from, that can be overwhelming. And beyond the sheer number is the quality of the recipes you're choosing from. Is a wide range of cuisines represented, and do the recipes sound interesting and tempting?

Customizing your order and recipes: Making changes and alterations to meal kits to fit your tastes is a newer phenomenon. Certain services like Home Chef and HelloFresh will allow you to change the protein, serving size and, in some cases, other components of the recipe including side dishes or starch. We always note how customizable meal kit services are, which may be important to people with food allergies and families with young kids. 

homechefcustomize-lead
Home Chef

Special diets and plant-based offerings: Most meal kit services make some attempt to accommodate folks with special diets, be it vegetarian, keto, low-carb, paleo, low-calorie or diabetic-friendly. Some have far more options for those diets and we'll always consider if a meal kit service is a good fit for someone with restrictions.

General healthiness: Speaking of which, the healthiness of any given meal kit service is always a top consideration. Most services offer a good number of healthy meals with lots of vegetables and lean proteins, but some put a bigger emphasis on it with lots of low-carb meals or plant-based offerings. There is also the quality of ingredients to consider. Meal kit outfits like Green Chef and Purple Carrot use mostly organic ingredients, while others aren't as particular about where they source.

Add-ons: Some services -- Sunbasket to name one -- have add-ons including breakfast foods and other groceries aimed at making your life easier. You can often just tack them on to your weekly delivery and save yourself a trip to the store.

sun-basket

Sunbasket has an enormous market of groceries and pantry goods to make your life easier.

Sun Basket

After considering the meal plans and menu options, it's time to place an order. We'll always place an order for at least one week of meals -- between three and five recipes. We make an effort to choose a variety of dishes in a few different cuisines or categories -- pasta, chicken, beef dish and a plant-based recipe if it's offered. If there are meals tagged with a "favorites" badge, we'll select one or two of those.

Read moreBest Healthy Meal Delivery Services for 2022

Meal kits are here. What's in the box and how does it look?

Upon receiving meals there are initial considerations. Did the box of meals show up when it was supposed to? This is important, especially for busy folks with hungry mouths to feed and a schedule to keep. 

Once the package is inside and opened, we consider the tidiness of the items inside. Some services are great about neatly packing and labeling the ingredients, while others are a bit more haphazard. It's important that ingredients, especially the less common ones, are labeled correctly and clearly so you know what to grab when you need it. We also note the environmental friendliness of the packaging, although most services have gotten pretty good at this practice in 2022.

hf-ship-2

We take careful note of how the shipment looked when it arrived and whether or not it showed up on time.

Shelby Brown/CNET

This is also when we do an initial check on quality and freshness, especially produce, meat and fish. If anything is visibly past its prime or significantly damaged, we'll make a note of it and relay that finding in the final review. If there are expiration dates on any items, we'll always check to ensure the food is not beyond or too near those dates.

Food is almost always shipped fresh and not frozen, so it's imperative that it arrives cold inside the insulated packaging or disposable cooler box. If any shipments of recipes ever arrive warm or at room temperature, they should not be cooked or eaten.

Time to cook the meal kits

Now it's time to cook the meal kits. The main event. For each meal kit recipe, we'll meticulously account for every ingredient listed. In most cases, the service will assume the home chef has some essentials like olive oil, salt and pepper, but everything else should be accounted for and easily identified. 

miso-salmon

All the ingredients for a healthy miso salmon with roasted veggies.

David Watsky/CNET

How easy the recipe is to execute: This is important, especially if it's a meal kit service that bills itself as one for new cooks and busy folks looking for fuss-free dinners. Before starting, we'll read through the recipe to make sure all the wording is clear. In these moments, it's important to put ourselves in the shoes of a new or inexperienced chef. Does this recipe use terms and techniques that the average new chef would know, or is it geared more towards a chef with lots of cooking under their belt? 

If the recipes are more complicated, that's certainly OK too, but the home chef will want to know what they're getting into before they drop money on a subscription. If there are highly technical terms and instructions, they should be outlined clearly so anyone can at least attempt the recipe. Many services include a small glossary with each recipe to help with those more advanced aspects. 

Checking listed recipe time against actual time: Recipes often give a ballpark time the recipe should take to make so we'll time the execution of the recipe to see how close it is. 

papperdelle

Sunbasket's easy pappardelle with wilted spinach, snow peas and ricotta. It looked good and tasted even better.

David Watsky/CNET

Let's eat. How does it look and, most importantly, taste?

This is surely the most subjective part of the evaluation but still an important one. When a recipe is finished you want it to look as close to the glamour shot on the website and taste good too. 

For this part, you'll have to put a little faith in our well-traveled tastebuds but we'll always relay anything noteworthy about a dish -- good or bad. Was it too salty? Was the sauce bland or bright and well-balanced? Was the piece of meat or fish not very fresh tasting? The success of the dish relies on several components working together and that's not always the case with meal kit recipes.

One reason to love meal kits is that they introduce you to new recipes, flavors, cuisines and ingredients. We'll always note when something tastes unique or interesting. Some folks might be drawn to more familiar food and so if their recipes are more classic than inventive, we'll note that too.

This is also when we get a sense of portion size. Is there just barely enough to feed the number of folks the recipe was intended to feed, or are there enough leftovers for lunch tomorrow? Large portions might not be the most important factor, but it's certainly nice to know, especially if you're looking for value in your meal kits. 

skillet-chicken-parm-copy

I was eating Martha Stewart and Marley Spoon's skillet chicken parmesan all week.

David Watsky/CNET

Overall impression

Having gone through every phase of the meal kit process, it's easier to weigh the experience against the cost compared to the rest of the category and competition. It's also easier to determine who a particular meal kit might be good for: new chefs, more experienced home cooks, families, big eaters or vegetarians to name a few. 

The ordering process, website and app, delivery logistics, recipe execution, taste and value are all factored in before we make our final assessment and rating -- scoring each 1 through 10 -- for every meal kit service we test. We hope it helps you find the perfect fit.

Our meal delivery recommendations 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.