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HelloFresh, Blue Apron and more: Spice up your meal kit creations with these easy kitchen hacks

Just because it comes in a package doesn't mean your creativity has to stay inside the box. Try these substitutions to make your meal kit dishes pop.

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Let your creativity loose and feel free to customize your meal kit creations like these salsa verde enchiladas made with a recipe and ingredients from HelloFresh.

Chris Monroe/CNET

From gourmet-style entrees by Blue Apron and Hello Fresh to the more budget-minded menus from EveryPlate and Dinnerly, it's probably safe to say we've reached peak meal kit. I use a few of the services myself, and while I'm thrilled to be experimenting with ingredients and flavors I never would've incorporated into my cooking without a little arm-twisting (cherry jelly on pork loin? Yes, please!), the wannabe chef in me simply refuses to follow meal kit recipes to the letter. 

Even though there are meal kits for home cooks of every denomination -- from foodie favorites to health-focused meal services -- you, too, might find yourself hungry for more customization options.

If meal kit recipes seem a little too cookie-cutter for your taste, here are some of my favorite outside-the-box techniques to spice up your home-cooked delivery meals.

Read more: Best healthy food delivery services in 2020  

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If your kitchen includes a deep fryer like this Fry Daddy, don't be shy about using it instead of oven-roasting items like potato wedges that are part of your meal kit recipe.

Alina Bradford/CNET

Everything's better deep-fried

Meal kits make very few assumptions about what you've got to work with in the kitchen. A stove, an oven, pots, pans and a few cooking utensils are about all you need to prepare most delivery kit meals. But if you're anything like me, you've got way more kitchen toys to play with than that. Here are some of the ways I like to disregard cooking instructions for better, tastier (but not always healthier) results -- and a few calorie-conscious alternatives, too.

  • Deep fryer: Deep frying, either stovetop or in a deep fryer, will give your wedged or cubed potatoes that satisfying bar-and-grill taste you just can't get from an oven.
  • Air fryer: For a healthier alternative to oil frying, an air fryer will get your potatoes and other veggies crisp -- and maybe even free up enough calories to justify dessert.
  • Toaster oven: Instead of your oven, use a toaster oven on your protein or side to get crispier, crunchier results with better browning.
  • Stand/hand mixer: If you want smooth-as-silk mashed white or sweet potatoes, only kitchen power tools will give you restaurant-style results.
  • Microwave: In a hurry? Nuke your potatoes or veggies while your protein cooks on the stove or in the oven.

Read more: The best toaster oven is the one you'll hate the least  

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Free your inner chef from the constraints of meal kit recipes by experimenting with ingredients and cooking techniques.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Subtle substitutions can make a big difference

Meal kits provide most (but not all) of the ingredients you need to make each recipe, so whenever a recipe calls for an ingredient I'm expected to have on hand I scan the pantry or fridge to see if I have something with perhaps a little more kick. Here are the most common substitutions I make whenever a recipe calls for an ingredient not included in the kit:

  • Water: For more intense umami flavor, try Worcestershire sauce (just be sure to cut back on any added salt) in meatloaves and meatballs. To add richness to sauces and marinades, sub milk, cream or half-and-half. For sweetness, try fruit juice.
  • Salt: Instead of table salt, replace with pink Himalayan salt or another artisan seasoning. If you're restricting sodium, a salt substitute is fine. Seasoning salt has less sodium than table salt, plus more flavor.
  • Pepper: Try white or green pepper for a similar but different flavor than black pepper. Use cayenne pepper for more heat or ground ginger for a more tropical taste.
  • Sugar: Sugar substitutes like Splenda, Sweet N Low or Equal are fine, just start with about one-quarter as much as is called for. For a more earthy flavor, try raw sugar or honey. To add a hint of smoke, go with molasses or sorghum.
  • Butter: You can replace butter with margarine for a slightly different taste, but bacon fat, lard or beef tallow will add far more character.
  • Milk: For low-calorie cooking stick with skim, but cream and half-and-half will give your dish better mouthfeel.
  • Olive oil: Regular vegetable oil will yield heavier results but less flavor. Peanut oil adds weight and a little bit of flavor, and coconut oil adds a lot of both.
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The recipe card included with meal kits like this one from HelloFresh offer a reliable roadmap to a great meal, but feel free to take detours to make your home-cooked dinner unique.

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Meal kit bread is for the birds

Sometimes one or more of the meal kit-provided ingredients just isn't up to the same caliber as a far better-tasting replacement sitting in my refrigerator or pantry just screaming, "Use me instead!" Here are some of the included meal kit ingredients that I'm willing to put aside in favor of slightly more gourmet alternatives:

  • Bread: Don't use thick, crusted bread like a baguette if you'll be breaking it up for meatloaves or meatballs, but otherwise the better the bread, the better the dish it's going into.
  • Honey: Clover honey is earthier; wildflower honey is lighter and sweeter.
  • Shredded cheese: Preshredded cheeses are coated in cellulose to keep them from sticking. To avoid that unnecessary ingredient, grate your own.
  • Rice: Try jasmine rice, wild rice, quinoa or even couscous instead.
  • Salad dressings: Use homemade or whole-ingredient salad dressings instead of the buffet-line packets in the meal kit.
  • Vinegars: Switch it up with malt vinegar or apple cider vinegar to get more flavor than white vinegar.
  • Hot sauce and salsas: Use what you like, not just what they include in the kit. I'm a big fan of Tapatio hot sauce and Pace picante.
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Don't just plop your food on a plate and chow down -- take the time to arrange and layer the various elements, like the salmon, rice and veggies on this entree.

Dale Smith/CNET

Plating and serving 101

I'm the only adult living in my home, but even though I'm often dining solo, I still like my food to look as appetizing as it tastes, so I still don't neglect plating it with some panache. Here are some of the plating techniques I used to make my meal kit creations visually pop:

  • Dishes and flatware: Your hard work deserves better than paper or plastic plates and plastic forks.
  • Follow the clock: Traditionally, protein belongs between 3 and 9 on the plate, the starch (potatoes, rice and so on) between 9 and 12 and vegetables between 12 and 3.
  • Layering: Don't keep everything separated; go ahead and let your veg sprawl a bit onto your starch's turf, and let your protein lean on both.
  • Garnishes: Even just a dash of paprika or chopped parsley (or both!) goes a long way to livening up the plate with color.
  • Sauces: Paint, don't pour. Draw circles around the plate, or squiggles atop the protein. Your sauce should pair with everything on your plate, so don't confine it to only one thing.
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If you have any leftovers from your meal kit dinner, consider how long it will be before you want to eat it again. Three days or less, go ahead and use the refrigerator, but anything kept longer should go in the freezer.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Leftovers, the right way

As a single at-home diner, one of the ways I've had to get creative with meal kits has been figuring out what to do with all the food I can't eat in one sitting. Here's how I plan for leftovers:

  • Don't cook everything all at once: Chicken reheats fairly well, but pork loin and chops are better cooked to be eaten right away. Same with beef tenderloins and steaks.
  • Meal prep containers: There's no reason you can't use your meal kits to do meal prep for the week, now is there?
  • Vacuum sealer: Vacuum-pack anything you'll be freezing to stave off freezer burn.
  • Refrigerator vs. freezer: Think about how soon you'll be ready to eat this again. Any longer than three days from now and it should go in the freezer.

Whether you're cooking a meal kit creation or a family classic from Grandma's old recipe book, expanding your kitchen chops can improve your results. Learn how to cook rice four ways to figure out the technique that works for you. If the scent of smoked meat is a siren song to your palate, here's how to smoke low and slow on your charcoal grill. Only have a gas grill? Add to your outdoor kitchen with one of our picks for best charcoal grills for 2020.

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.