From gourmet-style entrees byto the more budget-minded menus from , 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-- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Learnto figure out the technique that works for you. If the scent of smoked meat is a siren song to your palate, here's . Only have a gas grill? Add to your outdoor kitchen with one of .