Thursday, February 2, 2017

"Survival" in a Food Desert

This is not a typical post for this blog, but after mucho positive feedback about our "experiment" on other social media platforms I frequent, I decided it would be worthwhile to post and share the "results" here as well.

This past year has been a challenge and brought about alot of radical changes for some of the crew here. Partyzantski has stepped away from blogging for a bit and is currently enrolled as a 1L student-at-law in fly over country at undisclosed location in what is widely acknowledged to be a "food desert" as well as completing physical therapy and pain management appointments for injuries sustained in an unplanned encounter with a tractor trailer on the I-95 beltway this past summer which exacerbated his existing combat injuries. There are too many hours for him, not enough day.

Two of my children are currently enrolled as college students and live off campus in private housing.  As is typical, they aren't eating all that healthy or making good food choices. Ramen.  Alot of Ramen, I assure you. I can tell my son is the bigger culprit from the multitude of GrubHub and Domino's charges on his debit card - which is not only not-very-healthy but expensive.

Concerned for people I really care about - but are geographically remote from me, so cooking healthy meals for them in person was a non-starter - as an experiment, I tried out and compared two of the meal delivery services that have become popular recently as a solution. Although there are several programs to choose from, only two delivered to all three of my test cases (Partyzantski and two college students geographically remote) as well as my location. I also earned "free boxes" from both services based on the volume purchased, which I sent to a friend and my older daughter, a late 20's professional who works crazy hours and who also orders in ALOT, and asked for their impressions and feedback as well. The two chef designed meal delivery services were Blue Apron and competitor Hello Fresh!

I chose the "2 person" meal plan. For approximately $60 per delivery, the service sends 3 recipes for 2 people, for a total of 6 servings.  Blue Apron also has a wine pairing delivery service, which I also tested.  I've tested both plans for two months, and requested feedback from my "independent testers".

This is what we found:

Blue Apron suggested Wine Pairings. 6 "splits" (1/2 bottles) 3 red, 3 white, pre-selected

Blue Apron: Wine Pairing Delivery Service

I did not find the Blue Apron wine pairing service to be worth the money. Blue Apron makes several wine pairing suggestions on the recipe cards that accompany the meals. When I signed up for the service, I expected that I would be able to choose the wines to accompany the meals I selected. This is not so.  My wine delivery of 6 "splits" (or half bottles, designed to serve 2 people) came pre-selected as three red and three white. Neither I nor my husband particularly enjoy white wine, and two of the whites chosen for us we did not enjoy at all. As well, in our view, the cost for the wine and delivery of half-bottles was prohibitively high for us to continue this service. Blue Apron has stated that they are working on changing this and will be allowing customers to make their own wine pairings in the future.

Menu Choices, Quality of Ingredients, Packaging

All ingredients for each meal come pre-packaged in a cooler with recipe card instructions.

Blue Apron provides slightly higher volume of protein with their ingredients than Hello Fresh! However, in the short time our crew has been sampling both services, the quality of proteins provided by Hello Fresh! were overall higher.  My college student testers loved the "kawaii" (means cute in Japanese/Anime apparently) packaging of the seasonings and supplements to the recipes (ie: sesame oil and soy sauce packaged in small plastic fish, hotel size samples of dijon mustard and hoisin sauce for example) and felt that Hello Fresh! did a better job of making the meals seem more like a "gift" or an "adventure" than Blue Apron.

Hello Fresh! packages each meal in a separate cardboard box within the cooler.  My son found this easier to organize in his fridge.  My daughter also liked the "cuteness" of the packaging of the condiments and seasonings more than Blue Apron.

When you first sign up for either service, you can create a taste preference profile. I am allergic to shellfish and don't eat fish, which I deselected in my menu choice options. In spite of this, Blue Apron's algorithm continued to force me into selecting shrimp or fish options almost every week or a vegetarian (usually an unappealing to me one) in lieu of a third animal protein, even though a third animal protein I hadn't chosen was available. I did not have this problem with Hello Fresh!  I was able to order three animal proteins each week, and not be forced into choosing only two animal proteins of my choice and then either shellfish, fish or vegetarian. There was usually an acceptable choice of either beef, pork, chicken or lamb each week with Hello Fresh!

That being said, I was happy with the quantity of protein supplied by both Blue Apron and Hello Fresh! for the trial period.  We tried both companies for 8 weeks each, for a total of 16 weeks of meal plans / 48 menu samples overall, so I feel we got a good overall representation of the offerings.

The only exception to this was the Blue Apron individual quiches. Blue Apron sent only two eggs for two quiches, wholly inadequate I felt - and I was surprised because eggs are one of the cheaper protein options for them to supply. I made the quiches with 2 eggs each, or 4 eggs total.  Both services try to minimize the ingredients list, but I tended to supplement each meal with another vegetable as a side and/or a green salad if that wasn't part of the menu plan. We also divvied up the carb allotments differently - I'm trying to manage my carbs and am following the GI index whereas my husband is far more active and consumes more carbs. Typically, I would eat a 1/2 portion or skip entirely the provided carbs if provided as a side, and he would eat 1 1/2 portions.

All five testers also found that Hello Fresh! overall, in their opinion, did a better job of allowing you to select which meals you would like to order. Blue Apron it appears has a much stricter costing algorithm, so depending on which protein you select, the algorithm will automatically prevent you from selecting others and force you into accepting a choice you may not like or want.  One of my college student testers (my son) had an issue because Blue Apron suddenly decided halfway through the testing period he was a vegetarian, and would only offer him vegetarian selections. Rest assured, this 6' 2" young man is no vegetarian.

In particular, Partyzantski quickly became no-so-enamored with Blue Apron, due to their over-reliance on kale and sweet potatoes as core ingredients pretty much every week. He's okay with sweet potatoes as a carb choice (I am not a fan and usually ended up throwing them out) but he really, really, REALLY hates kale. In fact, he thinks the explosion of kale on the food scene is some sort of devious socialist plot. He refuses to eat it, and would either throw it out or feed it to the prairie dogs (and apparently, even they were less than thrilled with kale). I made this comment when I was cancelling the Blue Apron service in their survey, and stated that I was surprised more innovative choices (beet tops or turnip greens for example) weren't offered as alternatives or "new" things to try.  As well, the kale they supply is that super-curly stuff that you have to "knead" and break to make edible.  Perhaps if he had been shipped Lacitano Kale or Swiss Chard greens he wouldn't have had such an extreme reaction. But kale broke Blue Apron for him and my son.

Lean Pork Loin with Couscous mixes up typical dinner fare and hides the dreaded kale well.

As a "gift", I think it's a wonderful idea. In lieu of flowers, I often send "bouquets" from Edible Arrangements, which have always been warmly received and enjoyed by the recipients. Likewise, I will continue to "gift" a box from Hello Fresh! in the future to someone I know who enjoys cooking as something practical and which I know will be used and appreciated.

Korean spiced burgers with "homemade" spicy slaw topped with pickled beets.  Buddha Beer not included.  Partyzantski reported this was one of his favorite recipes, and certainly not a taste profile he would have thought about had it not been for Blue Apron's chef designed menu plans.  He was skeptical about the pickled beets, but ended up loving the combo.

I also thought that the menu selections were great in that they broke up the routine and forced people outside of their comfort zone. Partyzantski, for example, really enjoyed the "Korean spiced" pork burgers topped with pickled beets and spicy coleslaw - something in a million light years he never would have tried had it not been shipped to him and ready to go.  (I have found out he is uber-picky about his "chow" - which is surprising for someone who's lived on field kitchen rations and MREs for a big chunk of the past 27 years, but I digress). He found the recipe card directions easy to follow, and cooking at home from pre-measured and pre-supplied ingredients saved him a lot of time he would have spent "sourcing" dinner from the grocery store and then prepping the ingredients at home. Tracking costs, Partyzantski reports that he found overall the meal delivery service was cheaper than what he was paying to eat out frequently at his location because he felt he didn't have the time to shop or meal plan, so his monthly costs actually went down, as did the "time wasted" factor, which is an incalculable cost for many.

Eastern European comfort food - beef tips and homemade crispy latkes - were a welcome choice for our exiled Partyzantski.  And look - no kale was found anywhere near this recipe card. 

My batchelor son, he of the Domino's nation, has enjoyed learning how to cook by following the recipe card instructions and/or the videos.  Cooking the meal delivery recipes at home has also been a great - and inexpensive - in house "date" activity for him. The petite quiche with caramelized onions and fresh salad greens as a side with the suggested wine pairing was a huge hit as a brunch item for a special lady he was hoping to impress (mission accomplished). His former good friends at Domino's aren't happy. Although the meal service may seem pricey, counter intuitively, I found it has actually been cheaper than his former "emergency" fast food choices (which seem to happen ALOT more than just "emergencies" according to his debit card statements) and I know he's eating healthier and that it is portion-controlled (especially for the carbs. That boy loves his carbs) to help him keep off that fast food tummy, a common affliction for college students. He as well revolted against Kale Nation and discontinued Blue Apron delivery after a few tries, but has been enjoying Hello Fresh!

A lazy day romantic brunch for two, paired with Blue Apron wine selection. The contractors who arrived to work on the house said it "smelled amazing - what are you cooking?", and my son said his version was a huge hit with his special lady friend.  Instructions are so easy, even a Marine and an all thumbs away-from-home student can pull it off.

Likewise, my college age daughter, who loves to cook and is a bit of a foodie, has really enjoyed the meal delivery service, but for entirely different reasons from Partyzantski or my son. To her, it's like Christmas or her birthday every week the big box o' stuff arrives.  She loves it all, and it has reduced her stress tremendously because she doesn't have to "think" about what she's going to make, and has helped us manage her budget because she can spice up her meals without having to go to the cost of buying alot of spendy condiments that she may only use a few times. (Plus, storage is really at a premium for her, so she would have no where to store all these different seasoning spices, oils, vinegars, etc).  She's saved the recipe cards in plastic sleeves in a 3-ring binder, so she's building her own recipe book of menus designed for two.

"Adorable" packaging of seasonings and condiments has turned the meal delivery service into more of a Christmas-like anticipation service, rather than an alternative grocery delivery product.  Recipes cards are printed on high quality stock, ideal for saving and creating a portion controlled cookbook.

If you are interested in trying Hello Fresh!, the following link is for a $40 promotion code off your first order. You are free to cancel at any time, and/or skip weeks if any of the meal selections offered don't appeal to you.

Hello Fresh! deliveries were "like Christmas every week", according to my two college students. Also, quantities and ingredients were pre-measured, saving time and expense of buying numerous specialty ingredients you may only use once. Portion control and balanced meals was an unintended side benefit.

I hope that this little write-up was informative and that you have fun with it if you do try it.  It's been a great "at home date" activity for myself and my husband, and much higher quality food than we've experienced in the small town we've relocated to after his recent retirement. He loves food, and he loves to cook along side me and trying new things has made meal times an enjoyable adventure. You can't put a price tag on that.

**Update:  I've been asked if I received any compensation from Blue Apron or Hello Fresh! for this review.  The answer is no.  I did my own research to try and find which companies would deliver to the locations of my recipients, and I paid for all of the meals delivered, aside from the "free" boxes I earned after reaching volume thresholds (a promotion I was not aware of when I signed up, and is not the reason I signed up).  Blue Apron gift boxes are free to your recipient, but they still have to open an account with a valid credit or debit card.  Hello Fresh! gift boxes were not entirely free, but a discount of $40 was applied, and just like Blue Apron, the gift recipient had to open up an account.  The "sharing link" for the $40 discount code is a new promotion that Hello Fresh! has just started. The post reflects our independent views and impressions, without compensation from either company.

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