Sometimes doing the grocery shopping and cooking meals from scratch just isn't an option. You might be juggling work and study, at home with a new baby, recovering from an illness or simply time-poor. Maybe you're sick of trying to decide what's for dinner week in and week out. Or perhaps cooking just isn't your thing.
You could settle for eating toast or takeaways, but an increasingly popular alternative is to use a meal delivery service. So which one is best?
Our testers ordered and cooked meals from HelloFresh, Marley Spoon, Pepper Leaf, Dinnerly and Everyplate. They also ordered prepared meals from YouFoodz, The Dinner Ladies, Soulara, THR1VE, Nourish'd and Chefgood.
We rated the services for ease of ordering, presentation and temperature on delivery, ingredient freshness, recipe accuracy and more.
Prices are the base prices for meal plans at the time of writing. It's worth keeping an eye out for promotional price reductions and discount vouchers as they can offer significant savings, at least for your first order.
Food box delivery services
Prepared meal delivery services
What we found
Fiona Mair, CHOICE home economist and one of our testers, found a lot to recommend in the meal delivery services we tested.
"Meal delivery services are predominantly marketed to time-poor families. But if you have limited cooking skills and want to eat home-cooked food, they can also be a great way to learn how to cook," Fiona says.
CHOICE home economist Fiona Mair testing a recipe.
She found that the recipes are generally simple and relatively easy to follow, the ingredients are already portioned, there's usually a utensil or tool list of what you need in your kitchen, plus a list of the pantry staples you'll need.
"After a month of preparing a few meals from a meal delivery service you'll have a repertoire of recipes under your belt that will give you confidence to shop and cook for yourself. You'll also become familiar with flavours and cuisines that you may not have tried before," she adds.
Food box vs prepared meal delivery services: what's the difference?
There are essentially two types of meal delivery services: food box (meal kit) delivery services and prepared meal delivery services. To help you decide which would suit you best, we've prepared a general user guide, along with some tips and traps, for each type.
This information is based on the feedback from 420 consumers who participated in our 2016 survey about their awareness and use of Australian meal delivery services.
- minimal food waste
- easy to follow recipes
- ingredients local and pre-measured
If you enjoy cooking but meal planning gives you a headache, you're lacking inspiration or you find it hard to make time for the weekly shop, then food box delivery services such as HelloFresh, Marley Spoon, Dinnerly and Pepper Leaf can be a good option. Each week these subscription services deliver recipes and the precise quantity of the predominantly fresh ingredients you'll need to cook them.
I use them so I don't have to think about meal planning. Plus their meals are interesting – not always the same boring staples I'd cookJessica, HelloFresh customer
A major drawcard for our survey respondents who use these types of services is the minimal food waste associated with being supplied with the exact quantities of ingredients required for each recipe. This is particularly beneficial with ingredients you're unlikely to use frequently.
One respondent gave the example of "a pinch of paprika – I don't have to buy a whole bottle of spices that I won't use again". If you've ever bought a huge bag of fenugreek for a recipe only to use one teaspoon of it in four years, then you'll be able to relate.
Portioned ingredients for two Marley Spoon recipes.
The majority of users said they found the recipes to be simple and easy to follow, and obviously cooking with pre-measured ingredients means you can turn the meal around in less time than if you were starting from scratch.
The use of locally sourced Australian ingredients, promoted by these services, was an attraction for many. And Pam, also a HelloFresh subscriber, was pleasantly surprised by the knock-on effect it had on her husband. "My male partner has started cooking!" she said.
Tips and traps
- When using these types of services you'll need to have a range of everyday ingredients which frequently feature in the recipes. These include pantry staples such as soy sauce, white vinegar, salt and pepper, honey, oil, butter, milk, eggs, flour and sugar – so it's worth checking you have them before your first delivery so you're not caught short.
Leftover packaging from one HelloFresh meal we cooked.
- You can check out the following week's menu in advance, but there's little scope to make changes to what you'll receive. "There was no way to choose meals based on our likes or dislikes," said one user. This could be an issue, particularly for people with allergies. However, certain allergens are identified on the recipes, and because you're cooking it yourself you'll have the opportunity to remove or substitute ingredients that aren't suitable.
- Some people also commented that the amount of packaging (each pre-measured ingredient comes in its own bag or container) was a deterrent.
- Minimal prep
- Can keep in freezer for future use
Services such as Youfoodz, The Dinner Ladies, Soulara and Nourish'd sell predominantly fully prepared meals. Ordering is simply a matter of choosing from the range of meals displayed on their websites, and the chilled or frozen meals will arrive at your door in a coolbox on your nominated delivery date.
What users of these services told us they liked most is the minimal preparation required – in most cases, little more than heating then eating. Another benefit is being able to stockpile meals in the freezer to use later.
Tips and traps
- The meals from some of these services focus predominantly on the protein component, with nary a vegetable in sight. They suggest you add a salad or vegetable side dish – and usually offer these to buy – but this will obviously bump up the total cost. This is worth bearing in mind when comparing meal prices.
- Some of these services offer a good selection of freshly prepared, chilled meals, while others sell predominantly frozen meals. If this difference is important to you, make sure you're clear on what they're offering before you order.
We compared the price of the popular HelloFresh Classic Plan food box ($69.95 for three meals per week for two people) with the cost of buying the ingredients for those three meals (in the same or similar quantities) from Coles and Woolworths.
We found you don't actually pay much less at a supermarket, and sometimes you pay more once you factor in delivery costs.
But in reality when doing your weekly shop you're more likely to take advantage of special offers or buy larger packs which are better value for money – a 1kg tub of Farmers Union Greek Style natural yoghurt (50c per 100g) rather than a 200g individual tub ($1.10 per 100g), for example. And as long as you end up using the leftover ingredients before they reach their use-by or best-before dates and need to be discarded, then it's cheaper doing the shopping yourself.
- 87% of subscription food box users rated food quality, freshness and taste as good, very good or excellent.
People who used prepared meal services were more likely to consider them good value for money than those using food box services. But how do they compare in price with the equally convenient supermarket ready-meals?
We compared the cost of two different dishes from prepared meal services with similar supermarket ready-meals and found the meal service dishes to be more expensive – and that's before you factor in delivery costs.
A single serve of butter chicken from meal delivery services ranged in price from $9.95 to $23.99, but the Woolworths chilled version was just $6.90. The cheapest single serve lasagne offered by the meal delivery services we looked at cost $8.95 (300g) but the equivalent from Woolworths (fresh, single serve) was just $6.90 (400g).
- 93% of prepared meal service users in our survey rated food quality, freshness and taste as good, very good or excellent. But whether or not the quality of ingredients warrants the higher price is hard to say.
If you're planning on using a meal delivery service to feed a family that includes young kids you might want to proceed with caution. While overall ratings for meal services were generally positive, their meals aren't guaranteed to win over a fussy toddler.
"I would like to see more small kids' meal options like the pasta with sneaky veg," said one respondent about The Dinner Ladies.
Weight loss was a key motivation for users of some meal delivery services, including the popular service Lite n' Easy, Eat Fit Food, Muscle Meals Direct and Dietlicious (sister company to Gourmet Dinner Service). While we did collect responses from people who'd used these services, the focus of our survey was on the pros, cons and experiences of using meal delivery services more generally.
Motivations aside, people's experiences of these meal delivery services with an emphasis on weight loss were overall positive.
- 98% of survey respondents who had used weight loss meal delivery services rated their delivery reliability as good, very good or excellent, and 77% of users rated food quality, freshness and taste as good, very good or excellent overall.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.