Out of the Box

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Meal-delivery kits are all the rage — venture capitalists can’t fund ’em fast enough and new options are popping up in Portland all the time, aimed squarely at busy families like yours (and ours). We decided to test out three of the options — managing editor Denise Castañon tried out PNW-based Acme Farms + Kitchen, editor Julia Silverman cooked from the national firm Blue Apron, and web editor Alison Wilkinson went for Sun Basket, which specializes in vegan, vegetarian and gluten- free choices. Here’s the lowdown from our kitchens.

Acme Farms + Kitchen
Quick + Simple Locavore 3-meal box, $85.  $7.08 per meal for 2 adults and 2 little kids.

Ease of prep
I specifically went for the Quick + Simple box because even though I have ninja-like kitchen skillz (yes, skillz with a z) it’s hard to cook with a 4-year-old and 1-year-old boppin’ around the kitchen. As promised, the meals of grilled pork kebabs with zucchini and Greek salad, salmon sliders with blistered green beans and cheese pizza were quite quick. The most involved meal, the kebabs, took about an hour from start to finish, including defrosting the pork in the microwave and allowing for frequent interruptions from the kiddos. The pizza was by far the easiest. (For the record, my husband is also a gifted cook and usually cooks a meal or two a week. He prepared the salmon sliders and grilled the kebabs.)

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Acme Pork Kebabs

Did they eat it?
Yes. Mostly. My 1-year-old plowed through just about everything. My 4-year-old does not like cucumbers, but she adored the summer-sweet tomatoes included for the Greek salad. She also surprised me by eating a whole salmon burger. (I shouldn’t be surprised, she’s a born-and-bred Oregonian who squints at the sun, after all.) For that meal, I was the picky one, I don’t like salmon. Although, as I implore my kids to do, I did try a bite and it was tasty. (My salmon-loving husband was especially happy with this meal.) Also my husband and I couldn’t stop eating the blistered green beans. The pork kebabs were especially good, with meat from Deck Family Farms, who we sometimes buy from at the Portland State Farmers Market. The pizza didn’t surpass our homemade version. But pizza’s pizza, and everyone liked it.

Keep in mind
I liked how healthy, fresh and local the ingredients from Acme Farms + Kitchen were, but I felt like all the meals needed one more component to make them more rounded and filling. The pork kebabs needed a side of brown rice, quinoa or bread (I ended up heating up a par-baked baguette from the freezer). The salmon burgers could have used some roasted potatoes and directions for tartar sauce, and the pizza needed a salad. While the box was categorized as being for three to four people, it would not be enough for two adults and two teenagers. For two adults watching their portion sizes and two little kids it was reasonable. Another thing to keep in mind, there’s no subbing out meals for this box option, you basically get what’s on the menu for the week. The menu hadn’t been posted yet when I ordered the box, so for us, the meals were a surprise. But it made delivery day a little exciting. (Note that the “Small Locavore” option of three meals with a more involved prep allows you to pick between gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian meals.)

This box did not include pantry staples, such as bread crumbs, mayo and lemons. Also, given that the directions were not always thorough, I think this box would be best for someone with solid cooking skills, but little time for shopping and meal planning. For example, the directions for the salmon sliders said to chill the formed patties “until they were firm.” A seasoned cook would know that means about 15-20 minutes and is a crucial step for keeping the patties from crumbling apart, but a beginner may not. I’d also like to see the option of Monday delivery instead of only Thursday. My family always eats out on Friday night, so it would make more sense for us.

Reorder?
My husband and I are good meal planners and cooks and felt that for the price we could have planned equally good meals for less money — even shopping at the farmers market. So I wouldn’t order on a weekly basis, but I’d order again if I knew I was going to be having an especially hectic week. I’d also consider ordering if we were renting a house on the coast to make vacation that much easier. — Denise Castañon

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Blue Apron

Blue Apron
Family Plan for 4, 2 meals, $69.92 (Price per serving: $8.74 for two adults and two elementary schoolers.)

Ease of prep
Befitting its status as the big national kahuna, Blue Apron lets you choose among four dishes for your meals. I tried balancing one meal that I knew would be familiar to my kids with one that would stretch them a bit, and started things off on night one with the familiar — crispy chicken tenders and roasted potatoes, with a summer vegetable salad on the side. Blue Apron estimated a combined prep/cook time of about 45 minutes, which was pretty on the nose.

I’ve made my own version of this recipe many times, and the instructions were straightforward. There were some finicky bits, like cutting kernels of corn off the cob (left to my own devices, I would have kept them whole, and just served a cucumber/tomato side salad.) I picked up a good tip on those cucumbers, following their  instructions to peel the cucumber in alternate strips for more varied texture and eye-appeal.

Night two’s recipe was pan-seared cod and pickled grapes, with a side of green bean succotash (more corn and cherry tomatoes.) This time, I got smart and did the veggie prep the night before, so assembling the meal was straightforward. The quick-pickled grapes added a sweet snap to the plate, and coating the cod with rice flour made for a thin crust that didn’t stick to the pan.

Did they eat it?
Night one was easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, as my 7-year-old twins would say. My son asked for seconds, then thirds of the chicken tenders, though he skipped the side of honey-mustard sauce in favor of an old stand-by: ketchup. My daughter hoarded her roasted potatoes, fending off attempts by both her brother and my husband to grab some off her plate. Everyone ate the fish on night two, which inspired me to tweak the recipe and serve it again the following, Blue Apron-less week. My son did turn up his nose at the pickled grapes, but that just meant more for me.

Keep in mind
Per person, Blue Apron is pricier than its competitors, but its meals are more well-rounded, too: Unlike Denise, I didn’t need to pad out our meal at all. The menus tend toward the hearty, (think spaghetti bolognese, shrimp and grits, or crispy pork chops) with lots of reliance on sauteeing and pan-frying, which is delicious, but not great for the calorie conscious. I’m impressed with the quality of the ingredients, and with the commitment to spotlighting seasonal produce (we tested these recipes at the end of August, so it made sense that our meals were heavy on the cherry tomatoes and fresh corn.) Everything is included, save for pepper, salt and olive oil, even pantry basics like butter and flour. Occasionally, the portion sizes felt a little off; everyone was disappointed that there weren’t more roasted potatoes to go around, for example, and we never had leftovers. (Usually, our dinners are my husband’s take-it-to-work lunch the next day.)

Like Ali, I don’t love all the excess packaging, and like Denise, I relied on my own cooking know-how when the accompanying instructions fell short. For example, I automatically put the potatoes in to roast on night one on a piece of parchment paper instead of directly on the baking sheet, for easier cleanup, and I knew to keep the first batch of chicken tenders and pan-seared cod warm in a low-heat oven while I finished off the second round. One clear negative: On both nights, the kitchen was a disaster area when I finally got dinner on the table, but fortunately, it was my husband’s turn to clean up.

Reorder?
Yes, on occasion. I love to cook, but after years and years of making dinner for four people five or six nights a week, I’m a little over recipe planning. And navigating the grocery store while the kids try to dump Cocoa Puffs into the cart when I’m not looking is no picnic either. Blue Apron is a nice break from all that, and all I have to do is the cooking part, which I actually enjoy. I’d do it again, but save it for a week when I knew I’d be super-busy or solo parenting. — Julia Silverman

Sun Basket Helpers

Sun Basket Helpers

Sun Basket
Gluten-Free 3-meal box for 4 – $103.41 (discounted for the first delivery; regular charge is $143.87) ($6.89 per person
for a family of five, including two adults and three children, ages 2 to 6.

Ease of Prep
Sun Basket is a national outfit with plenty of choices for those with food sensitivities and preferences. It provides you with everything you need, except for oil and salt. I even got little pats of butter in my boxes. They gave the right amounts, and were quite accurate with the prep time listed on the recipes and with the cooking instructions.

You do still have to do all the chopping and washing and rinsing. It’s not just dumping things into the frying pan. With the prep (and with the children helping with the prep), each meal ended up taking at least 30 minutes. The kale and black bean tacos, which we had on the first night, were the most time-intensive at about 40 minutes. This is toward the high-end of how much time I usually spend making dinner, so the meals weren’t necessarily a time-saver for me.

Did they eat it?
Caveat: My 4-year old daughter is a dinner-food hater, so I went into this with the expectation that she would eat
none of it. She ended up eating some of the kale and black bean tacos. In other words, she ate the taco shells and some black beans that I reserved for her without the spices and dreaded kale. She didn’t even try (well, let’s be fair — she did put her tongue to) the coconut-crusted trout with smashed cucumbers and mint, or the chicken with green olives, capers and onions. My youngest (age 2) was about the same — although he did like the cucumbers. My oldest (age 6), who is an adventurous eater, tried them all and ate more of them than I did. The cucumber salad especially was a huge hit.

Because I knew that it was unlikely my youngest two would eat much of the meals, I added a side to the chicken (pasta) and fish (rice) dishes. It helped to make the meals feel more balanced for everyone. Like Denise, I found that they were all quite light on the carbs. Even though this was a gluten-free box, there are still lots of options for gluten-free grains. That said, the overall meal size was generous.

Keep in mind
I chose Sunbasket because I have some food intolerances and preferences and they offer a gluten-free menu, which not all the food delivery services do. However, they do not combine food preferences, so you generally can’t choose three meals that are both vegetarian and gluten-free for instance.

The amount of packaging is also somewhat astounding. I ordered for four people. Instead of sending a four-person box, they sent two two-person boxes. Although most of the packaging could be recycled, it nearly brought us to the tipping point in our blue bins that week.

Reorder?
I am one of those strange people who actually enjoys grocery shopping. So I am probably not the meal-delivery market’s target audience. For me, the best-selling point was that it got me out of my rut of usual dinner items. And the food was all really delicious and elegant — it felt like restaurant food, but healthier. I could see ordering once or twice a year, to break things up and get new ideas for dinner. (Although I’ll note that cancelling your subscription is not easy. You have to scour the website to find out how to do it, and then choose why you are canceling. Your cancellation is still not complete until they call you to confirm that, indeed, you do want to cancel. They didn’t give me the hard sell, but they did try to talk me out of it.) Given the cost and the amount of packaging, this won’t be a regular thing for us — but it was a fun three days of new food.  — Alison Wilkinson