Wednesday, May 9, 2018

An Overworked Attorney's Blue Apron Review

The ingredients for pork chops with "salsa verde".

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we've been trying Blue Apron. I feel guilty about it too, because I know it's a questionable choice, from both the environmentalist/low-waste and frugality perspectives. I really would prefer a lifestyle where I could plan and cook my own meals. But neither K nor I have such a lifestyle right now, so it came down to either this or ordering delivery food from Seamless more often. And we're really tired of even our favorite local places on Seamless, where, as with most restaurant food, the dishes are often less healthy and come in excessive portions.

So that's how we decided to try Blue Apron. We ended up getting Blue Apron for nine weeks total, getting one box for free due to using a friend's referral code. That should be enough time for a full assessment. My overall conclusion is that it often feels like a bad value and the recipes take too long (60 to 80 minutes each), so I'm inclined to cancel. Cancellations, by the way, must be done by contacting their customer service, rather than simply logging in to their website. (I generally don't like this retention tactic by online subscription services. It's not promising when they make it hard to cancel.)

First, the nitty-gritty: Including shipping, the smallest Blue Apron box option, for two meals for two people, or four servings, a week is $51.95, which works out to ~$12.99/meal or ~$26.00/dinner for two. Portion sizes for grains (farro, quinoa, couscous) are large, and could generate enough food for a third, or even fourth serving, but they're a bit stingy with everything else. For meat and fish, they generally promise approximately 10 ounces for two people. While groceries are very expensive in NYC, I could generally make a much more generously sized meal for two with a "fancy" protein like salmon or beef for around $17 to $21, so Blue Apron is expensive even by NYC standards. This probably makes it a major extravagance in any other part of the country!

The completed pork chops and "salsa verde" with sides of sautéed kale and roast potatoes.

Blue Apron Pros: 
  • (1) Wide range of recipes to choose from each week, usually four dishes with meat or fish, four vegetarian dishes, and a pasta dish that might or might not contain meat; 
  • (2) every shipment is on time and problem-free, and I don't doubt that they'd be willing to make it right with a refund if any problems arose; 
  • (3) the service is quite convenient (obviously) as everything comes in the right quantity, no meal planning or shopping needed; and 
  • (4) it may be a good way to build kitchen skills and expand one's comfort zone with cooking, allowing one to start planning and cooking their own meals in the future. 

Blue Apron Cons:
  • (1) Expensive and a bad value, even by NYC grocery standards, as I mentioned above, and they also sometimes nickel and dime us with smaller than promised portions (I got 9.1 ounces of salmon instead of a promised 10 ounces once) or meat that feels like cheap trimmings (any of the dishes with chopped up beef); 
  • (2) lack of variety in flavors and ingredients, in nine weeks I got dishes with this same "salsa verde" of chopped capers, parsley, and garlic no less than three times, and had carrots and kale almost once a week (I like kale, but I don't like carrots), and by now I feel like I've seen all the flavor profiles they have to offer;
  • (3) extremely fussy recipes, they say their recipes are supposed to take 30 to 40 minutes, but 70 to 80 minutes is the actual norm, unless I start dramatically omitting steps, and most of it is "active" cooking time where I'm busy chopping or tending something on the stove and often multitasking, rather than "passive' cooking time waiting for something to simmer or roast; and that leads into 
  • (4) the recipes don't seem optimally designed, while I'm an experienced home cook with a high level of comfort in the kitchen, many of the instructions seemed odd or clunky to me, resulting in a few memorable mistakes (couscous instructions, in particular, didn't work). 

What do I mean by "fussy" recipes? Well, I recently received my first Hello Fresh box, and while the jury's still out on whether I think that's a better service, the first recipe I cooked, pesto chicken with roast potatoes, was such a refreshing change from Blue Apron. It was so much simpler! I chopped up and lightly seasoned some potatoes and popped them in the oven (<10 minutes); put some pre-made pesto on chicken breasts before coating the tops in a bread crumb mixture and put that in the oven (<12 minutes); and made side salad (<5 minutes) while the other items roasted for ~20 minutes. If it was a Blue Apron recipe, they'd have me making the pesto, which ultimately would have been time consuming and likely wouldn't have been as good as what Hello Fresh sent in a jar. They'd probably have swapped out the salad for sautéed kale, and might have had the chicken cooked on the stove, in the same pan as the kale. (Blue Apron's generally reluctant to ship vegetables less hardy than kale or broccoli, which contributes to the lack of variety. They'd almost never send salad.)

There was many a time this past nine weeks where, upon returning home after a long day at the office to the prospect of cooking a Blue Apron recipe, I felt just like the child on the left. I'm not proud of it, but I actually cried once.

I'm a fairly experienced home cook, and am rather quick when I cook my own dishes, which tend to look much more like that Hello Fresh dish. Blue Apron's recipes often recommend steps that I skip or modify because I find them pointless and inefficient. For instance, there was a vegetable fried rice one week, and they recommended cooking the vegetables (carrots and bok choy) and egg first, removing all of it from the pot, and then stir frying the cooked rice separately for a few minutes before adding back the vegetables and egg. I can assure you, both from past experience and from making that specific recipe, removing the toppings from the pan before adding rice is definitely not necessary. 

Comparing my experience to Blue Apron reviews from earlier years (which often tend to be sponsored, enough that there's also a huge number of blogs out there that feel compelled to label theirs "unsponsored" or "unpaid"), it seems like they offer far less recipe and ingredient variety now than they used to. I'm definitely not impressed with the value or variety for my money, and can already see that Hello Fresh recipes give me roughly equal utility for a dollar less per serving and much less wasted time. While that's not the biggest price difference, and Hello Fresh is also clearly a premium service, it does make me even grouchier about Blue Apron.

As illustrated by the above GIF, I may have occasionally had rather... dramatic feelings about my Blue Apron experience. There were quite a few days where, after a long day at work, I actively resented needing to make another annoying Blue Apron recipe, guaranteed to add another hour plus of labor to my day. I was being a bit... irrational at those times, which is maybe not uncommon in this profession when the chips are down. I sometimes fantasized, in that extremely stressed out state, about pitching the entire box into the trash, but obviously, I wasn't actually going to do that, because that would be silly. K was even busier than I was (the difference between biglaw and similar-to-biglaw, I guess), so it was either I cook, even though I desperately didn't want to, or we waste food we already bought at a premium price, and waste more money to order delivery food on top of that. Obviously, I got myself into that situation, and it isn't really Blue Apron's fault, but either way, it's clear their service doesn't fit into my life.

Have you ever tried Blue Apron or its competitors? Does the price seem as exorbitant to you as it does to me? (Sadly, for this NYC-based lawyer, I don't think there are many good alternatives, and few that cost that much less.) If you've tried multiple meal kit services, which one is your favorite? 

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