I have a confession to make: When it comes to cooking, I have a love/hate relationship with the entire process. In theory, I love the idea of whipping up a home-cooked meal – the gathering of fresh ingredients, discovering new recipes and enjoying the scrumptious finished product. More often than not, however, it’s an often harried battle wherein my husband and I arrive home late from work and we’re just looking for the shortest, fastest route to getting food on the table.

Many of my friends swear by meal delivery services, referring to them as complete game-changers that ultimately expanded their recipe repertoires and drastically cut down the amount of time spent sweating over the stovetop. Perhaps this was the solution I was looking for, even if only on weeknights when time was short and my patience was thin.

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, meal delivery kits are essentially boxes of raw ingredients with easy-to-follow recipes that typically feed up to four people. You don’t have to be home to receive the box; they can be left on your doorstep or at your condo’s front desk, since they’re stocked with reusable ice packs. Each recipe and its wealth of ingredients are individually packaged in their own brown paper bags and come with printed card stock with all the relevant directions and health information. In an effort to reduce the food waste that accumulates from the typical family meal, these services provide their ingredients in pre-measured amounts – although it often results in a lot of packaging. (Note: pantry staples, such as olive oil, salt and pepper, are not included.)

So, I decided to give it a shot, testing out four of the major Canadian companies that provide fresh meal ideas and ingredients to thousands of hungry fans across the country. Here’s how it went.

Hello Fresh

Availability: A 95 per cent delivery reach in Canada, including Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and the Maritimes.

Average price per person: As low as $10.31/serving.

Packaging: With its paper-based packaging, the boxes are made from 100 per cent recyclable and biodegradable cardboard. Even the insulation and ice packs are made of sustainable cardboard and recyclable plastic, respectively. Hello Fresh has also eliminated single-use packaging for any produce with its own natural skin or peel (for example, potatoes, garlic and limes).

Dietary Variety: A diverse selection of recipes that will satisfy both vegetarians and carnivores. In addition, you can customize your Meal Preferences online or via the app by clicking on such options as No Beef Meals, No Fish Meals, No Pork Meals, etc. They’re also the first meal kit service in Canada to partner with Beyond Meat, which was only recently announced this summer.

Convenience: The average meal takes approximately 30 minutes, including prep time, and when ordering online or via the app you can choose from options such as quick family-friendly meals to vegetarian dishes.

Favourite Recipe: One-Pot Mexican Quinoa and Black Beans with Cilantro-Lime Crema

Overall Experience: Each meal comes with a detailed, one-page summary that includes total cooking time, ingredients and thorough instructions that are clear and easy to follow. Although the finished product never looked quite as good as advertised (which is on me: I was never good at plating meals), I don’t have any complaints in the taste department. I was genuinely surprised by how flavourful and tender the dishes were. Although the meals are certainly quick and easy to prep, one thing I discovered was that I was often left with a stack of dirty dishes, as some of the recipes required multiple pots, pans and other kitchen utensils. Incidentally, my favourite meal wound up being a one-pot dish, which made clean-up a breeze. The One-Pot Mexican Quinoa and Black Beans with Cilantro-Lime Crema (say that three times fast!) was so delicious that I could have polished off a second bowl in one sitting. The recipe also did something I previously never thought impossible: It made me fall in love with sour cream. I’d debated whether I should even add the dollop of cilantro-lime crema to the dish, but I wanted to try the recipe in all its glory and I’m so glad I did. This dish was such a hit with both myself and my husband that I’ve actually made it a second time already.

Best For:
● Offering Beyond Meat options
● Customizing your Meal Preferences

Chefs Plate

Availability: Currently delivers in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, with plans to expand.

Average price per person: As low as $8.99/serving.

Packaging: All packing is 100 per cent recyclable and can be easily broken down once all the ingredients and ice packs are removed from the box. Many of the containers used to house Chefs Plate‘s ingredients are also ideal for leftovers, so don’t be in such a hurry to dispose of them.

Dietary Variety: Each recipe includes a detailed description of ingredients and instructions in a handy booklet with chef’s notes, portion sizes and caloric intake. Chefs Plate also offers gluten-free and dairy-free options, although they aren’t available every week. You can edit your Taste Preferences profile online or via the app to default to recipes that don’t include meat or fish, for example.

Convenience: For those with hectic work weeks, the fact that Chefs Plate is currently the only meal delivery service that offers an option for 15-minute meals will be vastly appealing to many.

Favourite Recipe: Beef and Black Bean Chili

Overall Experience: Similar to its sister company, Hello Fresh, I found the instructions easy to follow thanks to a clear and concise booklet containing the week’s recipes and ingredient list. I appreciated that the simple and flavourful Beef and Black Bean Chili meal (my favourite of the bunch) provided a handy lunch option made from the leftovers, including the additional provision of six soft shell tacos that helps transform the recipe from beef chili to beef taquitos. I particularly enjoyed the seasoning that came with the meal and appreciated that it listed all the spice blends on the packaging so I knew what it contained. Similar to the other meal kit delivery services, however, I found that there were more dishes to wash afterward than was the norm in our household (although, when cooking for myself and my husband, I typically opt for one-pot or sheet pan meals because I hate washing dishes). I appreciated the wide selection of meals to choose from and was surprised by how fresh the ingredients were when I reached into their bags.

Best For:
● Offering dairy-free and gluten-free options
● Providing 15-minute meal selections for hectic weeknights

GoodFood

Availability: Currently delivers in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and the Maritimes.

Average price per person: As low as $5.85/serving.

Packaging: The GoodFood cardboard boxes, insulation liners, bags, bottles and baskets are all 100 per cent recyclable. Tip: Use the ice packs to keep food cool during a family picnic. My freezer is now fully stocked with them.

Dietary Variety: Choose your weekly meals from a variety of categories such as Clean15 (low-carb) and Vegetarian.

Convenience: The average meal takes approximately 30 minutes to whip up, while those looking to incorporate more smoothies in their daily routine will be thrilled to discover that GoodFood offers fresh ready-to-blend Breakfast Smoothies (starting at $4.99/each) that can easily be stored in the freezer.

Smoothies: Initially, when I learned that GoodFood had recently introduced a series of ready-to-blend smoothies, I scoffed a little. Who can’t chop a few fruits and veggies and toss them into a blender? Little did I know how much easier mornings could be when all I had to do was reach into the freezer, dump the contents of the smoothie into the blender, add a little milk and hit the Power button. In addition, each delivery comes with easy-to-clean reusable straws. Members can choose from 16 original recipes chock-full of superfood chunks and farm-frozen fruits and veggies. I also appreciated that GoodFood included ingredients I typically wouldn’t have on hand at home (acai, hemp, maca, goji, etc.), making for an even sweeter smoothie experience. My husband, in particular, was obsessed with them – he wasn’t much of a smoothie drinker before this experience so I can thank GoodFood for his newfound love.

Favourite Recipe: Butter-Poached Lobster Fra Diavolo over Fresh Fettuccine with Pine Nut-Basil Gremolata

Overall Experience: This rich, buttery pasta dish was just the type of carb overload I needed on the night I decided to prep it. I was expecting a flimsy lobster portion given how pricey the shellfish can be, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that the meaty chunks were as plentiful as they were flavourful. I also appreciated that the Fra Diavolo spice blend had a list of its ingredients. Again, clean-up was a bit more chaotic than I’d like, but nothing quite beats the feeling of being able to simply reach into your fridge for one of those brown paper bags with everything you could possibly need for a well-balanced meal.

Best For:
● Those who want to incorporate more smoothies in their diet
● Introducing more Clean15 (low-carb) meals to your routine

Cook It

Availability: This Montreal-based company is currently only available in Quebec and Ontario but it’s looking to expand. All packaging and instructions come in both French and English.

Average price per person: As low as $7.89.

Packaging: All the ingredients come inside a chilled, 100 per cent recyclable and reusable cardboard box. Of all the companies I tested, Cook It had the most manageable box in terms of size (the majority are pretty bulky and I don’t quite have the wingspan to carry them comfortably) and was the easiest to break down and discard.

Dietary Variety: Members can choose from a diverse selection of meat and vegetarian options.

Convenience: There are a couple of unique features here. Unlike the other meal delivery services I tested, Cook It offers a Pantry section on their website where customers can order local products to add to their box, such as smoothies, milk or granola bars – which is ideal if you’re looking to get in a little grocery shopping as well. They also offer a Ready-to-Eat selection each week that allows you to select from cooked meals that are ready to go once you’ve popped them in the oven or microwave for five minutes.

Favourite Recipe: Curry-Spiced Chicken and Peach Salad

Overall Experience: These were probably the simplest recipes of all the meal delivery kits I tried, both in terms of easy-to-follow instructions and minimal ingredients. The Curry-Spiced Chicken and Peach Salad was a lot easier to prep than I first anticipated and it was savoury and refreshing simultaneously. In fact, all the meals were consistently delicious, including the ready-to-eat beef lasagna that I just needed to heat up in the microwave. I’m leery of pre-cooked packaged meals because I tend to associate it with awful plane food, but the lasagna tasted homemade – my husband, who arrived home late that night, didn’t even realize it wasn’t freshly-prepped. (Airlines might want to consider hiring Cook It to prep their in-flight meals.) In addition, because the recipes I received were so low-maintenance, it also meant the least amount of clean-up afterward, compared to the other companies.

Best For:
● Offering a Pantry section and a selection of ready-to-eat meals
● The most manageable boxes in terms of size and break-down

Final Verdict

There are plenty of pros when it comes to trying out a meal delivery service. It’s ideal for people short on time, who hate meal planning or dread making regular trips to the grocery store. An added bonus is that it truly does help cut down on food waste as everything is so expertly measured out in advance that nothing gets left behind. I loved being able to reach into my fridge each night, pull out a brown paper bag and know that everything I could possibly need for my meal was all in one place.

At the same time, things start to add up and it’s likely going to be more costly overall to rely on meal delivery kits (unless you’re not planning on doing it every single week). Also, be prepared for more of a clean-up than you might be accustomed to and lots (and lots!) of boxes and recyclable materials to take out to your bins.