If you’re not familiar with the meal delivery service, the concept is fairly simple. Most are a subscription service which sees fresh, high-quality raw food delivered to your door on a daily or weekly basis. It might be enough for a single meal, or you could sign up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Of course, this isn’t just a stock grocery order. Meal delivery service supply exactly the ingredients you need to make specific, highly varied meals as well as step by step instructions for each. The exact details vary from supplier to supplier, but brands like HomeChef, Freshly, and Hello Fresh and all offer a wide range of options to suit almost anyone’s tastes, kitchen skills and available time.
But most of you already know that, and it’s not what you clicked on this article to read about. You want to know which option costs less money, less time, and is least damaging to our health.
The real questions are:
- Which costs less money, a meal delivery service, shopping and cooking or eating out?
- Which option takes less of the other most important resource, time?
- Which option yields the healthiest meals?
Let’s take a look at each of the options in more detail.
Grocery shopping and the ‘home-cooked meal’ is the classic. It was the default option for most of our parent’s generation and the standard by which eating and cooking strategies are judged. This option has a huge amount of ‘cultural inertia’ behind it and will be hard to topple no matter what the results.
For these purposes, we’re not looking at the least or most expensive stores, nor are we comparing the ‘budget’ branded items. In order to get a fair comparison, we’re looking at high quality but not “over the top” food – Something you’d serve if your parents were coming round for dinner, but not for Christmas day.
- The almost totally unhindered choice as to what meals and what ingredients you buy, and which brands you use
- Easy to alter the recipe by buying different ingredients
- Some ingredients are less expensive in bulk – if you have the storage space
- Actually finding time to shop can be difficult
- To be efficient, you really need to sit down and create a weekly meal delivery service
- Buying in small portions can be difficult and expensive
So, how much does it cost to shop for food? On average, we got a figure of $32.04 for a meal for two made from good quality ingredients. Of course, you can spend a lot less than that, or a lot more. It all depends on your tastes, where you live and which meal you’re making. Nonetheless, we feel that is a representative price.
How much time does it take? Quite a bit. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a grocery store right down the street, you’ll be driving across town for any meal more complicated than spaghetti and meatballs. The total time for shopping and cooking a meal we estimate at 1 hour and 50 minutes. Again, this will vary depending on where you live.
How healthy is it? In this case, we’re looking at high-quality ingredients, the lean meat, and fresh, unprocessed veg. Most of the time, this will result in a reasonably healthy meal. Just avoid the temptation to select ‘the cheap stuff’, as that can send fat, sugar and salt content spiraling out of control!
Now, let’s talk about wastage. Only rarely will you be able to find ‘dinner for 2’ portions of ingredients. If you’re committed to cooking every night and working out a meal delivery service a week in advance, you can largely overcome this. However, if your commitment waivers – and let’s face it, it will – you’ll throw out a lot of half-used ingredients after that sell-by date flashes past. According to the Department of Agriculture, US households throw away more than 150,000 tons of spoiled or wasted food every day. That comes in at around $160 billion every year. Incidentally, most of that figure – around $91 billion – is spoiled dairy products alone.
In this metric, at least, grocery shopping is extremely wasteful.
Nice, if you can afford it. The funny thing is, unless you have very expensive tastes or tack on a couple of pints to the tab, eating out can be less expensive than shopping.
- Everyone can order a different meal
- No grocery shopping
- No cooking
- No clean-up
- Traveling to the restaurant and finding parking can be difficult
- You don’t really know what ingredients they use, or how they prepare them
- Adding a drink or 2 each can almost double the price of the meal
So what does it cost? By our estimates the same quality of meal that you’d get by shopping and cooking or joining a meal delivery service at a mid-range restaurant would cost $24.98 (again, for two people). And, yes, your mileage will definitely vary.
So, how is this possible? Eating out is supposed to be expensive! Well, look at it this way: that restaurant might cook 500 meals in a day, depending on its size. The chef and the cook staff have the process down to smooth, mechanical dance. They also have deals with their ingredient suppliers that cut their costs dramatically compared to the grocery store. Let’ say a beef roast is $4 per pound at the store. When you get it from a wholesaler in 1000 pound orders, it might be half that.
So, restaurants take advantage of the economy of scale in a big way. Even after paying for staff, ingredients, rent and all the other expenses, they can give you a good meal for a decent price.
How about the time cost? Assuming you choose a place relatively near your home, work or wherever you leave from, eating out can be the fastest option by far. Long waits for a table, inefficient staff or a short-handed kitchen can change all that, though. We’ve found that the entire ‘going out to eat’ process from beginning to end averages 1 hour 57 minutes. That said, sometimes ‘2 hours spent away from work and home’ is the whole point. It is also really nice that none of the time is spent cleaning up the kitchen.
Now, is it healthy? No. It is not. Don’t even try to fool yourself. For every time you’ve asked yourself ‘Why doesn’t it taste like this when I make it?’, the answer is usually ‘because they used a half a pound of butter’. Restaurants are good, they’re not even ruinously expensive (again, depending on your tastes), but they are, without a doubt, the least healthy option on this list.
We should also give a nod to the hidden costs here. Drinks are where restaurants make a lot of their profit. We haven’t figured these into the costs because most meal kit plans don’t offer them. However, a few drinks (or a few drinks each) can add up very quickly, both in terms of price and the health factor. And don’t forget to add the tip to your final cost.
Meal Delivery Service
Now we come to meal delivery services. HomeChef, Hello Fresh, Freshly and a hundred other services have given us a third option, and one of our parents never had. These services deliver everything you need to make an excellent meal – even the recipe – the right to your door. There are vegan meal plans, carnivore meal plans, gluten-free meal plans, and meal plans that cater to every kind of diet – scientific, fad, and frankly spurious – that you can imagine.
- Delivered in exactly the right portions, so there is no waste
- You don’t spend any time shopping or traveling
- They can be a great way to discover new favorite dishes and ingredients
- No influence over brand of ingredients
- You may struggle with unfamiliar recipes
- Children can be picky eaters
Most meal kit delivery services allow you to choose between a range of meals which change weekly or monthly, so you can be as adventurous or as cautious as you please. For families with children, never underestimate those cautious, conservative choices. Little Timmy might love the bok-choy, stem ginger, and black mushroom spring rolls, but it may not be an easy, quiet meal – you always have to consider the child option!
So, how much does it cost for a meal for 2? Again, there is tremendous variation, so we tried to find an average based on high quality, ‘normal’ food choices comparable to the grocery store and restaurant fare above. The figure we come up with might surprise you – $19.90.
Now, yes, you can spend a lot more than that, and it is certainly possible to spend less. On average, though, this is a very inexpensive proposition, especially considering what you get – but there are other factors to consider
What about time? You do have to cook the meal, which takes between 20 minutes and an hour, more often than not, including clean-up. You are still using your own ‘power’ in terms of stove time. That’s comparable to your wait at a restaurant, but without the drive there. It is dramatically less than cooking the same meal from the grocery store, because you’re skipping the entire ‘going to the grocery store’ part.
And is it healthy? Yes, generally speaking. Of course, you control what meals you get. If you’re supposed to be on a low fat diet, it might be wise not to order the Steak Dianne kit or similar multi-ingredient foods, or meals to prep that include alcohol in terms of sauces. But generally speaking, these kits consist almost entirely of fresh, raw, unprocessed foods. They won’t have the massive amounts of sugar, salt, and fat that the ‘stuff you get in tins’ or pre-packaged ready to serve have. They won’t have the more-butter-than-not sauce you get in restaurant meals. They’re at least as good for you as grocery store meals, without the temptation to ‘take the easy way’ and buy a jar of Alfredo sauce without reading the back label.
But you may have noticed that these meal delivery services have been called ‘services’. That’s because they are. They aren’t just the commercial fact of good food delivered cheaply to your door. They encourage you to try something new, to learn new recipes and even to give a few foods a fair shake that you just decided you didn’t like when you were 10.
It’s adventurous, but manageable – controlled. After all, you’re doing the actual cooking. You don’t have to add all 4 cloves of garlic. You can leave out the anchovy paste. You can swap out the ‘artisanal hoi-sin dip’ for catsup. Or you can be daring and try it anyway. Even though these meals come as kits, you still have choices to add or subtract any of the contents, and substitute with others from your store cupboard.
So, how do these options compare to each other? We’ve looked at not just the financial cost, but also the time each option demands and the impact each has on our health.
Which is more expensive?
The most difficult part of the analysis is comparing like for like. It is technically possible to go to the local supermarket and buy the cheapest pasta imaginable, pick through the ‘Still fresh, honest!’ 50% discount shelf for some meat, and get a few other bits from their discount line, and spend less than $15 – sometimes far less.
But that’s not what we’re comparing here. Meal delivery services specialize in high end ingredients – excellent quality meats, the freshest produce, the best spices, and other finishing touches. Most restaurants do the same. So we’ve done as close as possible to a ‘like for like’ comparison for the ingredients, meal delivery services, and restaurant dishes.
You’ll also notice we are only looking at the cost of actual food. At the restaurant, you’ve got tips and drinks. With meal kit delivery you’ve got the cost of shipping. At the grocery store you’ve got portion inefficiency and impulse buying. Because these vary dramatically from person to person, yet also seem to average out to the same $5 to $10 per meal, we aren’t complicating the math with them.
So, which is most expensive, and which least?
- The most expensive, by a substantial margin, is shopping for the ingredients yourself and cooking them. At an average of $32.04 for a meal for two made from high end ingredients. You do get the bragging rights of saying you did it the old fashioned way, at least.
- The next most expensive is eating out, at $24.98 for a meal for 2, with no drinks. The drinks part should really be mentioned, though. A few glasses of wine or beer can inflate that cost dramatically.
- The least expensive option, it turns out, is the meal kit delivery or meal delivery service. At only $19.90 per meal for 2, on average, these are surprisingly inexpensive.
Which takes more time?
This section that is difficult to compare directly. Shopping might be as little as running out to a convenience store for some ground beef and hamburger buns, but it usually isn’t. Eating out might be dropping by a take-away on the way back from work – but that doesn’t really count. A meal delivery service might be popping a steak on a frying pan then opening a packet of sauce over it – but there is usually a lot more to it than that.
All things considered, the time expenses work out like this:
- Dining out takes on average 1 hour 57 minutes.
- Shopping and cooking takes, on average, 1 hour 50 minutes.
- Cooking a meal from a delivered kit takes the least time, at a mere 50 minutes on average, that has a recipe to follow and nothing missing!
Which is healthiest?
This is an easier metric by far. As we’ve matched ingredients as closely as possible, there is very nearly a tie for ‘best’.
- Eating out is simply not healthy, unless you got to a super healthy salad bar, or similar.. While there usually are relatively healthy options, let’s be honest, that’s not why we go out to eat. ca
- Shopping for groceries loses out to meal delivery services by a very tiny margin. If you really did buy the exact same ingredients it would be a tie, but again that’s not really how we shop. Getting the jar of pre-made pasta sauce even once can torpedo your whole week.
- Cooking from a meal kit wins – again by the tiniest margin – because they keep us honest about buying the highest quality, healthiest ingredients.
Despite ‘good old fashioned grocery store shopping’ having a huge advantage of cultural inertia, it turns out that in general, having meal kits delivered and cooking them at home is a clear winner both in terms of actual cost and in the amount of time spent. It is a less-clear winner in the 3rd category, health, but at the very least it has to be considered tied for 1st place. However, whilst doing price comparisons, it has to be remembered that items such as dry foods (including herbs) do come in certain size pots, which means that the initial expenditure should really be divided up in consideration that you will still have quite a large proportion of them remaining after the first use.
It is also surprising to see ‘eating out’ come in as less expensive than ‘shopping and cooking’, adjusted for getting the same quality of ingredients… though admittedly only if they offer free refills on soda.