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Getting dinner on the table, especially during the workweek, can be a challenge. What if all the legwork could be eliminated and all the ingredients were already prepped in pre-portioned packages? Meal delivery services such as Blue Apron, Plated, and HelloFresh make that possible. When compared prices, a sample menu from Blue Apron actually came out about 30 percent cheaper than buying the same ingredients from the grocery store. The price disparity is misleading, however. The way meal delivery services really win over consumers is with convenience, variety, and less food waste.

The sample menu of three meals from Blue Apron -- huevos rancheros quesadillas, seared pork chops with fig compote, and spicy miso-glazed chicken wings -- costs $59.94 for two people. A grocery list for the ingredients needed to prepare the same meals (two of which were unavailable) comes to $86.74.

But many of the grocery items come in unit sizes that far exceed the recipe requirements, which artificially boosts the tab. (For example, rice vinegar is sold in a 12-ounce bottle, but the recipe calls for only 2 tablespoons.) Some ingredients may already be in the pantry and nonperishables can be saved for another day, lowering the cost per meal. Frugal consumers are likely to get additional meals out of the excess produce and dairy rather than let it wind up in the trash.

The delivery services offer complex meals with lots of ingredients (some of which are expensive) that many folks, during a busy week, are unlikely to prepare. Simpler meals -- say, grilled chicken, frozen corn, and a green salad -- are a more realistic basis for comparison and cost far less than $10 a person.

In interviews and online reviews, consumers stress that time saved is worth spending a few dollars more for dinner. The major national purveyors deliver the components for complete meals right to the front door. All the services claim that meals take 30 to 45 minutes from box to table. For time-starved consumers, this means less menu planning, less shopping, and less prepping of ingredients.

Customers can choose between two and five meals a week, depending on the service, for two to six people per meal. Plated and HelloFresh allow recipe choice but Blue Apron asks only for dietary preferences. The proteins, fruits, vegetables, and spices are packaged to stay fresh up to 24 hours so no one has to wait at home for delivery.

Larger orders net savings. Blue Apron charges $9.99 a person for two people or $8.74 a person for four people, and three meals each for two people run $59.94 a week, shipping included. Plated's fees are $12 a meal for two people, with shipping fees waived when the box total exceeds $50. HelloFresh offers meals starting at $10.75 a person and vegetarian options starting at $9.08.

Opinions about portion sizes are mixed. Several online reviewers say the helpings are small for men, in particular. But Elaine Silveria of Columbus, Ohio, says she orders two meals a week for herself and has enough leftovers for multiple dinners.

Fans of meal delivery services note they receive the correct amount of each item and very little goes to waste -- one rationale for using meal kits. Kyla Dembowski, also from Columbus, says the portions are just right for her family of three. Although she gets more for her money when shopping and prepping on her own, the remains of those meals generally get tossed.

Apart from some negative comments about Blue Apron's offerings, the customers we spoke with generally consider the quality on par with a restaurant and superior to what most folks whip up on an average night. Several say they enjoy trying new ingredients they normally wouldn't without first knowing the experiment would be a hit at the dinner table.

Children, though, can be tough customers. Caitlyn McCandless, another Columbus resident, says her two young daughters wouldn't touch the food. Dembowski says she continues to serve "kid food" to her 3-year old while she and her husband savor the delivered DIY meals.

In interviews and reviews, some people who use meal delivery services note surprising perks. Aside from busting out of the cooking rut, they report becoming more confident in the kitchen, learning more about healthy eating and cooking, trying new techniques, and getting children involved in the process, which sometimes tempts them to try new flavors.

Most DIY meal delivery services offer deep discounts for first-time customers. Many coupons shave $20 to $35 off the first box order, which lowers the cost per serving to less than $6. Carefully check the websites for deals before signing up.

meal delivery services tablePhoto credit: Courtesy of Cheapism

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