Are Meal Kits Really Healthy?
Updated on: February 2023
Written by: Becky Dotson
Meal kit delivery services trace their roots back to 2007, when a mother of three in Stockholm, Sweden decided to launch a business that would give families an easy way to make dinner – minus the shopping and planning. The service found quick success and by 2012, Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and Plated started offering meal kit delivery in the United States.
Meal kits have become increasingly popular in the U.S. over the past few years – becoming a multi-billion-dollar business. And while they do offer a convenient home cooked meal, are they really a healthy alternative? The short answer is yes-ish. It all depends on what you choose and your eating habits when you aren’t using a meal kit.
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How Do Meal Kits Determine Their Menu?
Meal kits are fairly easy to order. All you need to do is sign up, pick the meals you want from the choices the company provides, and enter your address and payment information, and they show up at your door. Everything is pre-measured, with all the ingredients you need and an easy-to-follow recipe to make dinner in about 30 minutes. Most meal kit companies employ chefs to come up with the menus you choose from every week. The chefs use their culinary training to create, test, and revise recipes until they’re ready to be offered on the meal kit menu. As opposed to a restaurant, these chefs have to create meals that are simple to recreate at home and ones where the ingredients will travel well and keep for several days. They also take customer feedback into consideration when making or improving their recipe offerings.
The chefs are mixed in with food safety experts, menu planners and even dietitians to come up with at least 20-plus meals each week for you to choose from. Meal kit delivery services aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but it is something the government agency is considering.
Some of them, though, have received distinctions from other notable organizations. Green Chef is certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Sunbasket was the first service to receive the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check certification for meals that are part of its Lean and Clean plan. Its diabetes-friendly meals have been approved by the American Diabetes Association.
Factor, Hello Fresh and Sunbasket have menus that are approved by dietitians. Also, Blue Apron has a Weight Watchers-approved designation, offering recipes that partner with the weight loss program.
Which Meal Kits Are Considered the Healthiest and Why?
Most meal kits have a healthy option. Whether it’s called “calorie conscious” or “vegetables only,” you can find something that will be better than popping a frozen dinner in the microwave. Most companies have multiple plan options and multiple menus to go with those plans. It’s important that you read carefully as you’re making your choices.
One thing that does make meal kits healthier is the portion control built into each meal. You are given just the right amount of ingredients per serving, making it difficult to overeat, which can be a problem with eating out or even made from scratch, home-cooked meals.
For those reasons, there really isn’t an unhealthy meal kit delivery service. There may be meals offered that have a higher sodium or fat content than you want or need, but you can steer clear of them next time. Healthy eating isn’t typically completely undone with one meal.
Read our review of the Best Meal Delivery Kits for 2023Read More
The Gift of Convenience
The biggest perk of meal kits is they’re convenient. Everything you need to cook a meal that you picked is delivered right to your door. All you have to do is open the box and put it away until you’re ready to make it. Most meals can be made in 30 minutes and they come with a recipe card containing step-by-step instructions on how to make it.
Second to that, they can be better for you than ordering takeout or running through a drive-thru every night. And they can also be less expensive than those options, as well. Many companies pride themselves on using non-GMO or organic ingredients and getting their meats and vegetables from farmers who use sustainable growing practices.
Which Meal Kit Has the Most Low-fat Menu?
Many people turn to meal kit delivery because they want a quick, easy, healthy way to figure out what’s for dinner. Meal kits are designed to help you not overeat, since each meal comes with just enough ingredients for two, three, or four people. They’re generally well-balanced with a protein for the main course and vegetables for sides. While you won’t find many meal kits that have a specific “low-fat meal plan,” most of them have a weight control or calorie conscious offering.
Home Chef has a Low-Calorie option, Blue Apron has a Wellness and Veggies Only meal plan, and Factor has a Vegan and Veggie Option, as well as one called Calorie Smart. EveryPlate offers a Veggie Only meal plan. Sunbasket has a Mediterranean and Vegetarian offering. Freshly has a Calorie-Conscious meal plan. However, Green Chef may be your best bet because they offer more choices: Fast and Fit, Mediterranean, Vegetarian, and Vegan meal plans are all available.
Having vegetable-only offerings is an easy way to cut fat, since most vegetables have little to no fat. While a Mediterranean diet isn’t considered low-fat, it is low in the bad fats we should stay away from. The amount of fat in the diet comes from healthful monounsaturated fats and unsaturated omega-3 fats. Calorie conscious meal plans by definition tend to be lower in fat because they offer foods lower in calories, which often end up being lower in fat.
It’s important to be careful in choosing your meals if you go this route, because where a company lowers fat, they may increase sugar or sodium to help the taste.
Which Meal Kit Has the Lowest Sodium Menu?
Sodium is always a concern with any pre-packaged food. It’s a highly effective preservative because it helps keep food fresher longer. Plus, salt just makes things taste better. Experts recommend adults limit salt intake to less than 2300 mg a day, which equals about one teaspoon of table salt. The body does need salt to function properly, but as you might expect, Americans regularly consume more than they should. And eating too much salt can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, kidney stones, and stroke.
Most meal kits will have sodium in them and some recipes will call for you to add salt. Most companies will include the amount of sodium in the meal on the recipe cards included with the ingredients. If it seems like too much, or more than you want or need, you can just add half or less of the salt the recipe calls for when you’re preparing it. But if you’re looking for a meal kit that offers a lower-sodium option, consider Sunbasket.
For starters, Sunbasket will let you see the nutrition content on the website as you’re picking your meals each week. You can steer clear of any that have more sodium than you need. Sunbasket also offers two separate meal plans that focus on lower sodium content, among other things. The Diabetes-Friendly meal plan offers meals with less than 700 mg of sodium—the average amount being around 345 mg of sodium per meal. Sunbasket uses sodium alternatives to flavor its food: things like garlic, lemon and dried herbs.
Sunbasket’s Lean and Clean meal plan is calorie conscious; by taking out as many processed ingredients as possible, it lowers the sodium content in the meals.
Which Meal Kits Allow You to Customize Your Menu?
To some degree, you can customize your order with all meal kit delivery services. After all, you get to choose the meals and how many kits you want for the week. Every service has more than one plan offering— including vegetarian and vegan, specialized diets like Paleo, Keto and Mediterranean, and carb and calorie conscious.
Some companies will allow you to take things a step farther. For instance, EveryPlate will allow you to customize your recipe when choosing menu items. Depending on the recipe, you can add, swap or upgrade the meats, seafood or vegetables on some meals. Blue Apron, Dinnerly, and Sunbasket also allows customization on menu items. Freshly offers bulk ordering options for some of its proteins – so you are able to order the meat, and choose and fix your own sides at home to pair with it.
If your idea of dinner is regularly eating at a restaurant, takeout or drive-thru, then meal kit delivery services are a healthier option. Most companies offer fresh ingredients that are minimally processed and some use non-GMO and organic produce and meats. Because of the selection, you can choose more balanced meals with a good mix of proteins and vegetables, and it’s easy to try new things that you might not otherwise attempt at home.