The Self-Care Experiment Week 5: Handling meal prep

With our crazy schedules we don’t always have time to plan meals – or when we finally get home after a super long work day (we’re talking days that end around midnight and then out the door again by 7am), the last thing we want to do is spend an hour preparing and cooking meals we’re too tired to eat anyway.

That’s not to say we don’t love cooking. We’re actually really into it. Pouring over cookbooks and websites to find the perfect combination of dishes to serve at a dinner party is one of our favourite past times!  

But, if we’re being honest, we do have a few problems with daily cooking….

    1. We love the “cookbook porn” stage so much that we easily spend half a day on it;
    1. Exhaustion and hunger are a poor match with grocery shopping. Yet, for us, they’re often combined leading to the inevitable sheepish ringing through of a half-eaten croissant at the check-out;
    1. Last minute meetings or dinner invites foil our menu planning, resulting in half our groceries becoming green bin bound wasting both money and good food;
  1. Cooking for one or two often requires making larger recipes and portioning them out so we’re either eating the same thing, meal after meal for an entire week, or we’ve got a fully stocked (but boring) freezer.

All of this got us thinking – in this part of The Self-Care Experiment, maybe we should try something different. Instead of adding a new ritual or activity, we’ll take one away and see what we gain.

What would happen if we relieved ourselves of all the meal planning, prep work… cooking? How much time could we get back? Could we keep it healthy? Could we do it without blowing up our restaurant/ take-out budget and without depending on nutritionally questionable frozen entrees?

How’d we do?

If spending an entire afternoon ensconced in piles of cookbooks was any indication of our idea of a good time, you’d know that we clearly loved the research phase of this project! And, it actually took far less time than we anticipated. A few polls amongst friends and a quick Google search led us to a perfect list of expert meal prep services that we could narrow down in a jiff.

We always thought that meal box subscription services were designed with larger families in mind. We also figured you’d have to be pretty easy-going about what you eat to be able to benefit from them. So, we were surprised to discover that there were a number of companies that could satisfy our portion requirements and dietary restrictions like preferring vegetarian meals or avoiding shellfish.

We decided to try two different types of services:

eFresh Meals delivers fresh, fully cooked meals in single serving sizes or family-sized servings (for four people). And you can order a specific number of meals per week: 6, 9, 12, or 24 for the single serving plan, or 2, 4, 6, or 8 meals for the family plan. Within the meal plan you choose you can select every meal you’ll receive from a long menu that categorizes vegetarian, ‘healthy’, and even gluten- or dairy-free. We opted for 12 single serving meals in a one week period so lunches and dinners would be cared for. You can change up the meals you select from week to week, but the full menu itself remains the same.

Hello Fresh delivers fresh ingredients carefully designed for the recipes they also provide. You can order from three different styles of plans, Family, Pronto, or Veggie, and select the number of people and number of meals per week. Hello Fresh has figured out how many meals for how many people is ideal in their service and have constructed those options accordingly. You can select recipes from their menu as well, which changes weekly.

The result?

We were giddy with excitement when our meal boxes were delivered each week. With the exception of a surprise flower delivery (can you believe!? We were tickled, but we digress), our meals were the best package we received each week.

Whether in a condo or house, these companies have their system down pat. You select a day, and they deliver! They’ll even let you know when your package is on its way. Unfortunately we couldn’t specify an exact time for delivery which meant that we just missed the delivery each week. Luckily each service was happy to leave our insulated boxes in a specified safe spot so we’d be able to pick them up when we got home.

Opening up the boxes was like unwrapping a gift! This is more than just another Amazon box. Both subscriptions have similar methods of delivery: a large, foil insulated, recyclable cardboard box with beautiful branding, and carefully packaged meals nestled on top of ice packs.  

The meals from eFresh were packaged as you would expect a premade entree to be at a high-end grocer. With the nutritional values for each meal both on the website as well as on each package, we could be smart about how we paired our meals each day to ensure we were keeping things healthy. Using an oven instead of a microwave made a huge difference (as it usually does) in our impressions of each meal. The greatest surprise were some unexpected stand-out meals: the Montreal Spice Striploin with sweet potato wedges and vegetables was perfect – even when reheated in the oven. And, we keep thinking about the Greek Orzo Salad (which we preferred cold rather than warmed as per the package instruction) and the Chickpea & Lentil Curry.

One of the few concerns we had with eFresh Meals is that we couldn’t decipher how much vegetable content would be in each dish because the website descriptions focused on more on the protein component. As a just-in-case, we bought some salad to accompany the meals and found we didn’t really need it!

eFresh tells you that they’ll save you 5-7 hours per week. Even the packaging says their boxes will make life easier. We can confirm it: they made good on both promises!     

Hello Fresh was a totally different experience, starting from their philosophy. This service isn’t just about saving time, it’s about embarking on culinary adventures that also happens to be eco-friendly. From recycling to locally-sourced ingredients, Hello Fresh wants you to know they’re both deliciously- and sustainability-minded.

We didn’t put too much effort into choosing the meals that would arrive (in fact we let them do that for us with no further direction other than “veggie please”!), but when we opened the box and found three jumbo paper bags, each closed and labeled with the name of the recipe on them and accompanied by 8.5”x11” full colour recipe cards we were over the moon! How did they know our penchant for Moroccan and Middle Eastern flavours? In short? Honestly? They had us at halloumi.

Since each meal was designed for two, having three recipes per week was perfect for us. We had one portion for dinner, and enough left over for lunch the following day – and no more than that. We even invited a friend over for dinner one night – a regular Hello Fresh customer – to see if we could trick him into thinking we’d cooked from scratch. (He bought it!)

Don’t judge! It was a white lie really since even though all the produce is chopped and prepped, you really are doing the cooking – in the most foolproof way imaginable. The produce (which we are super picky about) was fresh, bright, and just how we would pick ‘em. Even the specialty vinegars and condiments that made up the dressings and sauces for our meals were delivered in tiny, perfect mini-bar sized bottles that made us feel like giants when we held them….we love tiny ingredients. What, just us?

There was one particularly late evening when we thought we just couldn’t cook but remembering that every meal took under 30 minutes and only used one or two pans helped us to rally and get the meal done. And those recipe cards? We love them so much that we’ve already saved them in a binder that’ll become our very own cookbook.

Will we stick to it after this week?

Taking the time to experiment with different providers helped us to realize that different services are great for different purposes.

In our opinion, eFresh Meals are perfect for times if…

    • You know you have zero time (say during a launch period at work) but still want healthy, tasty meals,
    • You’re looking for health conscious portion sizes, or
  • You’re providing a meal service to someone who can’t cook for themselves at the moment (Exam time? Brand new baby? Recent move? Lack of cooking facility in a new residence?)

Hello Fresh; however, will totally be our go-to for fresh, exciting meals on a regular basis. We are officially obsessed! Although there may not have been as much time saved as when having completed meals at the ready, we can’t deny the joy of being in the kitchen preparing a satisfying meal for ourselves or loved ones. And, with the recipes chosen and fresh ingredients chopped and prepared, it’s kind of like having our own sous chef. All we have to do is finish it up!

We can imagine all the ways Hello Fresh fits right into our lives:

    • Fun family time introducing kids to the joy of cooking or trying new flavours
    • That date night when you talked a good game about cooking an impressive meal
    • A gentle introduction to culinary adventuring that a novice cook would have without worrying about kitchen techniques
  • Keeping the joy and mindfulness of preparing meals without spending time on the details

Heck, this service is so dead easy that they even provide a list of the barebone pantry items you need to stock to make any of the recipes they’ll send (and that list includes really simple things like salt, pepper, olive oil, a baking sheet, and a pan or two). These recipes are truly un-mess-up-able while still giving you a sense of accomplishment!

Are these services more expensive than our usual process of cookbook browsing, food shopping, and meal prep? Sure. But at an average of $12.50 per serving, per week for either type of service; the amount of time, energy, and waste means that we likely save more than we in the long run by choosing this route. The biggest bonus? We felt totally healthy and excited by every meal we created. We loved our fling with Hello Fresh so much, we’re considering seeing it more seriously.

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