Can you really save money with meal delivery?

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What's on your dinner menu? Perhaps a meal delivery service?

If you haven't heard of these, you will. They seem to be popping up everywhere these days. The concept is simple enough. If you don't want to bother with grocery shopping for your dinners, and the idea of measuring and slicing and dicing a bunch of ingredients before preparing a wholesome, homemade meal depresses you, then don't. Pay for a meal delivery service. They'll send you ingredients and instructions on how to cook the meal.

Most, if not all, tout their fresh, nutritious ingredients and boast of reducing your stress in the kitchen. Some specialize in certain foods, like vegetarian meals, and others have a celebrity attached. In February, for instance, singer Beyoncé teamed up with her trainer, Marco Borges, to create a meal delivery program that specializes in vegan and gluten-free meals.

If you think about it, these meal delivery services are a little like pizza delivery services, only the meal isn't hot (you have to put it in the oven), and instead of pepperoni and extra cheese, you're getting dinners like a turkey mushroom burger or Mediterranean chicken salad.

But is it worth it? Are you just trading the time, expense and effort of meal planning and grocery shopping for the time, expense and effort of being the customer of a meal delivery service? Or if the services truly do replace some major headaches, are they worth paying for? There's really no way to answer those questions without trying a service and seeing what you think, but if you are considering using a meal delivery service, the following tips might just be your recipe for success.

Learn the players and their pricing. There are a multitude of meal delivery services. Some of the national, big players include:

  • Blue Apron. Its two-person plan gets you three meals for two people at $9.99 per person, totaling $59.94. If you buy the family plan, designed for a family of four, you can pay for two or four meals a week. For four meals that feed four people, you would spend $139.84 a week. Shipping costs are included.
  • HelloFresh. Choose from two-person and four-person plans. Three meals for two people will run you $69 a week, and three meals for four people will cost $129 a week. Shipping costs are included.
  • Plated. You'll pay a starting price of $12 a plate, plus $6 for shipping, unless you spend over $50, which erases shipping costs. If you end up choosing three recipes to feed four people, you'll be looking at $144 a week.

Obviously, with these services, the smaller the family, the less damage to your wallet. And keep in mind that there are numerous regional and local services you may want to give a shot. For instance, if you live in Cincinnati, Ohio, you might like Health Savor, which specializes in organic food (prices vary; the broccoli-caramelized onion breakfast bake looks tasty). If you live in Denver, you might enjoy The Spicy Radish (meals start at $24 for two people; some recent menu items include a lemon and thyme marinated grilled chicken cutlet). And while not every national service delivers to Alaska, if you live in Anchorage, you could try the Alaska Dinner Factory.

"We plan, shop, chop, & clean - You assemble and freeze," reads its website, which might as well be speaking for virtually the entire industry. "No more menu planning, grocery shopping, chopping, dicing, food preparation, or cleanup!"

Keep your expectations in check. Just like going to a restaurant or a friend's house for dinner, you might find yourself underwhelmed when you finally dig into your food. At least that was Timothy Trudeau's experience.

"My wife and I are at a super busy stage of our life right now. So much so, that I am always looking for ways to make life simpler and easier for the both of us," says Trudeau, a father for four, with two kids still in diapers. He and his wife are home schooling their oldest kids while he runs a business, Syntax Creative, a music distribution company in El Cajon, California.

So they turned to a meal delivery service – whose name Trudeau prefers to omit. Neither he nor the kids liked the meals, which may have been for the best since the portions, he says, were too small.

"And I don't mean small as in correct and healthy portions, but small, as in, was this for a mouse?" Trudeau says. "Perhaps we need to try another service, but this experience will certainly make it less likely that we would try it again."

But Elaine Wilkes, a nutritionist based in Los Angeles, who authored, "Nature's Secret Messages: Hidden in Plain Sight," thinks he shouldn't give up so fast.

"Finding a service is like dating. You may not get it right on the first one, and some people who try it [and don't like it will] never try another one. But you have to keep looking," says Wilkes, who so far has sampled at least 15 meal delivery services, with varying degrees of success.

For instance, Wilkes tried a meal delivery service that specializes in raw foods – and hated it. But when she went to visit her father in Illinois, she tried White Oak Fresh 2 U, which services the Chicago area and specializes in organic foods. She loved it.

Know why you're using the service. Wilkes thinks there's a good chance you could save by using the services.

"I don't think people ever really realize how much they spend on food, especially if you factor in that you often aren't just spending money on groceries but restaurants and your daily coffee," she says.

Still, if saving money is your goal it's difficult to argue that you should use these services instead of the grocery store. For instance, and not to pick on The Spicy Radish, but if you want to order its chicken potpie, you'll pay $24 for a two person-serving. You could buy two frozen, prepackaged chicken potpies at the grocery store for maybe $10 or less. (On the other hand, also at the Spicy Radish, if you buy two of the grilled flank steak meals with roasted red pepper walnut sauce, and Israeli couscous with dill, parsley, chives and summer squash, it's easy to picture the grocery bill being fairly sizable.)

But if your goal is to save time and reduce your stress, you may do well, and while the prices probably will inflate your monthly food bill, keep in mind that you're paying for better-quality food. That's the argument, anyway, that it's better to eat a meal prepared by a personal chef versus consuming a mass produced chicken potpie.

As Wilkes says, "Food is medicine."

And she adds that she loves the mission of most of these meal delivery services. "Everyone has coaches these days, but no one thinks about having a food coach," she says.

But if you would like to save money where you can, Wilkes suggests avoiding paying full price on the first week for food.

"The first week is almost always negotiable," says Wilkes, who estimates that 70 percent of the services she's used offer discounts or introductory special during the first week.

"They want you to try their service more than you want the food," she says. "If you try it and like it, they'll make thousands of dollars off of you. I mean, what if all of the sudden you use the service for the rest of your life? Or a year or two? So ask for a deal."

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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