Meal Kit Reviews: Sun Basket is the Choice for Environmentalists

Sun Basket is a Bay Area based meal kit subscription service started by a former sous chef at Slanted Door, a high end Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco (one I’ve never been to).  It aims to distinguish itself by catering to special diets (Mediterranean, paleo, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, etc.) and by offering organic produce and “responsibly sourced” meats and fish.  It gets top rates in many professional reviews, but it gets very mixed user reviews on Yelp.

Sun Basket is a premium service and I tried it only for one week.  I paid $32 for 3 meal kits (the regular price is $72). These are the kits I got:

Steak and roasted sweet potato with scallion-ginger relish

A simple meal that you don’t need a kit to recreate.

Lamb korma with sweet potato mash and toasted naan

Not really a korma, but the lamb was tasty

Basket Salt-and-pepper tofu stir-fry with glass noodles

Tofu is tofu, but the noodles and sauce were good.

So far, I’ve made a single recipe from Sun Basket, though I’ll probably try more of their vegan recipes in the future:

Spanish paella with tofu, mushrooms, and peas

This was a totally miss but it was my fault as I ended up substituting for most of the key ingredients.

These are my general observations.

Sun Basket’s Kits Are Good but not Great

We weren’t wowed by any of the Sun Basket kits we tried. They all produced perfectly acceptable food, but nothing that we’d want to have again.  This may be a product of what I chose, however. Please bear in mind that my experience so far is very limited.  I will try cooking more Sun Basket recipes on my own and see if they change my opinion.

Sun Basket’s offerings are great for people with special diets

I have a vegan daughter and finding vegan recipes in other services has been very difficult.  Sun Basket offers three vegan choices a week, and some of their vegetarian fare can be adapted as well.  They also offer diabetes-friendly meals, paleo meals, gluten free meals and a bunch of other choices.

They are expensive for a meal delivery service

Sun Basket’s classic plan of 3 meals per week for 2 people costs $72 a week, or $12 pp/per meal.  There is a $1 pp/pm discount if you order kits for 4 people.  This means it’s priced at the highest end of the spectrum.  On the plus side, they feature organic produce, “responsibly sourced” meats and they don’t charge a premium for “gourmet” recipes.

Portions are just the right size

So far, the portions we tried were the right size for us for dinner.  We weren’t left full or hungry. We had some leftovers from the side dishes.

For a meal kit service, it’s more environmentally friendly. 

Let’s be real here.  If you care about the environment, meal kits are probably not for you.  The main issue with these services is not so much the price as the enormous amount of packaging materials that are not recyclable, chief among them being the freezer packs.  Blue Apron alone causes almost 200K tons of freezer packs to end in landfills every year – and to them you have to add the other meal kit services.  Meal kits generally come in recyclable boxes, but sometimes they are also lined with bulky and non-recyclable packing material, which again will needlessly end up in the landfill.

Fortunately, Sun Basket takes their packaging seriously.  Not only is their packing material a sturdy paper bag filled with shredded paper – so totally recyclable (though the market for mixed paper recycling has recently collapsed).  More importantly, their freezer packs are made from a solution of something like 98% water and 2% cotton fibers which makes them conpostable.   The plastic bags are not really recyclable – they are in theory, but nobody is buying them so they are being sent to landfills -, but they are much less bulky than the rest of the materials.

While I’ve been lucky with Sun Basket not everyone has been

I got one box from Sun Basket with three meal kits.  All the kits  contained all the ingredients necessary to make the meals and none of the items were spoiled.  However, other people report receiving missing and spoiled ingredients.  People also complain about bad customer service, delayed deliveries and difficulties cancelling.

Sun Basket is a subscription service

Sun Basket offers a$40 discount for your first week’s voice, but if you sign up you are enrolled in the weekly service.   So if you subscribe, make sure you cancel in time before you are charged for the next week.  Better yet, skip the following weeks of meals so you have time to cancel after you actually try the kits.

Suspending and cancelling is a breeze

Despite the complaints about having problem cancelling, I was able to easily suspend shipments and then cancel my account online.

If you want to subscribe to Sun Basket

You can use this link and get $40 off your first box.

 

 


Meal Kit Review: Sun Basket’s Steak and roasted sweet potato with scallion-ginger relish

A sauce or a topping can either enhance or ruin a steak.  Last week, I made a HelloFresh kit that had steak with an amazing thyme-demi-glace sauce that greatly improved the meat.  The relish in this kit for steak and roasted sweet potato with scallion-ginger relish did the opposite, it hid the flavor of the meat and just made it taste vinegary.

There were other problems as well.  The oven-baked sweet potato fries (which I overcooked) were pretty boring – again, I preferred the HelloFresh version which adds thyme.   This was my first time eating kale and I found it surprisingly edible.  It stayed crisp even after cooking for a couple of minutes and I liked the subtle garlic flavor.  Not a bad way of eating your veggies.

Sun Basket advertises that you may get organic filet mignon, organic rib eye or top sirloin in this kit.  Of course, I got the cheaper top sirloin – which weren’t even organic, sort of defeating the whole point of this subscription.  While the steaks were pretty small, ~5 oz each, the whole meal was the right size portion for dinner.  Still, I was not happy that one steak was far thinner than the other.  In this case it wasn’t too big a deal, as my daughter likes her beef well done and I like it medium rare, but it would have been a pain if I was cooking for two people who like their meat with the same doneness.

All the ingredients in the meat were fresh and remained so even a couple of days after I got it.  The produce was organic even if the beef was not.   It was relatively easy and quick to put this meal together.   But then again, it would have been relatively easy and quick to shop for it as well, specially given that the relish was totally unnecessary.  This is one meal for which you don’t need to have a kit.

I paid $11 for this kit using a discount, and it was definitely fine for that, but it would be overpriced at $24.

 


What Are the Best Meal Kits Out There? Join Me as I Find Out

For years, I had been avoiding meal kits.  I’d get coupons for HelloFresh in the boxes of online orders for all sorts of products or hear my friend rave about the cool Blue Apron meal that awaited her at home, and I’d just shake my head.  To me, the idea of meal kits made no sense.  At a cost of $10-$12 per person, per meal, meal kits rival the cost of take out but you have to go through the trouble of making the meal yourself.   Plus unlike take out, meal kits portions are measured so you won’t have leftovers.  Financially, I figured, I got more bang from my money from ordering out and with less mess.

Meal kits, moreover,  seemed to be the culinary equivalent of painting by numbers:  you end up with something that may be nice but you put no creativity into it (though then again, 99% of my cooking means following a recipe, so what creativity do I ever use?).  Moreover, I worried the meals would not be that tasty and that the portions would not be large enough to satisfy us.

But I’ve been in a huge cooking rut.  I got to the “H” in my international cooking project and I’ve been left with a lot of cuisines that have just not been inspiring me or that require me to hunt for ingredients that are problematic in the first place (pork belly, anyone?).   Moreover, I live with four people with very different diets: a vegan, an uber-picky tween, a low-carb eater and me, who hates vegetables.  Forget cooking a meal that the four of us can eat, I can rarely cook something that will satisfy three of us!   So rather than cook, we’ve been eating a lot of frozen food and take out.  Both horrible options for our taste buds and/or our wallet.  I was ripe for something else.

A few weeks ago, I was doing an online order for Safeway – our local supermarket – when I came across their listings for Plated meal kits.  They had four that I could get as part of my deliver order, with no commitment to a subscription and with no shipping charges.  I figured I’d give it a try and wow, it was a revelation.  The meal was fun to prepare and I did enough of the work (albeit following detailed instructions) that, at the end, I had the same type of satisfaction as when I cook a meal from a recipe I chose and shopped for myself.  The psychology involved reminds me of the story of how boxed cake mixes only took off after marketers began suggesting that cooks add eggs and other elements to make them their own.   And the results were great.  The portion was perfectly sized, the ingredients seemed high quality (unlike what I’m sure the cheap restaurants I order from use), and the results were very tasty.  I wanted more.

And that’s when I remembered those HelloFresh coupons I still had around.   I figured I’d start with them and then give other meal kit services a try and see what they really have to offer and how do they compare to one another.   Some of these companies also offer their recipes online, I will be cooking some of these both to get a greater sense for what each company offers without breaking the bank and to get a sense of just how good or bad of a deal the kits are versus shopping for the ingredients yourself.

I hope you’ll come along in this journey and leave comments of your own experiences with these services – and these recipes.

Meal Kits Subscriptions Reviewed So Far

How Meal Kit Subscriptions Work

While you can now find individual meal kits at supermarkets (Safeway & Albertson’s sell Plated, Walmart  sells their own, Gobble and other ones, Kroger sells Home Chef), most people get meal kits by subscribing to one of many services.  Of these, Blue Apron is the largest one in the US, will HelloFresh, a German company that operates in several countries, following it.  There are currently dozens of meal kit companies, some specializing in particular diets or regions.

A standard meal kit subscription is for a weekly box containing three meal kits, each for two adults.  Some subscription services allow you to order fewer meal kits a week, while others let you order more.  Some subscription services also have kits that feed three or four people.  When you subscribe, you usually chose the “plan” you prefer.

What are Your Meal Choices? Can You Chose What Meals You Get?

Most meal kit companies offer contemporary American food, though I’ll be exploring the meal choice differences between companies.  Some companies offer vegetarian or even vegan options and some even specialize in this fare.  Some have specific plans for specific diets such as paleo and keto.

Most subscription services put up a list of the meal kit options you have every week and allow you to select the ones you want.  You usually have a deadline of 5 to 7 days before you receive the meal to make your choices.  If you don’t make it, many of these services will just send you their own choices.

If you don’t like any meal options for a week or you’ll be out of town, you can simply suspend your shipments for that week – and you can even do that for multiple weeks in advance -, as long as you remember to do it before the deadline.

What Do You Get in a Meal Kit?

Meal kits come with most of the ingredients you need to make the meal you select in the precise amounts called for by the recipe.  For example, the HelloFresh meal kit for Sweet ‘N’ Smoky Pork Chops with Apple Carrot Slaw, Mashed Potatoes, and Cherry Sauce came with a sealed package with 2 boneless pork chops,  2 scallions, a handful of small gold potatoes, an apple, little jars with jam and mayo, a little bottle with vinegar, a small plastic packet with a spice mix, a tiny sachet with sour cream and a sealed plastic bag with shredded carrots.

Some meal kits offer fewer ingredients – for example Dinnerly says they keep their meals cheap by only having 5 ingredients in them.

The meals usually call for but do not include staples such as salt/Kosher salt, pepper, butter and oil/olive oil.

The meal kits and recipes I’ve tried so far include a main dish and one or two side dishes – usually a starch and a vegetable.

How Much Do Meal Kits Cost?

Meal kits costs vary by company.  At the bottom of the barrel, you have Dinnerly and Every Plate, which offer 3 weekly meals for 2 for $39 ($6.50 per person, per meal) includding shipping costs.  Both companies get very iffy reviews, but I will assess them myself later in this project.

In the middle, companies like Blue ApronHelloFreshHome Chef and Marley Spoon charge $60-$65 ($10-11 per person/per meal) for the same 3-meals-for-2-people standard subscription.

And at the top, you have companies like Plated, Sun Basket, Gobble and Green Chef offering the standard 3-kits-for-2-people deal for $72 to $84 ($12-14 per person/per meal).

Some companies have premiums on special meals (e.g. HelloFresh will charge $12 more for “gourmet” meals) and most of the larger companies have special deals heavily discounting your first week of meals.  I will be taking advantage of these discounts in doing my reviews of meal kits.

In addition, companies that offer the two meal kits a week option usually charge more for these, and companies that offer meal kits for more than 2 people have a lower per-person cost in these.

Are Meal Kits A Good Value?

This is one of the questions that I will be exploring in this project.  In addition to buying and making meal kits, I’ll be “hacking” meal kit recipes by making them with my own ingredients and comparing how much money I’ve spent on them.  Of course, you can’t buy a single celery rib or a tablespoon of sour cream, so in evaluating my cost I will consider the total cost of whatever I had to buy to make the meal – and exclude the cost of any item I already had at home.

So far, I’ve made five meals from meal kit recipes at an out of pocket cost of $2.75 to $7.50 per person/per meal, and total cost of $5.50 to $18.50 per meal (I increased some of these recipes to feed 3 or 4 people).

My costs, however, reflect the actual ingredients I bought.  Some may be of lower quality than the ones sent by the meal kit companies.  Some of these companies specialize in sending organic produce and free range meats that I may not be able to find at my local discount or regular grocery stores.  Moreover, some of these companies send gourmet items such as demi-glace which I’d have to special order (and will in this particular case for future meals).

And the total cost of the meal does not account for the time shopping for the ingredients or correctly portioning them for each meal.  Time is money, after all, and most people do not enjoy spending it grocery shopping.  Do bear in mind how much you like or dislike to shop and what else you could be doing with your time while evaluating the actual costs of these meal kits.

How Long Does It Take To Prepare a Meal from  a Kit?

Meal Kit companies usually give you an estimate of how long it’ll take you to make a meal from their kits, usually ranging from 15 minutes to an hour.  While I haven’t done this yet, for future meals I will measure how long it actually takes me.  This is more complicated than it sounds, because I seldom *just* make a meal – rather I alternate the steps of making meals with other tasks around the house.  But I’ll try.

What Are the Instructions Like?

All kits come with instructions.  Cheaper kits require you to download them and either print them or follow them from your internet device.  More expensive kits come with printed cards or a magazine with all the recipes for that week’s kits.  Most have step by step instructions, some of which are illustrated.  I’ve found the illustrations helpful specially when trying to determine how to cut vegetables.

The instructions for these meal kits help you maximize your time by intercepting the steps you need to follow to make the main dish and any accompanying side dishes or sauces.  I’ve found this particularly valuable.

What Equipment Do You Need?

The meal kits I’ve used assume that you have a fully stocked kitchen as far a cookware goes, though some provide alternatives in case you don’t (e.g. use a spoon to mash potatoes if you don’t have a masher).  Though some of these recipes try to minimize the number of dishes you use, they are not always successful. I’ve found myself having to wash as many pots and implements following these kits as I’d normally have to wash, if not more.

How do Meals Taste?

This is another question that I’ll aim to answer in this project.  So far, I’ve cooked eight meals from meal kits and five more from meal kit recipes using my own ingredients.  All the meat-based meals have been good to great.  The vegan meals I’ve cooked have been merely OK.  But it’s early in the project.

What is Good About Meal Kits?

For me, it’s the fact that many of the meal kits I’ve tried include not only a main dish (which is often rather simple), but also one or two side dishes and that the chef behind them has done the required planning so that all you have to do is follow the steps in the recipe.

Moreover, the kits include all the ingredients you need for the meal so you don’t have to worry, when you menu plan, that your local grocery store may be out of one.

Finally, there is no food waste.

What is Bad About Meal Kits?

They generate a lot of garbage.  While some of it is recyclable (e.g. the boxes and some of the little bottles and jars), the frozen gel packs are not and they are just being accumulated in landfills.  Moreover, many of the veggies come in plastic bags which are not really recyclable either – of course, this is also true of the packaged produce you buy at the supermarket.  While the meal kits bought at the supermarket also have a lot of plastic packaging, at least they don’t require these non-recyclable gel packs, so they may be a better option environmentally.

The meal kits are also pretty expensive, specially if you have to feed a whole family.  And there are no leftovers – which means that the effort you put into preparing a meal feeds you just once.

Do you have any questions? Leave them below.

 


Meal Kit Review: Sun Basket’s Lamb korma with sweet potato mash and toasted naan

I love lamb korma so when I saw this lamb korma with sweet potato mash and toasted naan kit on Sun Basket‘s menu, I knew I had to get it – even if I was a little suspicious of a meal kit being able to really being able to turn out one of my favorite dishes.

My suspicious were justified.  While this kit produced a very nicely spiced ground lamb, it didn’t taste like any korma I’ve ever had at an Indian restaurant – in the US, England or India itself.   Still, the “korma” sauce Sun Basket provided – and which is fully absorbed by the meat when you cook it -, enhanced the flavor of the lamb and made it very tasty.

The whole wheat naan bread was also much better than it had any right to be – though I wish there had been some sauce for it to soak in.  And adding balsamic vinegar to the mashed sweet potatoes was a glorious idea.  It transformed baby food into something quite tasty.

However, for whatever reason, I felt a little bit nauseous later that night and that nausea returns whenever I think of this kit.  My husband didn’t report a similar feeling, so it may just be me.

It took me about an hour to make this meal, but I’m a slow prepper/cooker. Probably the worst part about the meal, though, was the presentation.

While the produce in this kit was organic, the lamb was not, though I’m not sure that’s particularly important vis a vis lamb.  Everything seemed to be fresh.

All in all this was a good meal kit.  I paid a discounted price of $11 for the kit (which serves two), and it was definitely worth that, but I don’t think it was worth the $24 regular price.  For that amount of money I can get a large-enough-for-two order of real Indian lamb korma at my regular take-out Indian restaurant, in addition to rice and some pakoras or samosas – and I wouldn’t have to cook it myself.


Meal Kit Review: Sun Basket Salt-and-pepper tofu stir-fry with glass noodles

Cooking for my vegan daughter is always a challenge, so I was happy to see that Sun Basket offered several vegan meal kits.  Unfortunately, I have a picky vegan who doesn’t like felafel or chili – the two other vegan meals available this week.  She thus was left with salt-and-pepper tofu stir-fry with glass noodles as her only choice.  She makes a lot of stir fries for herself using tofu, so she wasn’t super excited about this recipe, but food is food and food that mommy makes is better than food that you have to make yourself.

All in all, she was “OK” with this meal kit.  She liked the noodles and the stir fry sauce, though she wished there had been a greater variety of vegetables.  To be fair, I omitted the red pepper that came with the kit because she doesn’t like red peppers.  She wasn’t too happy with the tofu itself – mostly because she’s sick of eating tofu.  Tofu, she says, always tastes like tofu, no matter what you do to it.  She’d like it if some of these kits came with other fake meats.

All the ingredients for this kit arrived fresh and were still usable a couple of days later when I actually made the meal – but I don’t think they’d have lasted much longer.

They were good quality ingredients, and the meal was rightly portioned.  She was full after eating half of the meal-for-two and is happy to have leftovers for today.

I paid a discounted price of $11 for this meal, and it might be worth that – but I don’t think it was worth the $24 regular price for the kit.  Of course, time is money so your millage may vary.


Meal Kit Hack: Sun Basket’s Spanish paella with tofu, mushrooms, and peas

Last night, while making a hack of Sun Basket’s Spanish paella with tofu, mushrooms, and peas, I discovered why meal kits can be great for those home cooks among us that are not great at paying at attention at what we are doing.  I totally messed up this recipe because I did a hack job on it.  The results was a meal that lacked flavor. My vegan daughter ate it, but was not happy with it.  And believe me, as a vegan, her standards are not exactly high.

I had chosen this recipe to hack because my vegan daughter had eaten a vegan frozen paella that she liked before and because most of the ingredients were easy to get.  Alas, that did not mean I actually got them.

Mistake #1: First,  I went shopping for this at my neighborhood discount grocery store which didn’t have frozen peas!  I decided to skip them because peas are mostly filler, but still, they add a nice color to any dish plush some vitamins.

Mistake #2: I didn’t check my pantry before I shopped for this recipe, so it wasn’t until I started cooking that I realized that I didn’t actually have rice! How do you forget that?  True, I don’t cook much with rice because of its high glycemic index, but still that’s a pretty major thing to not realize I was out of.   And given that rice is the MAIN component of paella, you’d think the dish would have been doomed from that point on.  I did find barley while looking for the rice – something I’d bought ages ago and never did anything with it – so I decided to substitute with that.

Then, as I was making the paella, I realized I didn’t have the required paprika either!  OK, in this case, I did have a paprika jar with traces of paprika inside it, but not enough for even the teaspoon this recipe called for.  No matter, I decided to use whatever paprika I had in the jar and add oregano.  Indeed, the paella recipe I use (or used to use when I still cooked rice regularly) calls for both paprika and oregano, and the latter is stronger flavor.

Mistake #3: What makes meal kits great is that most of the ingredients are given to you in the exact amounts that you will use.  Now, for normal people who read recipes carefully, this is probably not a big deal – but I’m not a normal person.  So while I knew the recipe called for 3/4 cups of rice, and I wrote down that I needed 3/4 cups of rice, when it came time to actually adding the rice-cum-barley to the recipe, I doubled it in my mind and added 1 1/2 cups instead!  What this ultimately meant is that there weren’t enough flavor agents (mostly leek and garlic) to flavor this dish sufficiently.  Mind you, I tried to spice it up by adding extra salt, garlic powder and more oregano, but it never quite made it.

Mistake #4: My real mistake, however, was in choosing to make this particular recipe for paella.  Chances are, it was never going to work.  What makes paella great is the saffron flavoring, and this one didn’t call for it (probably because saffron is so expensive).  I didn’t have any at home either (I swear I used to have some but I can’t find it!).  Chances are, this recipe was never going to turn out.

Still, my out of pocket costs for this recipe were just $5.50, which is still less than half of what the meal kit would have cost  There are leftovers for at least 3 more meals – and while I think normally my vegan daughter might skip eating it given how unenthusiastic she was about it last night, we’re out of vegan food at home, so she’ll probably be forced to have it for dinner again tonight 🙂

 

KIT INGREDIENTS I BOUGHT COST
1 leek 2 leeks (used  1) $2.50
3 cloves garlic 3 cloves garlic pantry
4 oz cremini mushrroms 8 oz button mushrooms $2
3 oz grape tomatoes grape tomatoes $1
3 oz roasted red peppers Skipped  –
1/2 tsp turmeric 1/2 tsp turmeric pantry
1 tsp sweet paprika 1 tsp oregano pantry
3/4 cup rice 1 1/2 cups pearl barley pantry
1 cup vegetable broth 2 cups vegetable broth pantry
3/4 lb tofu 1 lb tofu $2
3-4 springs leafy herb 3 basil leaves pantry
1/2 cup peas Skipped

Pantry = an ingredient that I had at home already (whether in the pantry or the fridge).

Sun Basket is a Northern California based meal kit service started by a Slanted Door chef. They use organic produce – which I didn’t. They have vegan and vegetarian options as well as meals appropriate to other specific diet plans and seems to have the highest ratings among the services out there.  I signed up for it and will be trying it next week.  Use my referral link for $40 off your first delivery (I will also get a $40 credit for future deliveries).