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food for thought

Subscription meal kits are a kitchen staple for many people. Getting premeasured ingredients with step-by-step recipes delivered to your door saves time putting dinner on the table.

No menu planning or grocery shopping is required. And there’s no extensive meal prep involved.

There are other benefits, too. If your dinner repertoire lacks inspiration, a meal kit subscription can help infuse variety into your menu.

Using a meal kit service can also break the habit of ordering calorie-packed takeout meals.

But how healthy are meal delivery kits?

Turns out, that all depends on which meals you choose. And even then, you might not check off all the boxes.

Here’s what I learned after ordering a weeks’ worth of meals from each of three major meal kit suppliers: Good Food, Hello Fresh and Chef’s Plate.

How meal kits work

Subscription-based meal kit services deliver weekly boxes that include recipes and ingredients for two, three or four meals, serving two or four people. You can skip a week, or cancel your subscription, provided you do so within the required timeframe.

Each week, you choose meals from 30 to 40 selections. Depending on the company, options can include quick and easy, family-friendly, balanced, vegetarian, low-carbohydrate or calorie-conscious.

Meal kits arrive in an insulated box with each meal’s ingredients bundled in a paper or recyclable plastic bag. The protein components (e.g., meat, chicken, seafood) are separated from the bags and kept cold with ice packs.

My nutrition assessment

I tried my best to steer clear of meals with calorie and sodium counts I’d find on chain restaurant menus. Good Food’s Beef Smash Burger, for example, clocks in at 1040 calories and 2480 milligrams of sodium, while the vegetarian Smoky Lentil Taquitos from Chef’s Plate serves up 1020 calories and 2090 mg of sodium.

For perspective, adults need 1200 to 1500 mg sodium a day, depending on age, and the daily upper sodium limit is 2300 mg.

Most meals on these plans deliver between 650 and 900 calories a serving. Higher calorie counts typically come from large portions of starchy sides and extra oil and butter that’s added (often more than once) during cooking.

Sodium-laden meals were hard to avoid. The Harissa Chickpea Stew I ordered from Hello Fresh had 2530 mg sodium in each serving thanks to salty ingredients (e.g., feta, vegetable broth) and salt-containing spice blends.

Good Food’s Sheet Pan Spicy Tandoori Chicken contained 1350 mg of sodium in each serving; if I followed the recipe’s multiple instructions to season with salt it would have had more.

Protein portions were on point for me, generally four to five ounces a serving. Some of my meals, though, were light on vegetables.

My findings are similar to those from a 2019 Australian study that assessed meals from five meal kit subscription services. The researchers concluded that all services would benefit by reducing salt and added fats and including more whole grains.

Nutrition-minded tips for ordering meal kits

To choose a meal that suits your dietary needs, read the nutrition facts before you order. These details don’t appear on the glossy recipe cards that arrive at your door. (Good Food recipe cards do indicate calories per serving.)

If you’re controlling calories to manage weight, look for meals with less than 650 calories. And be careful not to add too much oil to the pan when you need to sauté something. You can cut calories (and sodium) further by dividing a meal that serves two into three servings.

Meals identified as low carbohydrate, such as Good Food’s Clean 15 meals, tend to have fewer calories.

If possible, choose meals with less than 800 mg of sodium per serving. Not an easy task; only three of my meals came in under this amount.

Using less of the spice mix than the recipe calls for, especially for meals that use two or three seasoning packs, will reduce some sodium. Avoid seasoning with extra salt during cooking.

To increase the vegetable content of some meals (target one-half of your plate), add your own non-starchy vegetables such as salad greens, green beans, cauliflower or cut up raw vegetables.

Depending on your daily protein needs, you might need to add extra to your meal. Keep in mind, too, that some vegetarian selections may be lacking a good source of protein.

Subscribing to a meal kit delivery service isn’t going to help me eat any better. Plus, I like to cook.

That doesn’t mean, though, I’ll never use these services again; I do like the convenience. For now though, I’ll give my recycling bin a rest.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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