This article is by staff writer Honey Smith.

The three biggest items in most people’s budgets are usually housing, transportation, and food. That’s because they are needs; but like most needs, costs can range from the inexpensive, no-frills version to the outrageously expensively extravagances seen on some reality TV shows. For example, you could live in a studio apartment or a mansion, take shanks’ mare or drive a luxury car, slap a PB & J together at home or eat out at a five-star restaurant.

What you choose depends on your means (what you can afford) and your priorities (what’s important to you). Maybe you are willing to make all your meals at home so you can drive your dream car. Or maybe you’re willing to bike or take the bus … to your favorite restaurants on a weekly basis. If you are debt-free, stashing some cash in a high-yield savings account, saving for retirement, and meeting all your other financial goals, more power to you.

I am willing to bet, though, that most people are seeking a happy medium in all categories. Nothing too expensive, but a home and car that are safe and comfortable, and food that’s tasty and convenient. When it comes to food, even if you are eating at home, there are more options today than ever before: Having your groceries, or even fully-cooked meals, delivered are all possibilities to meal-plan and save some cash. But not every option is equally cost-effective. Here are a few options, with some pros and cons.

Grocery delivery

Earlier this year Lisa Aberle wrote about grocery delivery, so that’s already been discussed a bit. The cost for this service probably varies quite a bit by area. The chain that delivers in my town charges $12.95 for orders under $150 and $9.95 for orders of $150 or above. The minimum you need to spend to qualify for delivery is $50. There may also be bag fees and a fuel surcharge. Someone over 18 must be present at delivery.

Your first order is free and certain delivery windows qualify for free or reduced delivery charges. I’d imagine the farther away the grocery store is from your house, the more expensive delivery would be (if it was even available). It goes both ways, after all: The bigger of a pain in the neck it is for you to get to the grocery store, the bigger pain in the neck it is for someone to get from the grocery store to your house.

However, depending on your situation, grocery delivery may be worth it. Since it’s not a subscription, you could do this every once in awhile as needed. If your mobility is impaired, or if you have small children, for example, it may be easier or safer to have groceries delivered directly to your home. If you don’t have a car, it may also be cheaper to have things delivered than to take a cab or other means of transportation. Bonus: It’s not just groceries, but practically anything that your grocery store sells.

Meal plans (recipe services)

Maybe you are willing (and able) to make the trip to the grocery store, but what to buy stumps you. Not everyone likes to cook, even if it is a great strategic hobby. If you have other responsibilities that take up your mental bandwidth, it can be challenging to make a list that does the following:

  • Includes everything necessary to get you through a week, and

  • Maximizes your use of ingredients

In a situation like this, a meal-planning service or app may make your life easier. A recipe planner comes with a list of everything you’ll need to buy at the store, so you don’t have to make your own list based off of looking at the recipes. Additionally, they may also maximize use of ingredients by using the most perishable ingredients first, reusing leftovers in future dishes, or choosing recipes that use similar ingredients (like half a bell pepper) so that everything gets used. So make sure you cook the food in the order given!

A potential downside is having to adjust recipes if you have one or more picky eaters in your midst. However, with a little practice, this may become second nature, and some app-based meal planners will let you identify foods that are a no-go and make the adjustments for you. Some apps will also let you mark recipe hits and misses, so that over time the recipes that are selected become more attuned to your family’s likes and dislikes.

Another benefit: These types of services tend to be pretty inexpensive. An app that costs $5 but buys you your sanity (and cuts down on food waste) could be well worth the money. Subscription services may be slightly costlier; but once you have identified some recipes and shopping lists that work for you, you can always cancel your membership and upgrade to the Pinterest strategy.

Meal delivery services

Finally, there is flat-out meal delivery. Some of these services deliver pre-cooked food (either family style or individually packaged) that can be easily reheated. Some deliver exact portions of all the ingredients necessary for a complete meal, along with instructions for cooking.

I looked at five meal delivery services. Some were local, some regional, and some national. According to my findings, meals cost between $8 and $12 per person, on average. The amount of prep required varied, including everything from a simple reheating to preparing the entire meal from scratch. Unless you are working with a local or regional company and live outside their area, delivery is generally free — or to be more accurate, delivery is included in the price.

Most meal delivery programs focus on lunch and dinner, leaving you on your own for breakfast. Additionally, most meal delivery programs require you to purchase a minimum number of meals per week (the lowest I saw was three). You also have to submit your order by a certain cutoff each week to ensure delivery — that is, they only deliver once a week on a set day. The price depends on the number of meals being purchased.

At that price point, it seems almost as expensive as dining out to me, although it doesn’t require you to leave the house. And while $8 to $12 per person doesn’t seem cost-effective to me, if you live in an area where grocery stores don’t deliver but it’s difficult for you to get to the store, this might be a good option. Similarly, if you work long hours and/or have a brutal commute, this might be something to consider.

What do you think? Have you or someone you know had groceries delivered, or subscribed to a meal planning or delivery service? What made it worth the money?

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