Meal plans and delivery programs — costly or cost-effective?

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 like $5 Meal Plan 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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Jon
Jon
5 years ago

I think I would use these services if I was really pressed for time. Otherwise, I actually enjoy walking through the grocery store and picking out the items.

In my area, they have been sending out flyers to try grocery delivery for free, and even then I am not tempted. Like I said, maybe if I was pressed for time more (meaning I had little ones running around) I might try it out.

JoeM
JoeM
5 years ago

Those are awful rates for grocery delivery. Must not live in a larger/concentrated city. When I was in Chicago back in 2011-12, there were a handful of grocery delivery services. I used Peapod, which offered a handful of free deliveries and then charged just a few dollars per delivery. They also had options to push your delivery back to an off-peak hour to save on delivery. Prices for groceries were pretty competitive to my local neighborhood grocer. With some of their deals, the delivery cost was more than covered.

Michael
Michael
5 years ago
Reply to  JoeM

Right? I can’t believe people pay $13 to have groceries delivered. I live in the UK and all the major supermarkets deliver for very competitive rates – sometimes better than free (because buying the groceries online for delivery can be cheaper than buying the same items instore).

Ali @ Anything You Want
Ali @ Anything You Want
5 years ago

I have tried Plated, a service that delivers ingredients and recipes that you then follow to cook for yourself. It was a fun experience because we were able to cook with ingredients that you don’t find at a typical grocery store, or that you can usually only buy in large (expensive) quantities. The downside was the cost. We got a great introductory offer that made the price reasonable, but I wouldn’t pay full price for the service.

Jody H.
Jody H.
5 years ago

One of the best grocery delivery services I have found is Amazon Fresh. Unfortunately it’s only available in a limited amount of places, but Amazon is trying to grow it. If you are in an area that can get it you need to definitely try it out.

dennisfrailey
dennisfrailey
5 years ago

We’ve been using the Bistro MD meal delivery service for years, and it works very well. They include very good breakfasts – in fact we use them up faster than the other meals. Cost is in the range mentioned in your article (per person, per meal). A week’s worth of meals come frozen in a box kept cold with dry ice. Works fine, even in our 100 degree Texas summer. You heat them up in the microwave, usually in under 5 minutes (you take the next day’s meals out of the freezer a day ahead of time into the refrigerator… Read more »

Eliza
Eliza
5 years ago

I have not used grocery delivery services or meal plans for a few reasons. I am very choosy about ingredients and cook every meal from scratch, organic, local, unprocessed; primarily for health reasons, and I spend 2 hours (willingly) every Saturday morning sourcing all ingredients for the upcoming week. Because I only trust it if I have sourced it myself (I was not always this way; used to be more intrepid and lax, and was not nearly so healthy as I am now). Next reason is money. I am extremely frugal with food costs, and I have to be since… Read more »

Jen From Boston
Jen From Boston
5 years ago

I get organic produce delivered every other week from Boston Organics. For a flat fee per box we get an assortment of fruit and veggies, and we can cancel a delivery if we won’t be around. It’s a much better deal for us than a CSA since we get variety – no 12 olbs of cukes at once! – and we can put items on our “no” list so we don’t get things we don’t like and won’t want to eat. I haven’t done any comparison shopping to see if we’d get a better deal buying the same items in… Read more »

Garrett
Garrett
5 years ago

One option not discussed here: Sam’s Club will do your shopping for you. Place your order online, go to the customer service counter (the following day) and they’ll have your non-perishable food ready to go. Frozen and refrigerated food is kept the appropriate temperature though it takes a few minutes for someone to go in the back and get it. Free with your membership. Costco has the same service, but only for business customers and with a $150 minimum. As a side note, I do subscribe to Blue Apron currently. Good for broadening your horizons by sending you food that… Read more »

jestjack
jestjack
5 years ago
Reply to  Garrett

Glad to hear Sam’s Club still offers that choice. In another life I was a store owner and would call my orders into Pace, which was bought by Sam’s Club, and my order would be ready when I arrived. AND cheaper then if I used regular wholesalers….It was a great service and time-saver….

Lisa B.
Lisa B.
5 years ago

I have recently been using a service in my city that delivers high-quality, fresh food from local producers. There is no grocery chain involved and local farmers receive the bulk of the profits, with the delivery service working with the producers and taking a cut. There is a (small) delivery charge for outlying areas, but delivery is free throughout most of the delivery area (including where I live). The prices are reasonable for the products I buy: mostly dairy, veggies, and meat (same as I would pay at the Farmers’ Market or the grocery store). Convenience foods (baked goods, “snacks”,… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
5 years ago

I have done grocery delivery from Walmart and it is fantastic. It’s $5 for a 4 hour window and $7 for a 2 hour window and they deliver pretty late into the night if that is the only time you are home. I usually shop at Safeway since it is the closet store and I have little time, so getting food from Walmart is always cheaper and makes up for the delivery charge. (Walmart also always rounds up the produce, so the give you more for the price you stated) We have recently started using Blue Apron and it is… Read more »

CandiO
CandiO
5 years ago

I use a compromise grocery service. Harris Teeter does online ordering for 4.95$ flat fee. You then drive to the store and ring a bell. They put your already shopped order into the car and swipe your credit card (also take coupons so bonus!). Saves time as I can shop online and then just pick up. They frequently wave the fee for various promotions and offer a bulk fee discount.

Linda Vergon
5 years ago

(This comment came from Kerry, a reader of our daily newsletter.)

Actually, I am one step further. I live in Mexico. Food shopping in another country. On top of the challenge of cooking healthy for one, you have the added challenges of metric system, translation, lack of availability on ingredients common in the US. and staple ingredients like sugar, milk and beef that taste different. My Pinterest Board “Recipes that Translate” under Ventanasmexico.com gathers and tests recipes all of that in to account.

Starch Coach
Starch Coach
5 years ago

If you’re eating a whole foods plant-based diet, most of the meal services are a waste. They create plenty of trash, still take time to cook and are expensive. I find batch cooking to be a much better option. Cook and stash bases for multiple meals. A pot of beans becomes burritos/enchiladas, taco salad ingredient, bean burgers,, bean dip A pot of rice becomes breakfast cereal, part of a rice bowl, filler in bean burgers, rice pudding. A batch of baked potatoes become hash browns, stuffed potato skins, potato salad, part of a scramble, soup Eating healthy can be quick… Read more »

Mrs. Crackin' the Whip
Mrs. Crackin' the Whip
5 years ago
Reply to  Starch Coach

Now that’s my kind of cooking!

Sophie
Sophie
5 years ago

I use a hybrid system: illumi for allergy-friendly meals for nights where I don’t feel like cooking (£2-3 per meal, shelf stable with free delivery); a weekly organic veg box (£1 delivery charge) plus a couple of extras for the bulk of my week; and a monthly delivery if bulky staples (almond milk, tinned things, rice, nuts, lentils, etc) which costs me a fiver for each delivery.

Meghan
Meghan
5 years ago

I’d like to try Blue Apron. I am traveling all the time and the quantities at the grocery store are too large to get through. I’m eating a lot of dairy and frozen dinners when I’m home right now. My waistline reflects it, and when I’m home, I don’t want to go out to a restaurant anymore anyway. Thanks for the post!

Karin
Karin
5 years ago

Although I know people who use both grocery delivery services and meal delivery systems, and are happy with them, I prefer to cook my own food. It’s satisfying and much cheaper and (something no-one ever seems to mention) more environmentally-friendly than the other options. I cook large portions of soups, curries, casseroles, etc. then stock the freezer so meals can be defrosted for quick after-work dinners. A little like a meal delivery service, except the food is home cooked 😉

Tre
Tre
5 years ago

the meal delivery service seems very expensive. For that price I would rather go out to eat, but I guess if we wanted a special dinner and couldn’t go out it might be a nice treat. Definitely not an ongoing expense. Our office uses grocery delivery for kitchen supplies. It saves someone a trip to the grocery store and the fee is low.

Mrs. Crackin' the Whip
Mrs. Crackin' the Whip
5 years ago

I won’t lie. I am absolutely fascinated by the meal delivery services and I have found myself browsing their sites! I’m pretty adventurous and love to try new foods. However, the cost is so prohibitive that I would never be able to justify it.

Beth
Beth
5 years ago

I know a lot of people see grocery shopping as a chore, but I actually enjoy it. Like some others have said, I’m too picky when it comes to the products I choose to let someone else do it for me. I suppose if you trust the company enough it works, but I always pay such close attention to best-by dates and freshness. Instead, I just stick to making my own meal plans and doing the shopping myself. I find spoonacular quite useful for this since they make your shopping list for you once you’ve made a meal plan with… Read more »

Lee
Lee
5 years ago

My husband and I use Blue Apron and Plated regularly. We love both services. I like to cook but did not have extensive cooking techniques so it’s fun to learn new skills. I work 50-95 hours per week, so not having to think about what I’m going to cook when I get home is a life saver.

stellamarina
stellamarina
5 years ago

Not something I would do at this point in my life but it could be very helpful for a disabled senior who still has a bit of money and not able to get Wheels on Meals help. Many elderly lack the interest and energy to do much cooking and this way they would still be eating well rather than just living on cups of tea with bread and butter that will lead to an earlier death.

The Millionaire Attempt
The Millionaire Attempt
5 years ago

I use to actually work in a grocery store that delivered groceries and I would be the individual taking the orders and packing the order up for the delivery driver. I have seen many senior and university students without a car use this service. As a former University student that did not have a car for the first couple years I wish I had known about this service because it was truly cheaper then the taxes fees I have had to pay.

This is a great article!

News Stop
News Stop
5 years ago

I’ve had both grocery delivery and meal service. And for me personally they were / are a big plus. When we first started getting our groceries delivered we lived on the second floor of a two story apartment complex with only stairs (no elevator). So having items like cat litter delivered was great. At the time I was working from home and working long hours so saving even a couple of hours every week gave me the extra time I needed to apply towards work. I think with the meal service much depends on the restaurant that delivers. At one… Read more »

Elena
Elena
4 years ago

It would have been helpful if you shared what services you used and the value of each.

Jen
Jen
4 years ago

I’ve used both Blue Apron and Home Chef meal delivery services. I like them because they’ve gotten me into the habit of cooking again. And they take the planning/”what’s for dinner” question off the table; we are very indecisive! It’s given me some great ideas to try on my own again. Yes; they are way too expensive to sustain, but it was worth it for a few weeks of each service to get me back into the habit of cooking.

Kristen
Kristen
4 years ago

I use one of the cook at home meal services and it’s perfect for my family! Expensive, but the benefits are well worth it. It’s faster than take out, saves me from meal planning, shopping, but my favorite perk is it helps my husband get into the kitchen more. He’s a fine cook, but doesn’t like to experiment or improvise. He needs recipes with times and measurements, and he enjoys the surprise menu and putting dinner together. When I shop and cook I don’t use recipes, so I end up either making every meal or spending MORE time showing/telling him… Read more »

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