Choosing meal kit delivery services with eye toward nutrition

For The Baltimore Sun

A nutritionist from University of Maryland Medical System regularly provides a post to the Picture of Health blog. The latest post is from dietetic intern Jessica Holler.

The "5 o'clock problem" – dinner planning – is a struggle for most of us. A problem that, far too often, results in unhealthy carryout dinners or expensive restaurant meals instead of healthy home cooking. Recently, many companies have entered the market offering a solution to dinner planning, and they come with several benefits. These services give you the opportunity to try a new meal, cuisine, or ingredient without having to invest the time searching out a good recipe or scouring the store for an ingredient with which you are not familiar. Meal kit delivery also promises little food waste in the home since only what is needed for your chosen recipe is sent. Most of the companies also offer sustainable food sourcing, no added growth hormones or antibiotics in meats, organic produce when possible, and seasonal ingredients. With so many options, how do you pick? And once you choose, how do you select healthy meals?

• Set a budget. Meals are priced per serving, and some options can become quite expensive – up to $19/serving. While this may be lower than a restaurant meal, set a budget up front to prevent sticker shock. Every company offers some sort of first time deal and you can also find coupons.

• Be realistic about your skill level and commitment. Many companies require a subscription for two to four meals per week, but there are options where you can order a single meal with no commitment. Most of the meal options are designed to be prepared and cooked in about 30 minutes, but you can look for options that require even less prep time. Also, how much do you enjoy cooking? Some companies offer ingredients almost completely prepped while others let you live out your celebrity chef fantasies. Remember to look at the equipment needed and the pantry items you have to supply.

• Shop according to your dietary restrictions. If you are vegan, paleo, gluten free, managing allergies, or trying to lose weight, there are companies that offer recipes for you. However, you might have to shop around more if you are managing multiple needs. Just make sure there are enough meal choices that meet your requirements.

• Read the fine print. Subscription based services will automatically send you their standard menu options for the week if you don't make your selections by a certain time. Check the cancellation policy to ensure there is no penalty.

Once you pick your service, it's time to choose recipes that support your goals nutritionally. Read the recipes and nutrition facts labels, which are provided for every meal, regardless of the service. Look for recipes that are around 500 calories per serving without a lot of saturated fats but plenty of fiber. Recipes should yield at least one cup of vegetables per serving. Choose recipes with whole grains.

There are a lot of good meal kit delivery options available that will support a healthy diet, save time, and keep you on budget. They offer flexibility and a chance to try something new for dinner.

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