Story and photos by Lola Harmon-Ramsey
I used to love to cook. I have a few bookshelves of cookbooks and Pinterest albums full of recipes to try. One of my favorite reads is Martha Stewart’s first book, “Entertaining” that I would have on my lap at my grandmother’s house for years and years until she finally gifted it to me. Suffice to say, I can get myself around the kitchen.
And then, last year happened. I can’t deny that I was lucky to have a safe home to live in and the enormous privilege to provide food for my family during shutdowns and months of uncertainty.
We made the banana bread. I tried a homemade Bolognese. I made more batches of real mashed potatoes with dinners than I would have made time for in my former life. But, as this year has dragged on, and some parts of life have tried to get back on a schedule (yeah, middle school athletics and little league baseball!), I have lost my spark in the kitchen. The monotony of these days has dulled my creative side. The grey skies and cold temperatures kept me down along with everything else. We have had our share of takeout, fast food, and frozen pizza, but my love for cooking and entertaining has retreated to nothingness and I needed a change.
So, perhaps my social sites could feel the frustration through my Pinterest searches, easy casseroles, overnight oats, and suddenly, as it happens these days, ads for meal kits started to show up on my pages. Free shipping! First box free! The ads kept coming and I figured why not? I hopped onto Hello Fresh and ordered their three meals for four people deal. No need for creative thinking or meal planning for three nights? Sold!
Their site was pretty easy to use and I was able to select three meals for our family out of about 15 options. Spicy recipes were a no-go as well as recipes with a main ingredient that included tree nuts due to an allergy in our family. This eliminated about half of the recipes on the available menu. Also out was vegetarian/vegan. There is no allergy with those options, but my husband is certainly averse to eating beans over beef so that eliminated two more menu options. I appreciated the well- written ingredient list for anyone that has dietary or allergy needs and I ended up picking a pork, chicken, and fish dish.
The promotion for this package was these three meals, delivered, for about $60.00. The box was scheduled to be delivered the next Thursday. This promotion shaved off quite a bit of money from the usual price which looked to be around $90-$100 for three meals.
The next Thursday arrived and after picking the kids up from school I came home to this on my front step. Hello, indeed!
After unpacking the box I noticed a few things. First, there is a lot of packaging. For some that isn’t an issue but for me, a recycling provider, I definitely pay attention to the amount of packaging an item has. You can tell that Hello Fresh is trying to address the excessive packaging by promoting recycling the products. Unfortunately, a number of the items that were marked as easily recyclable in our box are not accepted in our local recycling program and thus, making more trash than I am used to creating.
Second, I received this shipment a few weeks ago (sorry editor on the delay) during our very cold snap. Between the frozen ice pack inside the box to keep the food cold during shipping and the cold temperatures we were experiencing outside, the two portions of green beans that were supposed to accompany each meal were all half frozen, half slime, and had to be thrown away.
The other items in the bags were still fine to use and so it was time to make our first dinner. I selected the maple mustard chicken legs as our first meal. It included four chicken quarters, sweet potatoes, seasonings, maple syrup, mustard, sour cream and the soon to be discarded green beans.
The meal was very easy to assemble and I have never used Dijon or maple syrup on chicken. The pre-mixed seasoning was flavorful without being spicy or overpowering. I am glad that I read the potato prep portion twice. Included in the ingredients were two packets, one teaspoon each, of nutmeg. The recipe called for a “sprinkle” of nutmeg in the potatoes. If I weren’t paying attention it would have been very easy to put both packets of nutmeg into the potatoes, which would have overpowered the dish.
I had leftover green beans of my own from the previous week so I steamed those and omitted the pecans (tree nut allergy) and assembled a plate. I think it looks very similar to the recipe card and I was pleased with the results. My family enjoyed the meal but the chicken portions were quite small and everyone wanted a second piece of chicken but alas, there was no more. Snacks were had later that evening. Ramsey Rank: 7 out of 10.
Meal two: Steakhouse pork chops.
This one was incredibly easy. I don’t tend to do a pan sauce with my meat dishes and the shallot sauce made this dish. Without the sauce this would have been a boring pork chop with some roasted potatoes. I learned my lesson on the portion problem with the chicken a few nights earlier and added a few of our own pork chops to the recipe, which did satisfy my crew. Obviously, by adding more pork chops this increased the price of the recipe per person but it was needed at our house. The kids didn’t partake in the shallot cream sauce but my husband and I enjoyed it quite a bit. The green beans for this meal were a frozen steam-in-a-bag type and they were terrible.
Ramsey Rank: 6 out of 10.
Meal Three: Louisiana-Style Tilapia
I didn’t have a lot of hopes for this meal. The evening I made this meal fish didn’t sound all that appetizing but we pressed on. There were a lot of ingredients to this meal and a lot of unintended plastic to dispose of.
I followed the directions and made the slaw side first. This was very easy and included a small chili pepper, which I assumed needed to all be included in the slaw. It was spicy but gave a great heat to the cool dressing on the cabbage and carrot. Next up was breading the tilapia with old bay seasoning, panko and cornstarch. I had never used cornstarch in a breading but it helped create a great crust on the fish with the panko. Here in Michigan we are used to a heavy style tartar sauce to accompany our fish fry. This recipe created a thinner sauce of mayo, mustard, chopped scallion whites, sour cream, sugar, vinegar, salt and pepper. It was fantastic. The potato wedges were very basic but crispy. The fish was crispy and not at all greasy. The sauce added a great flavor and the slaw was the star of the show adding a crunch of cabbage with the hint of heat from the chili pepper. We ended up enjoying this meal the most out of all of the three choices.
Ramsey Rank: 8 out of 10.
So, would I order Hello Fresh again? Not anytime soon. It was really nice not having to think too hard about dinner for three nights but the portions of protein were lacking for my family's needs. I don’t blame Hello Fresh too harshly for the gross green beans but it did impact our meals and what we had available to us. The use of potatoes as a starch for each meal was too much for me; we don’t tend to make potatoes for multiple dinners. I think the cost is excessive if you are paying full price for the service and wouldn’t be a sustainable option for us. I think the value is good if you like to cook at home, have smaller appetites, and do not want to shop at the store. I did save the recipe cards to make my own chicken quarters and the sauce from the fish night so those were winners.
In the weeks since this experiment I got some of my old cookbooks out and went through the freezer again. The meal plan is taped on the fridge and there is probably a Season’s Pizza in our future but that is just fine too. Sometimes it’s not just the meal to enjoy, but the people around the table you get to share it with.
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