Meal delivery services inspire home cooking — but not in the way you might think

Courtesy of Local Crate

Courtesy of Local Crate

The question of what's for dinner is forever nagging. Even if you like to cook, it nags. And nags some more.

An ever-growing list of meal delivery services is cropping up to answer this question, and to help with getting ingredients and recipes into your hands, quickly and easily. We tried three of these services for a week each.

Blue Apron

Cost: $59.94 for three meals (for two people)

Meals: Roast Pork and Mashed Potato with Molasses-Stewed Collard Greens; Red Quinoa and Black Bean Enchiladas; General Tso's Chicken with Sauteed Snow Peas and Jasmine Rice

Courtesy of Local Crate

Courtesy of Local Crate

Quality of ingredients: High

Taste: Fair

Ease/convenience of ordering and delivery: Very Easy

Ease/convenience of cooking: Very Easy

Use this service for: Sheer ease and Practicality.

I take delivery of a box that's roughly as heavy as a toddler in a laundry basket. I'm on the run, so I stuff the whole thing in the fridge. Upon unpacking, the ingredients look high-quality and attractive but there is a lot of packaging. I can't resist tucking away some of the diminutive baggies and portion cups for later use. Each item is individually wrapped and labeled, down to two scallions labeled "scallions."

At first I'm skeptical that a single meal will be sufficient to feed myself and my boyfriend, who has an appetite best described as "Hungry Man," so I cook two meals at once.

There's no room for error in the recipes — it's like painting by numbers. You needn't any prior culinary knowledge at all, as no knowledge is inferred. Don't know how to cook rice? They'll tell you how. Can't figure out how to roast a vegetable? It's in there.

The produce is in good shape with no discoloration or bruising, and the proteins are hormone- and antibiotic-free.

All of the dishes are well-seasoned but dry. There's no sauce or condiment, and it's tempting to slather everything up in more butter, more sour cream, more hot sauce. The temptation proves too much, and that's just what we do. If you can resist doing such a thing, the meals hover around 500 to 800 calories per portion, so there's a healthy bonus to eating this way.

This is a fine, on-the-go midweek meal to fix and forget. Not memorable in any way, but perhaps that's just the point.

Local Crate

Cost: $54 for two meals (for two people). Cost goes down $1.50 per serving if you order three meals.

Meals: Chorizo-Style Seitan with Pico de Gallo; Chicken Gyros with Tzatziki & Quinoa Tabbouleh

Quality of ingredients: High

Taste: Fair to good

Ease/convenience of ordering and delivery: Mostly easy, though the website isn't quite as intuitive as that of Blue Apron

Ease/convenience of cooking: Easy

Use this service for: A local company with a healthy-eating bent

By now my boyfriend is having a Pavlovian response to packages in the vestibule. He suspects the neighbor's Amazon delivery is food for him.

Local Crate is based in Minnesota and uses name chefs and purveyors as partners. The box is smaller and contains less packaging than Blue Apron's. Instead of each and every item occupying a distinct plastic baggie, here much of the produce shares a more environmentally friendly brown paper bag, which seems more logical. All the ingredients arrive intact, bruise-free, and in good shape.

The seitan dish requires a lot of chopping (tomatoes, garlic, potatoes, shallot, poblano, and carrots). If you find your zen while wielding a knife, you'll be in heaven. If knife work is time-consuming misery for you, then less so. The dish, while tasty, is plagued by the same problem as the Blue Apron dishes — dryness ­— and we once more look to the kitchen for some makeshift sauce, condiment, or dressing.

Things improve with the chicken gyros, which are nicely seasoned and come with a tzatziki dressing. Thus far, it's the best meal of the experiment, with pleasant spice, but I have to knock off points for the accompanying gluten-free bread. Since when did we all collectively decide to become gluten-free? And this bread contains almost 30 ingredients, rather than the standard four in traditional bread. I'll never believe this is better for the body, especially since I'm not allergic to gluten.

We grab this meal on the way to the cabin, a way I'd highly recommend you use the service. Are you a camper or cabin person? Think of these meals when hitting the road. They eliminate waste and the fuss of making sure you remembered everything, which you never do.

Hello Fresh

Cost: $69 ($54 with new customer discount) for three meals (for two people)

Meals: Seared Pork Chops with Oregano-Mint Pesto, Quinoa, and Roasted Veggie Skewers; Chicken and Spinach Salad with Cheesy Roasted Zucchini, and Tomatoes; and Smoky Beef Tacos with Peppers, Guacamole, and Radish

Quality of ingredients: High

Taste: Fair

Ease/convenience of ordering and delivery: Easy, but it wasn't intuitive how to order specific recipes

Ease/convenience of cooking: Very easy

Use this service for: Extremely fast preparation and generous portions

I order Hello Fresh because I hear that the flavors exceed those of the other services and by now I'm ready for some truly delicious meals.

The box arrives packaged so beautifully it's like Christmas morning. This alone could be an enticement to the service. There is also less waste than Blue Apron. Radishes are allowed to roll loosely rather than sit inside a plastic bag labeled "radish." Who among us is unable to identify a radish?

The salad arrives (you guessed it) sans dressing. By now I'm beginning to wonder if I've been eating food wrong all these years, with like, condiments and sauces and stuff. The suggested lemon and oil recalls my mother's '80s diet regimen. The chicken and spinach salad is otherwise fine but not notable.

I'm giddy that the tacos arrive with both sour cream and the ingredients for guacamole, but an underripe avocado makes difficult work of it. (The disadvantage to having someone else shop for you is you don't get to squeeze the produce yourself.) But the tacos are generously portioned and good enough, though the seasoning is just cumin. These are the tacos your mom made with the Ortega seasoning pack.

I cook and eat a final meal of pork chops with pesto, quinoa (quinoa is another darling of these services, along with gluten-free things), and roasted veggies, solo. I must admit it takes the apathy out of cooking and eating alone, and beats the clichéd solo dinner of refrigerator scraps. Single folk, take heed: This could be just the thing for dinner one night, lunch for work the next day.

The takeaway:

If we had to choose one of these services again, we'd choose Local Crate, for the local connection and somewhat tastier recipes.

The best part about meal delivery services is the delivery aspect, eliminating the hassle of driving, parking, loading, unloading, and all of the other verbs associated with grocery shopping.

Beyond that, even the simplest recipes in the simplest cookbooks (choose anything with the words "fast," "easy," or "simple" in the title) turn out to be more worth your trouble when it comes to finished dishes. There are few of the meal delivery service dishes we'd ever think to cook again.

But it did get us back into the kitchen. A place we remembered we really like to be. Savvy shopping and the most rudimentary cooking skills proffer something far better (and way, way less expensive) than the somewhat canned experience you get with cooking by numbers.

Closing the lid on the computer, we dusted off the cookbooks and got our knives sharpened up. Cooking. It's what's for dinner.