ripe strawberries in white plate on table
Food

Finding the right meal delivery service: a side-by-side comparison of Model Meals, Territory Foods, Purple Carrot, Thistle, and Daily Harvest

I can’t believe I made it from college all the way to my late twenties without eating home cooked food, but I did. My college meal plan, my consulting travel budget, and my tech company cafeterias kept me happily full without ever needing to step foot in a kitchen. As a result, I never learned to meal prep or do any kind of functional weekday cooking, opting instead to dabble occasionally with  the latest recipe trending on Instagram or try my hand at some ‘healthy’ baking.

Paleo baking experiments!

It’s no surprise, then, that when COVID-19 hit and physical offices closed in the middle of March, I had no game plan to feed myself. Grocery stores trips, unpleasant enough during normal times, now had lines, temperature checks, and toilet-paper-grabbing mobs to boot! To add additional complexity, I had committed to the Whole 30 diet for the entirety of March, which meant I couldn’t fall back on my much-beloved Annie’s Mac N Cheese or other convenience foods.

An example of my beautiful office breakfast – I miss this so much!

Technology to the rescue! A quick internet search, aided by a few well-placed Facebook/Instagram ads, pulled back the curtain on a new and exciting world of food delivery services. Several geniuses had put their heads together, discovered a broad market of useless millennials like me who had never learned to cook, and created services to ensure we would never learn to become real adults.

Why I decided to try Daily Harvest

Six months later, I have tried enough food delivery services that I’m bursting at the seams with opinions – I need to write this piece so that in the rare circumstances when I can socialize with other humans, I can stop myself from blurting out, “What  are you doing for food during COVID? You need to try ____!” I hope that at the end of this article, you too will know which meal delivery service is right for you! And even if you’re not looking for one, feel free to keep reading and laugh at just how much money I spent before sucking it up and buying a pair of knives on Amazon.

Overall, choosing a meal delivery service boils down to three key decisions:

  • 1. Time: how much time are you willing to spend cooking?
  • 2. Flexibility: how spontaneous do you like to be when it comes to eating out with friends or leaving town?
  • 3. Dietary restrictions: are there specific foods you want to include or eliminate?

While some meal services provide ready-to-heat meals, others delivery frozen meals or provide  the raw ingredients and require you to do the actual cooking. Generally speaking, frozen works best for those who make spontaneous plans, because they afford you the flexibility to leave town at the last minute without having to worry that the food will spoil. Fresh meals, on the other hand, involve the least prep time, but quickly spoil. And ingredient-only boxes result in the best-tasting meals and are cute to cook together on date night, but require a significant time investment, which can prove challenging on meeting-filled weekdays.

Enjoying my picnic and trying not to think of the food at home I haven’t eaten
Meal ServiceDescriptionRatingPriceReferral codes
Model MealsWhole 30, no subscription ready-made meals4/5$14-$16/mealCode
Territory FoodsReady-made meal delivery catering to different dietary preferences3/5Starts from $12.99/mealCode
Purple CarrotPlant-based meal kits, gluten-free and high-protein options3/5$9.99/serving OR $11.99/servingn/a
ThistleGluten and dairy-free ready-made meals; good for vegans5/5$13/meal for full package (6 breakfasts, 6 lunches, 6 dinners weekly)Code
Daily HarvestPlant-based frozen meals and smoothies; good for busy people who travel frequently2/5Approx $7.99/itemCode
I hate WordPress tables – if you know how to format these, please let me know!

Certain delivery services excel in catering to specific niche diets. Model Meals food is entirely Whole 30 compliant, so I leaned on it for the duration of my Whole 30 month (a blog for another time, perhaps?), while others cater to Keto or Vegan diets. I thought of adding price as a factor, but honestly, all of these offerings will cost you a pretty penny.

Model Meals

Model Meals was founded by a plus-size model who used the Whole 30 diet to find optimal health and peace with her natural size. After her success with the diet, she decided to create a business to widen access to convenient Whole-30 compliant food. For those who are lucky enough not to have heard of it, Whole 30 is a restrictive temporary diet which prohibits the consumption of alcohol, grains, soy, legumes, beans, dairy, sweeteners, baked goods, and additives for 30 days. I did this in March, and was struggling to find the time to cook these meals, and Model Meals genuinely saved me during this period.

Subscription model: they don’t have one! They do have a loyalty program, which offers discounts and perks for frequent buyers.

Taco Tuesday, but make it Whole30. PC: ModelMeals Website

Pros:

  • Everything-free! These meals are about as healthy as they come, as they are completely devoid of anything that could possibly trigger an adverse food reaction. They’re dairy-free, paleo, grain-free, and only use healthy fats and pastured meats. Of all of the ready made meal delivery options I tried, this was also the only one that steered entirely clear of industrial oils. The healthiest option in this list for those with digestive issues, and I would also wager the most likely to help someone drop a few pounds, if one was looking for that!
  • No subscription: Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by a subscription you forgot to cancel until it was too late! There were never any surprises with Model Meals, and I never lived with the fear that they could regularly swipe my credit card regularly unless I intervened.
  • Convenient: Since these meals were completely cooked, it was quick work to bung them in the microwave, oven, or stovetop.

Cons:

  • Terrible for vegetarians: This plan is incredibly meat and egg-based, and is totally unsuitable for vegetarians and vegans.
  • Small portions: I have a large appetite, and there were several times when I completed  my meals and was still hungry. When you’re paying $14-$16 for a meal, it sucks when you’re not satiated by the end of it. Especially on Whole 30, when everything kind of sucks anyways!

Dishes I recommend: 

  • Tacos: Tacos are on the menu almost every week and are consistent bestsellers for Model Meals, for good reason! The ‘taco shells’ are made with jicama and taste amazing, I could never recreate these at home and so find them to be great value. The baja fish tacos with the amazing spicy mayo are my favorite.
  • Sweet potato Shepherd’s pie: So good and the coconut sour cream makes this incredibly satisfying.
PC: Model Meals Website

Territory

Territory is also ready-made food delivery, but what makes it notable is the many different dietary styles it caters to. While all meals are gluten, dairy,  and refined-sugar free, they also offer a genuinely dizzying array of additional labels to choose from: Whole 30, vegan, paleo, keto, vegetarian, mixitarian (what is that??), mediterannean, low carb, and low fat. I mean, WOW.

PC: Territory Website. Meal pictured is salmon w/ white wine sauce

Subscription model: meals are sent twice a week, and available for pick-up at your local gym. If you’re willing to pay extra for the convenience, the meals will be delivered to your home.

Pros:

  • Customization: There are so many more options on Territory than on any of the other meal delivery services on this list.
  • Healthy: They offer specific nutritional and macro breakdowns for their meals, which is great if you’re trying to train for a specific event.

Cons:

  • Shipping charge: I got pretty tired of walking back and forth from the cross fit near my house to pick up these meals. Most of the other meal delivery services waive delivery with a very low threshold minimum order vs. charging $10 for each delivery.
  • Taste: These tasted healthy but the flavors were seriously boring.

Purple Carrot

Purple Carrot is a plant-based (i.e., vegan) meal kit delivery service. Every Tuesday, a box arrives at your doorstep, chock full of ingredients and a recipe booklet you’ll need to transform its contents into a delicious, inventive, plant-based meal. Purple Carrot meals are also labeled as “Gluten-free,” “High-protein,” “Nut-free,” “Soy-free,” or “Chef’s choice,” so you can pick the appropriate meals should you have additional restrictions. In case you’re wondering, Chef’s Choice means “delicious but very time consuming.” They have also recently started selling pre-prepared items for reheating, but I’ve never tried any of those.

Subscription model: weekly subscription, and you have to cancel at least a week in advance. This was the least generous of all the meal delivery services I tried, and honestly very annoying. I ended up giving food away on several occasions.

Huge purple carrot box I could barely lift myself

Pros:

  • Yummy, inventive plant-based fare: this is restaurant level stuff, which isn’t surprising since Mark Bitman is associated with the company. I loved cooking with new ingredients that I had never even seen at a grocery store before. The flavor combinations were wonderful and the dishes kept me excited.
  • Ethnic options: A common gripe I have about meal delivery, and the ‘healthy-eating’ movement in general, is that they exclude and alienate several non-white ethnic groups and cultures who enjoy plenty of spices in their food and do not resonate with the “grilled chicken and broccoli” mantra that’s so often peddled as the path to good health. Purple Carrot offers recipes with different ethnic flavor profiles: Moroccan, Indian, Chinese, Thai, you name it!

Cons:

  • Inconsistent ingredient quality: I often opened boxes excitedly, only to wrinkle my nose at ingredients gone bad. When I took photos of the expired food and wrote to customer service, I was reimbursed a modest amount in the form of credit that I could use toward a future purchase, but after repeated incidents I was pretty turned off.
  • Random substitutions: Purple Carrot made a number of last-minute substitutions that were not always appropriate. For example, one week they sent wheat flour tortillas instead of corn tortillas as part of the gluten-free option. I’m not gluten-free so I didn’t care, but for others this could pose a real inconvenience, or worse, an allergic reaction.
  • Processed ingredients like vegan mayo, tortillas, refined bread, etc.
  • Varying macros: even the gluten-free, high-protein options had A LOT of calories per serving (I once accidentally at 1200 calories for lunch because I misread the serving size…and I was still hungry after that…oops)
  • Time consuming: these meals took FOREVER to cook. I once spent 3 hours preparing a dish that was supposed to take 40 minutes, and often spent at least 1.5x as long cooking as the quoted time. Yes, I am not the fastest cook, but I am also not the slowest. This was ultimately the reason I discontinued the service – I felt I could whip up healthier and quicker meals on my own, and if I was shelling out the bucks for a meal kit, it should at least save me time.

Dishes I recommend

Meals repeat only every couple of months or so, but my favorites have been:

  • General Tso’s tofu with quinoa and steamed broccoli
  • Sweet & Spicy Kashmiri Curry with Japanese Yam & Green Beans
  • Skillet Fettucine with chickpeas & tomato butter
Caesar salad with chickpea croutons

Thistle

After reading a TechCrunch article about a man who attributed his 20 pound weight loss to Thistle salads and his Peleton, I decided to give this service a try. Thistle delivers dairy and gluten-free ready-made meals for you to heat and devour. There are only two options: vegan or omnivore, according to which your meal is topped with either a vegan or a meat protein. If you prefer to avoid specific meats (e.g., I don’t eat beef), you can make note of that and Thistle substitutes accordingly. Prices vary with the number of meals you order, and there are several juices, lattes, snacks, and soups available as add-ons to your bi-weekly deliveries. I ordered 6 breakfasts, 6 lunches, and 6 dinners each week, which came to $234 before any snacks or add-ons.

Subscription model:

Weekly subscription, meals arrive on Monday and Thursday and you have until the Thursday before to update or edit any of the meal options, as well as to purchase last-minute add ons. Meals arrive in reusable bags.

Pros:

  • Very healthy!! Honestly, Thistle covers SO many health bases (or neuroses? hehe) that only the low carb/paleo/Whole30/grain-free among us could find anything lacking. The meals are gluten-free and dairy-free, have organic ingredients, and pack in over 60 grams of protein each day (which for plant-based food is a good amount). They also source locally, include healthy fats and superfoods, and stick to natural sweeteners like fruits, dates, and maple syrup.
  • Delicious: these were the most delicious of all the ready made meals.
  • Low prep time: the meals required a few minutes of heating up in a skillet, and that’s it!

Cons:

  • Includes sunflower oil, which is high on Omega 6’s. I don’t think this is necessarily a huge deal, but if you’re super anal healthy apparently it’s best to stick to olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, ghee, and grass-fed butter, so the addition of sunflower oil may or may not make this less healthy than what you’d make at home
  • Filling, but afternoon snack required. I was full after every meal, but I was also hungry for an afternoon snack nearly every day. That said, I found these meals to be the most filling of all the ready-made options.

Dishes I recommend: 

All the Asian meals, like this panang peanut stir fry bowl. “A creamy, nutty peanut sauce coats a stir-fry of fresh mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower, bell pepper, & carrots.” All of the Asian/Indian meals were great! As were any of the meals involving pasta, for obvious reasons.

Golden tea oats: “Golden tea spices such as ginger, turmeric & cinnamon warm up our steel-cut oats. Served with a vanilla coconut cream and a vibrant golden ginger granola.” Thistle breakfasts leans heavily on oatmeal, and this was my favorite.

Daily Harvest

After years of merciless targeting through social media ads, I finally succumbed and tried Daily Harvest. This meal delivery service focuses on increasing consumers’ intake of fruits and vegetables by offering a variety of plant-based, frozen foods that can be quickly reheated. Their foods run the gamut from healthy to indulgent-ish: smoothies, harvest bowls, flatbreads, soups, oat bowls, chia bowls, ice cream, bites, and lattes.

Is anyone surprised I fell for this social media ad?

Subscription model: You can choose from several plans, which offer variable pricing based on the frequency of delivery and quantity of meals.

From the Daily Harvest website

Pros: 

  • Offers significant flexibility: frozen meals win on convenience, especially for those who prefer spontaneity or a flexible lifestyle. I often head out of town on impromptu weekend trips or plan last-minute meals with friends, so I liked knowing that I didn’t need to chalk out my week of eating in advance to make sure all my meals were finished in a timely manner, or worry about food spoiling in the fridge while I was out of town.
  • Proactive customer communication and an app!: Daily Harvest has really convenient text and email alerts, so I was never surprised when a delivery was upcoming and had plenty of time to modify my order. They also have an easy-to-use app (the only meal service that did!), so it was easy to manage orders on the go while sitting in an Uber or running other errands.

Cons:

  • Tough with limited freezer space: with many of the plans, you’re shipped so many items at once that it’s difficult to fit everything into the freezer (imagine 24-26 items / week!) . It felt like I was playing freezer Jenga, trying to stack as many meals into the freezer as possible and slamming the door shut before anything could topple out.
  • High in sugar: many of the smoothies and breakfasts are high in sugar. Though this was primarily due to fructose, the natural sugars in fruits, it was a bit of a nasty shock to discover that I was downing 24 grams of sugar each morning with my ‘healthy’ breakfast.
  • Low protein: even the high-protein options were still fairly lacking in protein. I’m not a protein fanatic, but I do like to get in a minimum of 50 grams each day, and it’s tough to hit that number eating only Daily Harvest meals. The meals are plant-based, so without the addition of lentils or beans, I was often left hungry and or needed to double up on servings at mealtime.

Dishes I recommend: 

  • I typically filtered by “gluten-free,” “low sugar,” and “paleo” in choosing dishes, not because I prescribe to any of those labels but because I figured that combination gave me the best shot at choosing nutrient dense foods that wouldn’t send me on a blood sugar rollercoaster. Here were my favorites in that category:
    • Smoothies: mint+cacao, cold brew + almond, and cucumber+greens
    • Harvest bowls: broccoli+cheeze, cauliflower rice+pesto, artichoke+lemon
    • Chia bowls: chocolate+almond
    • Lattes: ginger+turmeric
PC: Daily Harvest Website

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