With local grocers getting up in Blue Apron’s business, food writer Bethany Jean Clement made some sample dinners — with pretty wildly varying results.
Watch out, Blue Apron and other similar services: Seattle’s grocery stores want to eat your lunch — or dinner, as the case may be. PCC, QFC and Amazon Go are all getting in on the make-it-at-home meal-kit market, and when Portland’s New Seasons opens in Ballard next month, it’ll have them too. The grocery chains are betting that picking up a kit on the spot — when you’re stopping in to get milk, eggs or beer anyways — or having one delivered, as needed, makes more sense than being saddled with an ongoing, online subscription service. Kits that go from the store’s refrigerated case to your fridge also go without the extra packaging and ice packs necessary for shipping, a bonus for the enlightened/guilt-ridden recyclers of the Seattle area.
So how convenient are the new kits — and most importantly, how do they taste? I tested a representative chicken-based dinner kit from QFC, PCC and Amazon Go, preparing them with all due haste to see how the promised timing worked out, then eating the results. And the results did, as they say, vary.
The QFC meal kit: strange and beige
QFC’s Prep+Pared Meal Kits are so new, they’re only available at the University Village store in Seattle, but Bellevue Square, Edmonds, Mountlake Terrace, Renton, south Mercer Island and more have them too (call ahead). After a drive through a serious spring downpour, I was the nonplussed owner of a Hummus Baked Chicken With Feta + Vegetable Orzo kit, involving the heterodox practice of spreading hummus onto chicken breasts. The packaging, with multiple symbols/slogans/typefaces (“FROM OUR KITCHEN TO YOURS”), looks amateurish compared to the spare, contemporary design of others; the choices included retro-y basics like mini meatloaves and shrimp stir-fry. But at $16 for two servings’ worth, QFC’s kits are also cheaper.
THE MAKING: With everything “100% MEASURED + PREPPED,” QFC promises “KIT TO [fork drawing] IN ABOUT 20 MIN.” Pre-chopped vegetables and pre-cooked orzo may create a sense of disconnection to the product of one’s labor, but they do represent time savings. The hummus-making method — squishing chickpeas by hand while still in their plastic bag, then adding pre-minced garlic, juice from a cutely small lemon, and salt and pepper (lots, after some un-called-for tasting) — was bizarre, but arguably fun. The instructions called for pounding the chicken breasts to one-inch thick, which I undertook half-heartedly, in part because it’d make them far too big to fit atop the orzo in my baking dish (about the size of the one in the directions’ photos). In the end, cooking the chicken fully took 10 extra minutes, which did cause anxiety and did not cause the depicted golden-browning of the hummus. Total time elapsed: 40 minutes (double expected!?).
THE TASTING: Oh, the beige. Bits of red pepper and zucchini in the orzo could not significantly disrupt the beigeness of the plate. The chicken, with its strange, thick coating of now-cooked but still-pale hummus, looked beige and tasted beige. There’s a reason hummus-topped chicken is not a thing. The orzo’s lemon juice, red pepper and feta conspired to give it a less-than-appetizing, uniformly tart tang … but at least it tasted like something.
THE WASTE: The chicken was in a plastic bag inside another plastic bag; the instruction card came in a plastic sleeve (to protect it from all the other plastic-encased things?). Total: one cardboard box with plastic window, one recipe card, eight small plastic bags, one small plastic spice tub with lid, one piece plastic wrap. The plastic aftermath did not help my dinner-related depression.
OVERALL: Sad! I quickly ate all my orzo out of abject hunger, then shoveled down a few more bites standing over the stove. I did not finish my chicken. I would very much like to not eat this again.
PCC’s meal kit: It should be good
Co-op grocery chain PCC just feels nice. With its focus on local and organic products, cooking classes with great instructors, and online bank of recipes, its new Scratch-Made Meals at Home kits ought to be good. They’re only at the Green Lake store at the moment, but coming soon to more locations, and available from Instacart and Amazon Prime Now. The PCC shopper appears hungry for them: Three people grabbed kits during the three minutes I stood there perusing them. I chose Pan-Roasted Chicken with Honeyed Carrots and Pistachios & Currant-Couscous, which cost $20. PCC’s kits also come with pairing suggestions — and who am I to deny a meal kit its specified wine?
THE MAKING: Purportedly a 45-minute overall process, the kit’s prep entailed stuff like scrubbing six carrots — squat, pretty and still a little dirty, they connected one to the farm/took time. I made the executive decision not to chop the pistachios (OK, somehow I read past that step). The timing got funny with roasting the carrots, which sounded and smelled like they were getting done at 11 minutes versus the directions’ 15; meanwhile, after stove-top searing, the chicken thighs’ pan wouldn’t fit into the oven alongside the carrots’ baking sheet, so it had to wait. Added to the carrots, the pistachios browned more quickly than dictated, too, while the honey burned into a bubbly, blackened mess that would prove a major clean-up pain. Couscous and a yogurt dipping sauce had to be made. The recipe also called for chopping a whole shallot to add to the carrots at the end, and the one in the kit was enormous — I made the judgement call to use about a fourth of it, because: raw shallot. Total elapsed time: just over one hour.
THE TASTING: The chicken thighs, from Ranger, possessed actual chickeny flavor unlike the other kits’ bland breast meat, and also achieved golden-brown, crispy skin and a perfectly cooked interior. Lemony-peppery Greek yogurt made a smooth, tangy dip. The happily smokey carrots got a little perk from fresh thyme, but even the reduced amount of shallots tasted far too sharp. The couscous turned out dry, the currants’ flavor negligible. The Yakima Valley Lobo Hills dry riesling ($16), which a very nice PCC employee helped me choose, had the barest flowers-and-flint aroma and an incisive tropical citrus note — in non-wine-speak, not sweet but not too tart, yum.
THE WASTE: All the paper stuff was recyclable, and all the rest compostable, save for one piece of plastic wrap and the yucky little pad that came under the chicken. PCC cares! Their meal kits will not make you feel like an environmental hate-criminal.
OVERALL: It’s funny how a nice bottle of wine can make a just-OK-meal-kit dinner into one that seems really good.
Amazon Go’s meal kit: Is this the future?
It’s still weird to walk into South Lake Union’s Amazon Go store, pick out what you want and just walk back out without paying (your phone and a Big-Brother-esque system bill you via an app). The meal-kit convenience factor, with cooking still required, wouldn’t seem appealing to those who can’t even deal with self-checkout, but they’re part and parcel of the same streamlined future (or current tech bubble?). The Amazon Go ready-to-eat stuff I’ve tested tasted pretty underwhelming — what about the meal kits? I walked in and walked out with Za’atar Chicken with Charred Corn and Pearl Couscous for $17.99.
THE MAKING: “DINNER FOR 2 IN ABOUT 30 MINUTES,” the kit shouted. I started, slightly hangry after a long day, at 9:02 p.m. Fresh and pretty ingredients had a cheering effect (unlike that Amazon Fresh lemon I once got). The inclusion of vivid, unwilty basil, mint and chives for the couscous, and the smell of chopping them, also made for happiness. The recipe looked straightforward, but making the couscous, prepping the produce (including washing and chopping), a sautée, a sear, roasting, making dressing, cutting corn off the cob … it all took time. If you were keen on following orders, it’d take even longer, as the directions never suggest continuing on when one step’s fully under way. Toward the end, I realized that the honey for the dressing was missing from the kit entirely; luckily, I had some. And if I hadn’t read ahead, I would’ve poured all the orange-honey-mustard dressing on the couscous, when the contradictory instructions then expected some saved for the side of pea shoots. Total elapsed time: one hour and seven minutes (“about 30,” ha!).
THE TASTING: The citrusy-dressed pea shoots made a tasty little salad, something smart that the other kits lacked. The sautéed veg in the couscous still had life to it, with red onion adding a little zing, and the fresh herbs also stood out. If a chicken breast for dinner feels like dated diet food, coating it heavily with au courant spice mix za’atar at least lends it a smokey, aromatic aspect, some complexity as a foil to the boring meat.
THE WASTE: Only a whole orange eluded packaging, which included the box; wraparound label; instruction card; unrecyclable foil-bubble-wrap chicken packet; small Tetra Pak; six plastic bags; small plastic spice tub with lid; three unrecyclable little plastic herb-coffins; and a heavy-duty, unrecyclable plastic “Mustard dressing vinegar base” jar with lid. If the left-out honey had been included, there would’ve been that much more to feel bad about.
OVERALL: While Amazon Go’s kit erred on the healthy-tasting side, it was the best of the three. Would I want to have it again? Eh … but it did make me want to replicate the couscous on my own, improving it with more flavorful dressing and feta cheese for richness (and leaving out the corn until summertime).
In the end
Pricewise, do these kits make sense? If you’re a regular grocery-store shopper/recipe-maker, you know that $8 to $10 per person can get you more than one dinner’s worth of food — and picking out ingredients, then measuring them, probably doesn’t sound like a terrible burden. The convenience of a kit might occasionally make sense, if you’re cooking for two and feeling adventurous (and avoid strange hummus configurations). If you’ve got basic cooking skills, hate shopping/measuring, and are chronically pressed for time, but not too pressed — and if you’re comparing $10 per person to the current cost of eating out/takeout, even at an inexpensive place — a kit might start to sound right (that’s a lot of ifs).
A dietitian I know says she uses meal kits to try out new kinds of cuisines — Amazon Go’s shawarma lamb meatballs or PCC’s sesame-gochujang steak might qualify. My colleague Benjamin Romano, who tried a PCC kit when writing about their advent last week (his review: “Pretty decent”), says he’ll be happy to pick one up when heading to a cabin or an Airbnb.
If you do some meal-kit experimentation, just allow extra time — and maybe don’t start already hungry at 9 p.m.