Recipe Box Challenge

Recipe kit companies are on the rise and offer a neat solution for time-poor parents wanting to cook healthy food from scratch, without the planning, prep and shopping. Which is the best one? We review Hello Fresh, Abel & Cole and Gousto, and gives our verdict.

Note: this post was originally published on 4 November 2015, and updated in January 2016 to reflect changes to Abel & Cole’s service.

It is often reported that Britons spend more time watching TV cookery shows than they do actually cooking. But if the continued rise of the recipe kit sector is anything to go by, more and more of us are getting inspired by Jamie, Gizzi and Nigella and wanting to cook, rather than simply flip a switch on the microwave. The draw of the recipe box isn’t difficult to understand: ‘cooking from scratch’ has become something of a holy grail, the gold standard that we should all apparently be aiming for if we are concerned about what our families are eating every day.  The reality of doing it for a hungry family week in, week out, though, often means that it’s difficult to muster Jamie Oliver levels of enthusiasm when 7.30pm rolls around.

Recipe box services aim to help bridge that gap. It’s cooking from scratch, but with the legwork done. No shopping, minimal prep time and a little inspiration to get you out of the lasagne-on-rotation rut.  And that’s before you consider that they reduce food waste (you only get as much as you need for the recipes), can be delivered while you are out (all of the boxes are insulated) and usually contain only organic and sustainable produce.

For many busy parents, it isn’t a hard sell – particularly those who cook separately for themselves once the children have gone to bed. Double dinner duty is enough to send even the most committed home cook reaching for the ready meals.

Although I have several friends who have fully embraced the recipe box concept – and one who has successfully managed to outsource all weeknight dinners for over a year using one–  I have always been a bit skeptical. As a pretty keen home cook (albeit one who is more enthusiastic than proficient), I never really saw the point and was convinced that I would be better off cooking what I know and like. But the truth is, the weeks just seem to get more hectic and when 7pm comes around, I’m either running to the supermarket or reverting to a Nigel Slater standard that I’ve cooked 6 million times before. Rotating a 3-recipe box into our meal schedule every fortnight or so has actually turned out to be a minor miracle, both in terms of taking the pressure off and broadening our midweek recipe repertoire.

So, if you’re thinking of doing the same but don’t know where to start, here’s my lowdown on big 3: Gousto, Hello Fresh and (relative recipe box newcomers) Abel & Cole.

Mr Fox favourite: Abel & Cole

Abel & Cole Recipe Box Review

How it Works: Abel & Cole offer a choice of four different box types: the all-rounder Supperbly Simple with meat & fish recipes; calorie counted Delightfully Light; vegetarian option Heavenly Veggie and Fantastically Foodie for those who like more adventurous flavours. Each box contains three meals (serving two adults).  Since January 2016 customers can mix and match recipes between the boxes, double up to feed more people and order extra meals in their box.

As you’d expect from Abel & Cole, all the fruit and veg is organic, the meat is higher welfare and the fish sustainably sourced. All of the additional pantry items (beans, spices etc.) are really high quality and organic where applicable.

We Tried: The Supperbly Simple box which included Pork Steaks with Spanish Rice, Hot & Sour Chicken Soup and Five Spice Salmon Fish & Chips.

How Much: From £33-39 per box, depending on type. The Supperbly Simple box is £36, equating to £6 per meal.

Delivery: Most of England and Southern Wales. Delivery is fixed to whichever day of the week Abel & Cole deliver to your local area. Boxes can be ordered (and changed) up to two days before your specified delivery day.  The delivery charge is fixed at £1.25 and covers any other items you add to the order from Abel & Cole wider store.

The Small Print: There is no minimum number of weeks that you have to sign up for. You can cancel the boxes whenever you like (provided it’s two days before delivery) and pause them while on holiday. Note though that when ordering for the first time you can’t actually order a one-off box and have to select the frequency of your boxes (from weekly to every eight weeks), so if you do want to cancel or alter the delivery frequency you need to remember to do so in time.

Abel & Cole Recipe Box Review

What We Loved:

  • The recipes feel very ingredient-led, more so than the other boxes which seem to place more focus on creating interesting and exotic dishes. All of the recipes we tried were focussed around the fresh produce (rather than using lots of tiny pots of sauces, stock cubes and other pantry items), and each provided a good balance of vegetables. They are more classic than exotic but without being boring.
  • The portion sizes are very large: we were able to feed ourselves and a hungry 4-year-old easily from each recipe and two of the three were very child-friendly.
  • The quality of ingredients was really high and packaging was relatively minimal. Pantry items, such as spices, came in miniature glass pots rather than individually weighed out in plastic and the cards contained tips on how to use any leftovers of these items.
  • One big upside of Abel & Cole is that you are also able to order from their wider fruit, veg and groceries range for additional items to be delivered at the same time – making it possible to roll a recipe box and the remainder of your weekly shop into one delivery for the flat £1.25 delivery fee.

The Downsides:

  • None! When we initially reviewed the boxes in November 2015 our only gripe was that no substitutions could be made to the boxes and you had limited options for scaling up (short of ordering two whole boxes). But all of that has now been sorted by the new mix and match features launched in January 2015 giving you 16 recipes to choose from each week. The substitution functionality is easy to use and price adjustments made clear so it’s easy to make up the box you want each week and ensure that you have a great balance of meat, fish and vegetarian options.

Find out more at Abel & Cole 

Best for… Control Freaks: Gousto

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How it Works: Every week, Gousto provides a menu of 10 recipes to choose from on their site. There is a great range to select from and the recipes can be filtered with criteria such as ‘quick and easy’, ‘healthy’ or ‘top rated’. The recipes rotate from a collection of over 300 and new ones are added all the time. You can choose from two to four recipes per delivery (in two or four person portion sizes) and can have multiple free deliveries per week if you require more than four meals.

The ingredients are predominantly sourced from UK farms, all the meat is British and while they don’t certify in terms that everything is organic, they claim to source “from suppliers that abide by the highest standards of sustainability and welfare”.

Recipes We Tried: Meera’s Chicken Curry, Sticky Hoisin Pork and Coriander Cauli.

How Much: Per meal costs vary depending upon how many recipes and portions you order, with it working out cheaper the more you order. A three recipe box for two people is £34.99 (£5.83 per meal) and for four people is £51.99 (£4.33 per meal).

Delivery: Free delivery to mainland UK (with some exceptions). Delivery days are Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. You have until three days before the delivery date to order, edit or cancel a box. 

The Small Print: There is no minimum sign up period and you can schedule boxes either as a one-off or a recurring programme. Deliveries can be paused for holidays or whenever you fancy a break. When first ordering you can’t actually order a one-off box, but are automatically set up for weekly boxes, so if you do want to cancel or alter the delivery frequency you need to remember to do so pretty quickly after receiving your first box.

Gousto Recipe Box Review

 

What We Loved:

  • Gousto’s huge advantage over its competitors is the choice it offers – with 10 recipes a week it’s unlikely you won’t find three or four things you want and you can tailor your box specifically to your family’s tastes, while allowing for one or two new things to experiment with. There is a good selection of vegetarian meals each week too. (Although since January 2016 Abel & Cole now also offers a wide variety of recipe options too).
  • The multiple free weekly deliveries mean that you can in theory get 16 portions delivered per week, allowing you to fully outsource the shopping and preparation for the working week for a small family with no gaps to fill.
  • The recipe cards are easy to follow, with supporting YouTube tutorials for beginners who want to master techniques such as dicing vegetables.
  • The quality of the ingredients and recipes was generally very good, only one of the three I wouldn’t rush to make again. The chicken curry from Made in India author Meera Sodha was particularly good and having ready weighed out spices made a decent weeknight curry in under an hour genuinely achievable.

The Downsides:

  • Gousto claim that they have picky kids ‘sussed’ and that every week there’s a range of things they’ll love. In their words: “not too heavy on the veg, no ‘gross’ ingredients or ‘weird’ spices and packed full of goodness (but well camouflaged, so they actually eat it)“. As the owner of a not-particularly-fussy 4-year-old I am not convinced. The Gousto menus have a very strong international slant and while that’s great for adventurous adults looking to try out new things (and who eat after the kids are in bed), I think many parents of younger kids would struggle to find more than two options each week that they would 100% bet on younger kids eating without a fight. For those with a truly picky eater, Abel & Cole’s Supperbly box with its focus on ‘classics’ or Hello Fresh’s Family box might be more reliable bets.
  • While vegetarians are well catered for, the meat and fish recipes generally felt less balanced with vegetables than some of the other box providers. Even the vegetarian dish I tried (the coriander cauliflower) contained one portion of the recommended 5-a-day.  The 5-a-day portions aren’t provided on the website when ordering (but are on the recipe cards) making it trickier to try and balance out your menu choices yourself.
  • Many of the recipes require a food processor or stick blender but this is made clear on the menu so that you can avoid these if needs be.

Find out more at Gousto 

Best for… Getting the Kids Involved: Hello Fresh

Hello Fresh Box Review

How it Works: Hello Fresh offers a choice of three different box types: the best-selling Classic (with meat, fish and vegetarian recipes), Vegetarian and Family.  The Classic is the most flexible in terms of number of portions and substitutions: you pick three from five possible recipes each week. With the other two boxes the contents are fixed each week with no substitutions.  The Family Box that we tried contains four recipes, each feeding 4-5 people.

The ingredients are all sourced from top quality suppliers, including James Knight of Mayfair (Prince Charles’ fishmonger) and Seasoned Pioneers. They source ‘organic and natural’ produce wherever possible.

Recipes We Tried: Family Box with Ultimate Chilli Con Carne, Gnocchi with Crème Fraîche Pesto, Roly-Poly Chicken with Herby Couscous, Pork Chops with Roasted Fennel Medley and Mashed Potato.

How Much: Boxes range from £36-64 depending on number of portions. The Family Box (£64) works out the best value per person at £4.00 per serving.

Delivery: Free delivery to mainland UK (excluding Scottish Highlands, Apin and Morvern). Delivery days are Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Deliveries are made between 9am and 5pm (with some options for a narrower 5-9pm slot within the M25).  You have until midnight on the Wednesday before the delivery week to make changes or cancel your order.  

The Small Print: There is no minimum sign up period but, as with Gousto, you are are automatically set up for weekly boxes when you first order, so if you do want to cancel or alter the delivery frequency you need to remember to do so pretty quickly after receiving your first box so as not to miss the alteration cut-off time. Deliveries can be paused for holidays or whenever you fancy a break. Hello Fresh do, however, also offer a trial one-off box, which you can try out before committing to a subscription. The trial offering is limited to the Classic Box though with three recipes for either two or four people.

Hello Fresh Recipe Box Review

What We Loved:

  • The Family Box menu is clearly designed with kids in mind and features lots of straightforward favourites pork chops with roasted fennel and apple, chilli con carne and chicken with sweet potato mash. The balance of vegetables is good and the recipe cards all have specific tasks picked out for ‘little hands’ to help with.
  • Hello Fresh take recycling and waste reduction really seriously. All of the packaging is recyclable or biodegradable, the boxes are FSC certified and packaging and the wool insulation units can all be returned via Collect+ at no cost.
  • The quality of the ingredients was generally very high and everything we tried was ready in under an hour.

The Downsides:

  • The recipe quality was the most variable of those we tried and some of the recipes felt a bit contrived for the sake of being unusual (chicken wrapped round smoked sausage with hoisin sauce, for example). The chilli con carne, though, was absolutely fantastic especially for something that was ready in less than 45 miutes. Overall, it is a great box for quick whole family weeknight dinners but if I were ordering a box just for ‘grown-up’ dinners in the evening I would probably lean towards Abel & Cole or Gousto.
  • No substitutions available for the Family or Vegetarian boxes (although you can see week to week what is on offer and skip deliveries as required).
  • The cut-off window for alterations or cancellation is very early compared to others – midnight on the Wednesday before your delivery week so you have to plan ahead each week to keep on top of the subscription.

Find out more at Hello Fresh.

 Kate Douglas-Hamilton is Mr Fox co-founder.  She has one son, aged 4. She (occasionally) writes a food blog at The Buckwheat Adventure or you can find her on Twitter @katedh.