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Blue Apron, Sun Basket, Hello Fresh, Plated: I’ve Tried Them All and Here’s What I Think

January 25, 2018

I originally published this piece in February 2017, and it’s been one of my most-visited posts. Since it’s the new year and many people are trying to cook more at home, I revised the post to include new information and two meal services I’ve sampled in the last year: Home Chef and Marley’s Spoon.

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I have tried many different dinner systems over the years — meal planning, once-a-month-cooking, The Fresh 20, Dream Dinners, you name it! I enjoy cooking and we eat at home nearly every night (except for maybe one weekend night). But gone are the days when I had the motivation to do extensive planning and meals.

That being said, it’s still very important to me that we eat healthy meals at home made with fresh ingredients that I prepare (for the most part). So I have given myself the gift of using boxed meal subscription services on a somewhat regular basis. I’ve tried all the big ones over the years — Blue Apron, Plated, Sun Basket, Hello Fresh, Home Chef and Marley’s Spoon. I still supplement our dinners with my own recipes, but these dinners are a nice way to have fresh ingredients sent to my door along with a recipe and a shot of motivation.

I’ve decided to share my thoughts about the meal boxes — their advantages and disadvantages — and which ones I continue to use.

Blue Apron fresh tomato linguini with Cesar salad

Before I give you my impressions of each service, let me point out a few universal things:

  • Most all of these services have an option where you can try the service for free, and then continue.
  • All the companies allow you to skip weeks without any penalty, as long as it’s done in the time frame. So if you don’t like the meal choices for a given week, you just pause that week.
  • There was a lot of criticism at one point about these services being environmentally wasteful with all the packaging. I believe all of them now offer recycling programs so you can easily donate the boxes and cooling material. But I have to admit, recycling was never an issue for me. We already recycle EVERYTHING. So all the little containers, bottles, cans, etc. went right into our blue recycle bin, along with the broken down cardboard box.

NOTE: This is NOT a sponsored post. None of these are affiliate links and I’m not getting free dinners for sharing this information.

And now, here are my thoughts on all these meal services.

Blue Apron Za’atar chicken souvlaki with oven baked fries

BLUE APRON

I have been using Blue Apron the longest and we’ve loved nearly all the meals. Even Sophie — who is the pickiest of eaters — will eat a Blue Apron dinner without (or with minimal) complaint. The ingredients are fresh and the dinners are innovative (not ideas I would typically think of), yet they are not complicated recipes. Some of my favorite recipes have been Mexican spiced beef and rice casserole, Za’atar chicken souvlaki, and fresh linguine pasta and heirloom tomato sauce.

I will say that Blue Apron has a lot of extra steps that can be cut from the cooking process. For example, you can cut your prep time considerably by using your own pre-chopped garlic and ginger. And they are big proponents of using lots of olive oil. I don’t use near the amount they suggest. They also have you use multiple bowls for prepping ingredients. I tend to eliminate some of those extra bowls by adding the chopped ingredients straight into the pots/pans when appropriate. Less dishes to clean is always good!

PLATED

Plated has become our favorite. Their meals are really good! The photo above is the Greek vegetable salad, which was fresh and delicious. We’ve also had meals like turkey chili verde, miso salmon and quinoa bowls, and chipotle chicken pozole with crispy quesadillas.

The recipes have fewer steps than Blue Apron, and the prep work is considerably less. For example, the garlic is sent in pre-pealed cloves and the cheese is already shredded. I also think the amount of protein and ingredients they send are larger than Blue Apron. One of the recipes called for Parmesan cheese and I didn’t even use all that Plated sent. Whereas with Blue Apron, I sometimes supplemented things like Parm with my own stash.

I also like that Plated packages all the ingredients for each recipe in separate bags, which makes it easier to grab what you need for one dinner. Since I originally wrote this post, Plated lowered its prices and is on par with Blue Apron, which I believe, makes it a better value. If you only try one meal service, I’d highly recommend Plated.

SUN BASKET

I would describe Sun Basket as the more organic, non-GMO, “crunchy” and sustainable option. Many of their meals are paleo or gluten free (even if you don’t select that option). While this is great for a lot of people, my family likes its dairy and carbs. We don’t consume a lot of it, but we do like some cheese with dinner.

The recipes we sampled were Peruvian beef stir-fry, gingered turkey meatballs in lemongrass broth, and spicy chorizo and tomatillo chili with coconut and lime. The Peruvian beef was really good, and a hit with me and Bryan. The other two recipes had too many Thai-based and spicy foods that don’t agree with Bryan or Sophie. And at the time we tried Sun Basket, there weren’t many other non-exotic options. So unfortunately this one didn’t work for our family.

Sun Basket seems like a great option for adults, or families that want an easy way to eat organic, paleo, vegeterian or vegan options. Again, not bad, but we didn’t continue the subscription. That being said, I give Sun Basket the award for cutest packaging — I didn’t want to through the boxes away!

Sun Basket Peruvian beef

HOME CHEF

I would recommend Home Chef for someone who doesn’t wants a good dinner, but a pretty “basic” and easy one. Their dinners have fewer “exotic” ingredients with little prep/cooking time. It’s not a bad service, but I’d rather spend my money on Plated or Blue Apron where the meals are a bit more exciting.

One very odd and sometimes confusing thing is the meals are packaged as two servings; but if you order the four-serving, they send two of each pack. So I end up tons of bags of ingredients in my fridge.

MARLEY’S SPOON

Marley’s Spoon is Martha Stewart meal prep service is the latest one we tried. Honestly, I’m not that impressed. Very little ingredients for meals that didn’t have a ton of flavor. The above southwest turkey burgers were good, but the side dish was a broccoli salad that wasn’t too impressive. I also tried the fish fry and spicy tartar sauce with Brussels sprouts Caesar salad. The fish and sauce were good, but the Brussels sprouts required me to shred them all by hand and I had no time for that. So I opted to use lettuce I already had in the fridge for the salad.

We enjoyed the seared steak and crispy potatoes with Sriracha butter. But honestly, all that came in the package were flank steak, potatoes, beans, garlic, butter and Sriracha powder. I could have purchased all that myself and there isn’t anything different about that meal.

It also drove me crazy that Marley’s Spoon required me to provide my own eggs and other ingredients, which they don’t tell you about ahead of time. So if I didn’t have those items at home, too bad for our dinner.

HELLO FRESH

This was my least favorite meal box services. The Hello Fresh meals I tried were bland, had very few ingredients. We tried were shrimp with lemon orzo (a recipe that I have made myself and tasted better) and steak with mango salsa and rice. While the steak was good, the portion was small and fed both me and Sophie. Thank goodness Bryan was not at home for that dinner because had I split it three ways, we would have been looking for more food to supplement dinner.

The Hello Fresh dinners could have used a bit more flavor and/or ingredients. While some of Blue Apron’s recipes are simple too; what makes them stand out are the spice blends used to add flavor. That was lacking with Hello Fresh.

I was also very turned off by the fact that Hello Fresh customer service was constantly calling me after I cancelled the service to find out what happened and persuade me to resubscribe.

Blue Apron summer corn salad

So those are my thoughts on Blue Apron, Plated, Sun Basket, Home Chef, Marley’s Spoon, and Hello Fresh. I really want to try One Potato by Weelicious because I like their emphasis on family-friendly meals. But sadly, they don’t service Indiana … yet!

It’s a nice treat to be able to use a meal subscription service once or twice a month. And I like that you can control the ingredients and count calories if you do that. If you’re at all curious, I encourage you to sign up for the free offering and see which ones you like.

Have you used any of these meal subscription services? Which is your favorite (or least favorite)? Is there another one I need to try?

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Best of the Year: Read, Listen and Watch

January 12, 2018

I realize we’re nearly at the point where we need to stop posting “best of 2017” or “2017 recap” posts. But before we go too deep into January, I thought I’d share some of my favorite reads, listens and watches of last year. Technically, these are not 2017 specific; meaning not all my recommendations were released last year. But they are what filled my brain in the year prior.

Read

Admittedly, I did not read as much in 2017 as I have in the past. This is undoubtedly due to having cable for the first time in years and binge-watching television shows in the name of “research” for my novel I’ve yet to write (hey, there’s always 2018!).

Someone recently asked me when I read books. Since most of my day is spent writing and working on the computer, I don’t read much during the day. I always read before going to bed as I find that helps clear my mind before drifting off. I also try to make some time on the weekend to sit on my sofa and read. The other thing I do is I always bring a book with me when I have to wait places, especially activities that Sophie is doing. For example, if she has volleyball practice or a birthday party, I bring a book with me and read it there.

Here are the stand-out books I read last year:

Cruel Beautiful World, Caroline Leavitt — This was such a beautiful, haunting and compelling story, about very flawed but real people. I read this book in two days. Here’s the description: “Set in the early 1970s against the specter of the Manson girls, when the peace and love movement begins to turn ugly, this is the story of a runaway teenager’s disappearance and her sister’s quest to discover the truth.

The Four Tendencies, Gretchen Rubin — I’m a big fan of Gretchen Rubin. Here she breaks down four personality types and how they respond to inner and outer expectation. She writes that understanding this framework helps us make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress and burnout, and engage more effectively. Those Four Tendencies are: Upholders (that’s me), Questioners, Obligers and Rebels.

Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, Jonathan Taplin — This fascinating book essentially confirms that Facebook, Google and Amazon are crushing creativity and making it harder for artists, musicians and writers to earn a living. But on the plus side, it made me feel justified purchasing CDs and books as much as I do.

Under the Influence, Joyce Maynard — I love anything Maynard writes. Her characters are always compelling and not quite what you expect. The book tells the story of Helen, who recently lost her marriage and custody of her 7-year-old son due to drinking. Now in recovery, the book follows Helen on her journey and the relationships she becomes entrenched with during her sobriety.

The Night of the Gun: A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His Own, David Carr — I could not put this memoir down. Carr, a lifelong reporter, spent three years investigating his own life of addiction and crime, using techniques such as videotaped interviews, legal and medical records, and reporting. What results is a fascinating true story.

The Mystics of Mile End, Sigal Samuel — I found this book on a whim in an independent bookstore, and only picked it up because I was drawn to the cover. But in this case, I will judge a book by its cover because the story lived up to its outer beauty. It’s the story of a struggling family looking to find spiritual meaning in their lives.

Listen

I alternate between listening to music and podcasts. Music is always my go-to for running and driving. But I enjoy podcasts when I’m at my desk and doing things around the house that don’t require a lot of concentration. Here’s what I discovered last year that keeps me inspired.

How I Built This Podcast — This NPR podcast is a series of stories about innovators and entrepreneurs, and what’s behind the movement and company they started. The podcasts include the story behind companies such as Melissa & Doug, Spanx, TOMS, Whole Foods, CLIF Bar, Airbnb, and so many more.

Song Exploder — This podcast has been around for quite a while, but I just recently started listening to it. In each episode, a musician takes apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made. I don’t listen to every episode; just the ones where I’m intrigued by the artist or song. Some of the musicians include: R.E.M. (“Try Not to Breathe”), Norah Jones (“Day Breaks”), The Lumineers (“Ophelia”), Wilco (“Magnatized”), U2 (“Cedarwood Road”), and so many more.

Making Oprah — Since Oprah is trending right now, you may want to check out this limited series about how the “Oprah Winfrey Show” began and its journey. Like so many of you, I used to come home from work and watch the show. It’s fun to revisit some of the topics and hearing Oprah herself.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “The Nashville Sound” — I think Jason Isbell is an incredible songwriter, and the songs on this album have made me hopeful, pensive and broken me down in tears. All the feels on one great album.

The New Basement Tapes — This was released in 2014, but I discovered it last year and have been listening to it since. The album is a collection of “lost” Bob Dylan songs sung by today’s popular artists such as Elvis Costello and the singers that front Dawes and Mumford & Sons. Good stuff!

Watch

I’ll try to limit my television choices since this post is already quite long. Here are my favorites in 2017.

“Halt and Catch Fire” — This is one of the best shows I’ve ever watched. It’s a fictional (based on true events) story that centers around four characters during the 1980s personal computing boom in Silicon Prairie and later moves to Silicon Valley. I don’t know why more people haven’t watched this AMC show, but you have no excuse now that all four seasons (the entire series) are on Netflix.

“Better Call Saul” — I know this is a controversial statement, but I actually like this spin-off better than “Breaking Bad.” The show keeps getting better, and season three was no exception.

“Mindhunter” — I love this story of how the FBI first started looking at killers and crimes using behavioral analysis. Once you finish “Mindhunter,” check out “Manhunt: Unabomber” to see how – years later – the behavioral analysis helped the FBI catch the Unabomber. Fascinating stuff!

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — What a gem of a show! In 1958 New York, Midge Maisel has the perfect life: husband, kids, and an Upper West Side apartment. But when her life takes a surprise turn, she explores her talent as a stand-up comic and learns about herself along the way. I loved this show, and not just because it was funny. I loved Midge’s self-discovery, the costumes and 1950s New York.

I hope you found a few things to read, listen to and watch this year. Now if only I could find more time in the day to enjoy all these favorite things of mine!

What was the best book you read last year? Do you have a podcast, piece of music of television show you loved?

Looking Back at 2017: A Year of Personal Transformation

December 31, 2017

If 2016 was a year that reflected change for me, then 2017 is a year that embodied transformation.

What’s the difference between change and transformation, you ask? For me, change was moving to a new state and starting a new life in a completely difference place. But transformation is personal and represents evolving in a gradual, larger and more meaningful way. Yet the two work hand-in-hand — for me, the change is what brought about the transformation. That’s what 2017 has meant to me.

Twenty-seventeen has been transformative in many ways. First, my world-view has transformed. This is a direct result of moving to a new place, and meeting people I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to see people and the country in a new way. Living in that new space helped me transform my own beliefs and biases.

Second, I re-evaluated what I was doing with respect to my work and writing, and made a choice to really focus on the writing and telling stories that matter to me and that can have an impact in the world. I defined who I am and what I want to stand for; and as a result, I published my first national op-ed piece about how moving from a blue state to a red state has changed my life.

Third, I embarked on a physical and mental transformation when I continued my running habit for more than one year. In the later half of 2017, I challenged myself further with physical activity I never dreamed I had the ability to do. My trainer/friend said to me, “You’ve proven you have the ability to do whatever you set out to do, whether it’s running, participating in a race, or TRX.” Her comment made me realize that the physical activity I was doing led to a mental transformation as well.

Of course 2017 was not without challenges. But I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason, and that the difficult times are given to us in order to move on to something greater and more meaningful.

I’ve been making these year-end photo collages for the past eight years. They give me a chance to reflect on all the memories during the year. I see transformation in these photos, the most visual aspect is seeing Sophie grow up and watching the natural environment change each season. I really love that my physical space is a constant reminder that life passes by and transformation (both good and bad) happens on a regular basis. It makes me realize that nothing is permanent, and there is always possibility to make a change.

Thank you for reading Leah’s Thoughts and being part of my journey. Happy New Year, and here’s to 2018!

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The Day the Magic Died: December 26, 2016

December 20, 2017

Last year’s Christmas was the same as the years before. On Christmas Eve, Sophie left cookies, milk and carrots out for Santa and his reindeer and went to sleep with visions of sugarplums dancing in her head. She woke early the next morning (aka woke us early the next morning) and rushed downstairs to open her gifts that Santa Claus left by the chimney with care. Like the many years before, it was a magical morning.

But the next day — December 26 — the magic began to fizzle.

When I was furiously wrapping presents earlier that week, I stashed the rolls of wrapping paper under my bed (which I’d never done before). On the 26th, Sophie was playing hide with Bryan and she decided to look under the bed in the bedroom. She was not prepared for what she saw.

A few hours later, Sophie approached me with trepidation.

“I found something under your bed,” she said.

I asked her if she wanted to ask me a question. She answered yes, but then added that she’s afraid to know the answer. Only she did know the answer.

“Mom, are you and daddy Santa Claus?” she asked with tears in her eyes.

In that moment, I was at a crossroads. I could tell her the truth, or continue to perpetuate the myth, making up some excuse about why the wrapping paper was under the bed. But that just didn’t feel right. And part of me knew she already suspected the truth, and I didn’t feel right about lying.

“What do you think?” I answered.

“I think you are,” said Sophie as she burst into tears.

I gave her a hug and confirmed her suspicions.

She cried, not because she was upset with me. But for the same reason I cried when I found out the Tooth Fairy wasn’t real. It’s like a part of the magic of childhood was gone.

Those years of being 8 and 9 — before the full-on tween sets in — are an interesting time. Kids are getting old enough to know what’s real and what’s not, but they still want to believe in the magic. They’re not quite ready to let go of being a little kid.

Later Sophie admitted that she started to wonder how Santa could really fit down a chimney. And how he always knew the things she wanted so much. She suggested that maybe she’d soon forget the Santa truth, and things would be back to “normal.” But we both knew that wouldn’t happen.

It seems like just yesterday when Bryan and I debated whether to embrace Santa Claus in our home. I’m so glad we did because the last five years of Santa’s existence in Sophie’s life have been so fun to witness. Especially for me, since I did not grow up believing in Santa Claus and always felt left out when Christmas rolled around.

Truth be told, I’m a little sad that tradition is over. Yet I’m glad she knows the truth too. Like every ending, it’s also a beginning and we now enter a new stage of Sophie’s tween life.

A few weeks after Sophie made her startling discovery last year, she told me she’s okay knowing the truth about Santa. And I think it made her see me and Bryan in a new light (kind of like the moment when we witness a new side of Ralphi’s Old Man in “A Christmas Story”). And then said this:

“Hey, at least I still have the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny to believe in!”

So maybe there’s still a bit of magic left in the world for Sophie after all.

A Look Through the Memories in My Childhood Scrapbooks

December 6, 2017

I’ve always thought of myself as a collector of memories, not necessarily things. The exception is when the things are symbolic of the memory itself. I’ve written about how I’ve kept many of the letters and cards I’ve received over the years. But it wasn’t until recently that I went through my old scrapbooks.

I have two scrapbooks from my childhood. The first is a Cabbage Patch Kid album that contains memories from elementary school. The second “Special Memories” book is all about the teenage and middle/high school years.

When I was looking through my scrapbooks, I found so many things — newspaper clippings, political campaign buttons, prom photos, and all the things you may expect a kid to treasure at some point. I also found items I completely forgot I had.

I read once that you should think back at what you loved as a child if you want to find your passion, or feel lost or unsure of your future path. The truth in this statement came through loud and clear as I looked through my scrapbooks because so many of the things I kept related to writing.

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Here’s a look at  some of the memories I uncovered in my elementary through high school scrapbooks.

My elementary school held award assemblies where students received recognition for academic efforts. I never excelled academically, so the only awards I received were for citizenship. Things haven’t changed much; I still excel at time on task and my behavior continues to be excellent.

My dad spent the majority of his career working in academic administration at San Diego State University. He always gave me the mementos he received from attending different events. In 1984, he heard Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential candidate, and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, speak on campus. The admission ticket he gave me is below. My spelling was always atrocious (“knot” and “neet”?!?). You can see why I only received citizenship awards in school.

My sister, Ellye, and I loved going to the San Diego State Aztec football games with my dad.

Hard Rock Cafe opened in the United States in 1982 and later that decade, the restaurant became really popular among my peers. I became obsessed with the restaurant and wearing the Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt that was so popular. The chain opened its first San Diego location in 1988, and going there for the first time was probably the highlight of my year.

Sophie and I attended Disneyland’s 60th anniversary celebration in 2015. At the time — and until I flipped through my scrapbook this year — I had no idea I was at Disneyland on its 35th anniversary: July 17, 1990.

On January 16, 1991, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm when the United States attacked Iraq in the first Gulf War. Clearly I felt the need to mark the occasion on my EarthWorks daily recycling tips calendar.

I really disliked high school; always feeling like an outsider. But I found my niche on the student newspaper staff. I was so excited to be “hired” as a reporter for my high school’s Serrandipity newspaper. This is when my love of journalism and writing really took off.

I’m not sure why student journalists needed a press pass as I don’t recall many “privileges of the scholastic press.” But I was so thrilled to have one, and these were the first of the many press passes I’ve had over the years.

In the fall of 1992, I was a senior in high school and the nation was consumed with a presidential election unlike any before. This was the year that featured an established sitting president (George H.W. Bush), a rogue third-party candidate (H. Ross Perot), and a young Baby Boomer named Bill Clinton. I volunteered for the Clinton campaign and must have switched to Perot at some point, since I found both campaign buttons in my scrapbook.

I’m trying to encourage Sophie to keep a scrapbook of her special mementos. I think it’s harder now, in today’s digital age, to think you’ll never have access to memories. But I’ve learned so much about myself looking through these scrapbooks. So I hope Sophie takes my advice and looks through her collections of memories 30 years later.

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