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Fresh, healthy, home-cooked meals don't just happen. They take time. Frozen meals or takeout are an option, but for those who like to cook, there's a genius solution: mail-order meal kits that for $10-plus per meal, deliver recipes and ingredients straight...

Taste-Off: The best (and worst) meal kits, including two from Dominique Crenn and Martha Stewart

Fresh, healthy, home-cooked meals don't just happen. They take time. Frozen meals or takeout are an option, but for those who like to cook, there's a genius solution: mail-order meal kits that for $10-plus per meal, deliver recipes and ingredients straight...

Taste-Off: The best (and worst) meal kits, including two from Dominique Crenn and Martha Stewart

Fresh, healthy, home-cooked meals don't just happen. They take time. Frozen meals or takeout are an option, but for those who like to cook, there's a genius solution: mail-order meal kits that for $10-plus per meal, deliver recipes and ingredients straight to your door.

A few years ago, meal kits were a startup industry. Today, it's a billion-dollar business, with millions of meal kits delivered to homes all over the country by a multitude of companies -- and more on the way. Amazon will launch its service soon, as will a San Francisco startup that plans to slice the price to $5 per meal. And the competition is raising the quality bar.

Navigating the options requires serious attention. Meal options and service terms vary wildly. Some companies are subscription services, requiring a weekly commitment of 2 to 3 meals. Most allow a week off with notice, and a week to cancel entirely. Others are simple "buy what you want, when you want" agreements.

The best services offer fresh ingredients, accurate recipes and lots of choices. They also introduce great cooking techniques and finishes such as fresh herbs and limes that maximize flavor in short order. On the flip side, plenty of these meal kits are poorly put-together, resulting in odd or partial meals, or recipes that simply don't work.

We cooked and tasted our way through six of the most high-profile, high-quality kits available in the Bay Area, evaluating them on service, preparation ease, ingredient freshness and flavor and overall appeal. Here's the scoop.

CHEF'D

This kit's intermingling of spices and herbs, tender chicken, nutty basmati rice and toasty naan produced an inspired meal that was worth a repeat. The dish even included a bit of raita as a palate cleanser. Decorticated -- podless -- coriander added an amazing flavor hit. A second meal of miso salmon atop rich coconut rice pushed this kit to the top.

How it works: No subscription here; meals arrive within two days of ordering. Recipes come from a wide range of sources, including well-known chefs, such as Dominique Crenn, who owns San Francisco's Atelier Crenn, which holds two Michelin stars.

Price: Prices range from $6 for soup to $25 for steak and prawns; family meals available

Rating: 4 stars

MARTHA & MARLEY SPOON

Bold flavors and fun recipes, courtesy of Martha Stewart, make up for a mere seven meal choices each week. Cheese-stuffed portobellos with a side of grain made for a fresh, filling vegetarian meal. A creative take on burgers -- pork flavored with curry -- topped with raita was also impressive. Servings are generous enough to allow for leftovers.

How it works: Subscription service -- choose four meals per week and pick a delivery date for the box, with the right to cancel five days before delivery.

Price: $8.70-$12 per meal

Rating: 3 ½ stars

HOME CHEF

This kit produced a plate of creamy grits, topped with extra-tender, Cajun spice-rubbed chicken and a mix of mushrooms and tomatoes. It was a standout meal. But a plate of bahn mi lettuce wraps lacked flavor, due to a too-thin sauce that ran all over the plate. Recipe-glitch aside, this company gets high marks for its great ideas, fresh vegetables, top-quality proteins and concise recipe details.

How it works: Subscription service with the option to cancel or pause with a week's notice. About 10 meal choices plus breakfast and smoothies.

Price: $9.95 per meal; $4.95 for breakfast.

Rating: 3 stars

HELLOFRESH

Fresh dill-infused sauce drizzled atop roasted potatoes, sauteed chicken and green beans made for a hearty, uncomplicated meal. A follow-up meal of strip steak, feta and roasted nectarines on arugula made for an inspired, if light dinner. The proteins in these kits are not top-quality, but ingredients are especially well packaged. Recipe cards have errors -- calling chopped herbs in oil "pesto," for example, is misleading -- but the recipes themselves are uncomplicated and designed for those who prefer simple, rather than exotic flavors.

How it works: Subscription service with the option to pause or cancel with about 10 days notice

Price: $11.50 per meal for a classic, non-vegetarian box

Rating: 2 ½ stars

BLUE APRON

This company sells everything from meals and wine to kitchen tools. You make dietary choices, then they "curate" the actual meal selections, so you can't choose, for example a pork dinner plus two vegetarian meals. The absence of individual packaging or labeling for multiple recipes is problematic, especially when there are both missing and duplicate ingredients, and recipe instructions are difficult to follow. A fennel-green bean curry went awry, due to the absence of fennel and cilantro, and unbalanced, untoasted spices. Recipe issues turned a summer squash quesadilla into an oily mess.

How it works: Subscription service with the option to pause and cancel with advance notice of a week or more.

Pricing: $9.99 per meal.

Rating: 1 ½ stars

TERRA'S KITCHEN

Ingredients arrive pre-chopped and clearly labeled, making a juicy steak served atop cumin-roasted red potatoes, or turkey meatballs in tomato sauce especially simple to prepare. Multiple weekly meal options cater to all palates, but it's worth noting that meal sizes are noticeably small: Two out of three recipes were enjoyable, but begged for a side dish to round out the meal. Kudos to the company for its sustainable packaging option -- meal ingredients arrive in a reusable cooler that can be returned a day later.

How it works: Subscription service; skipping a week requires an astonishing 4 weeks advance notice

Price: $9.99 for a bacon, kale and caramelized onion pasta to $17.99 for grilled steak with corn and radish salad

Rating: 1 ½ stars

Reviews are based on product samples purchased by this newspaper or provided by manufacturers. Contact Jolene Thym at timespickyeater@gmail.com. Read more Taste-off columns at www.mercurynews.com/taste-off.

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.

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