Can the Internet Really Supply You With Healthy Meals?

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You’ve probably heard about one or more of the new meal delivery services on the market. Popular services include Blue Apron, Plated and Hello Fresh. If you’re not familiar with any meal delivery service providers, check out this in-depth review of the various choices currently available.

There’s no question having pre-portioned ingredients with recipes and directions delivered directly to your door is convenient. However, convenience comes with a price. Most of the meals cost between $9 and $13 per serving.

So, do these meals live up to the hype? Can the internet really supply you with healthy meals?

What is a “Healthy” Meal?

To review and compare the available options for getting healthy meals online, we’re going to use the following criteria (which are fit for the vast majority of healthy people). A healthy meal is one that:

  • Includes a lean protein, a high ratio of fruits and/or veggies, a whole grain, a serving of dairy and a healthy fat
  • Doesn’t include excess fat or added sugar
  • Is between 500 and 700 calories per serving (very active individuals and athletes may need more calories per meal)

Comparison

Blue Apron – Meal #1: Spaghetti Bolognese with Butter Lettuce Salad & Creamy Italian Dressing

Lean protein: No
Fruits and vegetables: Yes
Whole grain: No
Dairy: Yes
Healthy fat: Yes
Added sugar: No
Calories per serving: 770
Saturated fat: 11 g
Trans fat: No

Blue Apron – Meal #2: Za’atar-Spiced Chicken with Pink Lemon Pan Sauce & Pearl Couscous

Lean protein: Yes
Fruits and vegetables: Minimal
Whole grain: No
Dairy: No
Healthy fat: Yes
Added sugar: No
Calories per serving: 750
Saturated fat: 9 g
Trans fat: No

The Results
Both of the meals from Blue Apron come in over the 700 calories per serving mark, though both are less than 800 calories. If you are eating a 2,000 calorie diet, though, that’s still almost 40 percent of your calories in one meal. These meals are also relatively high in saturated fats, clocking in at 11 g and 9 g per serving, which is more than half of the recommended allowance of 16 g per day on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Blue Apron includes video tutorials with each of their recipes to demonstrate proper cooking techniques. All of the video lessons are available on YouTube. If you have trouble accessing any of the videos, you might be getting blocked by a content filter on your internet connection. Using a virtual private network can help you bypass the content filter so that you can access the videos no matter where you’re preparing to cook.

Hello Fresh – Meal #1: Wasabi Lime Salmon over Soy-Simmered Rice with Baby Bok Choy

Lean protein: Yes
Fruits and vegetables: Yes
Whole grain: Yes
Dairy: No
Healthy fat: Yes
Added sugar: No
Calories per serving: 660
Saturated fat: 4.5 g
Trans fat: unknown

Hello Fresh – Meal #2: Dukkah-Crusted Chicken with Sweet Potatoes and Sugar Snap Peas

Lean protein: Yes
Fruits and vegetables: Yes
Whole grain: No
Dairy: Yes
Healthy fat: Yes
Added sugar: No
Calories per serving: 510
Saturated fat: 4 g
Trans fat: unknown

The Results
In this review, Hello Fresh’s offerings both came in under 700 calories per serving and all of the meal options included a lean protein, a serving of vegetables and a healthy fat. Hello Fresh does not document the amount of trans fat in their recipes, so that information was not available for comparison. Also, at less than five grams per serving, both of their recipes also included a relatively low amount of saturated fat, at less than 5 grams per serving. If you want to try Hello Fresh’s recipes for yourself – they include them on their website (see Recipes at the top of the navigation screen).

Plated – Meal #1: Soy-Glazed Turkey Meatloaf with Coconut Rice and Greens

Lean protein: Yes
Fruits and vegetables: Minimal
Whole grain: No
Dairy: No
Healthy fat: Yes
Added sugar: Yes
Calories per serving: 840
Saturated fat: unknown
Trans fat: unknown

Plated – Meal #2: Cheesy Sweet Onion Panini with Truffle Fries

Lean protein: No
Fruits and vegetables: Minimal
Whole grain: No
Dairy: Yes
Healthy fat: Yes
Added sugar: No
Calories per serving: 870
Saturated fat: unknown
Trans fat: unknown

The Results
Of the three services we reviewed, Plated fared the worst. Their meals were both over 800 calories per serving, and the site doesn’t offer information regarding trans or saturated fats for their recipes. Also, there was very little focus on healthy ingredients, such as whole grains and vegetables. While the meals looked delicious, they probably can’t be called healthy.

In this limited review, Blue Apron and Hello Fresh both fared well in their offerings of healthy options. Their meals were low in calories, relative to the other options, and included many of the other markers of health, such as lean proteins and a high ratio of vegetables.

Meal delivery services claim they can deliver all the ingredients, recipes and cooking instructions you need to create healthy meals in your home. A closer look, though, indicates you might need to supplement some of these meals with other ingredients so that they can give you all the nutrients you need.

This is where you come in. Everyone has a different diet and everyone’s body processes food differently. So while healthy meals are available through the internet, you need to do a little homework to make sure these services’ meal options live up to their promises and offer the kind of food that will support your lifestyle.
About the Author: Cassie is a fitness professional and writer. She loves helping people learn about health and fitness and teaching them how to make the healthiest choices for their body’s individual needs.

Meal Planning Made Easy

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salmon with veggies

If you don’t have the luxury of eating in a cafeteria with a variety of options each day, it makes sense to plan your meals ahead of time. Doing so will save you time and money. If saving money doesn’t entice you, consider this: eating at home can help you lose weight. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found the average meal at 360 restaurant dinner meals examined contained 1,200 calories. If you choose to dine at an American, Italian or Chinese restaurant, that meal may cost you a whopping 1,495 calories. Don’t worry, I have no intention of having you replicate the instagram photos from fitness buffs who eat perfectly portioned bland-looking chicken, broccoli and brown rice twice a day, every day. Instead, I am an advocate for taste, variety, and better nutrition. Here are the 4 steps you should take to start planning better-for-you meals ahead of time:

1 – Take Inventory

Go through your cabinets, refrigerator and freezer at least once per month and throw out anything that is past it’s expiration date, freezer burned, molded, and stale or smells bad (smell your cooking oil too and if it doesn’t smell normal, toss it). Half-eaten anything that is more than a day old? Trash. This is also a great time to take inventory of what you have on hand.

2 – Stock Your Kitchen

After taking inventory, decide what you need (sticking to your grocery list will save you from impulse buys you don’t need after looking at your grocery store circular). Essential foods include shelf stable, refrigerator and frozen foods. I like the option of preparing a meal in 5 minutes or less. Frozen and canned items allow me to do this.

Shelf Stable:

  • Beans, lentils and legumes (tip: some lentils can be soaked for just 40 minutes and added to a wide variety of dishes from salads to spouse, stews and grain-based dishes)
  • Bread
  • Canned vegetables, beans, fish and chicken
  • Condiments including chicken, beef or vegetable broth, mustard, hot sauce and any other commonly used condiments
  • Cooking oil – get good quality cooking oil. Pay more for a brand you trust. Olive oil is the most adulterated food on the market so you do get what you pay for.
  • Nutrition bars
  • Nuts, nut butters and seeds (all can be refrigerated; opened nut butters should be refrigerated)
  • Popcorn, whole grain snacks
  • Protein powder
  • Rice, pasta, whole grains, cereals and other similar foods. Grab a few options that you can make in a just a few minutes including couscous. Also, vary your rice, pasta and whole grains – look for black, red or purple rice, bean pastas and more.
  • Soups (boxed, bagged or in cans)
  • Spices & seasonings (including salt and pepper). If you don’t use these regularly get dried spices or refrigerated spices in squeezable tubes.
  • Ziploc bags – these will come in very handy if you travel (always pack food and supplements to go)!

Fresh:

  • Dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
  • Eggs (consider egg substitutes for their shelf life)
  • Fresh vegetables and fruits
  • Fish, poultry, meat

Frozen:

  • Fish, poultry, meat
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables

3 – Menu Planning

There are a number of ways you can approach menu planning but one of the easiest ways is to center your meals around the protein rich foods you plan on eating. So for instance, if you choose chicken, lean ground beef and fish, you can center 7 meals on those three proteins. Or, if your week is hectic and you are very busy, you can plan meals around protein-rich foods that take just minutes to prepare such as canned tuna, eggs and rotisserie chicken.

After you pick your protein rich foods, decide on recipes or quick prep meals. You might want to do this by determining what perishable foods you have on hand and need to use. So, let’s say you have mushrooms in the refrigerator and chicken defrosting. If you don’t feel like eating chicken Marsala but you aren’t sure what else you can make with a little flavor, type these words in Google to get other meal ideas “chicken, mushrooms, recipe, quick, easy.” (Also check out Cookinglight.com’s “5 Ingredient Cookbook, Fresh Food Fast”)

After determining which meals you are eating each day of the week, write a shopping list by figuring out any extras you may need to buy and what staple foods you are out of. Be flexible with your list depending on the season and sale prices. Shopping in season often means you will not only get the best looking produce but you will save money too. So for instance, if your recipe calls for sweet potatoes but butternut squash is a steal – go for the squash.  When you make your shopping list, you can do it on an app, in the notes section on your phone, or the old fashioned way with pen and paper. I make mine in the order of the grocery store I am shopping in so I can cross items off one by one without having to scan the entire list to make sure I’m not forgetting something before I move onto the next section of the store.

If the weekly circular tempts you with sugary cereals, cookies and candies on sale, don’t pick it up. You won’t miss out on a bargain because you’ll figure out which healthy foods are on sale when you look for the items on your list – all stores flag these items for you.

Quick sample meal ideas:

  • Rotisserie chicken, 10 minute brown rice (or thawed and microwave brown rice from your freezer), frozen veggies
  • Rotisserie chicken wraps with hummus (spread the hummus on first) and any crunch veggies you desire (shopped carrots, cucumbers etc.)
  • Whole-wheat pasta, spaghetti sauce and frozen turkey meatballs with added veggies such as cooked (or steamed) mushrooms, squash, zucchini
  • Whole wheat pasta, canned tuna, light cream of mushroom soup (either made into a casserole and baked along with frozen peas, ½ cup milk and chopped onions at 400ºF for 20 minutes or you can heat up the soup and mix the ingredients together and eat it.
  • Canned tuna, light mayo, chopped celery and onions for a tuna sandwich.
  • Grilled salmon drizzled with lemon, asparagus and a sweet potato.

4 – Storing and Packing

You can freeze almost any food and reheat it easily. Even brown rice – just cook it, let it cool completely and portion it into zip-loc bags (make sure no air is in the bag) for later. Two important things to remember when freezing foods – freeze them in airtight containers and label them so you know what you made and when it was frozen. The longer you leave food in the freezer the greater the likelihood of texture and taste changes over time (sometimes resulting in freezer burn). Foods that freeze well include:

  • Breads
  • Canned foods (once out of the can of course)
  • Casseroles (keep in mind that mayonnaise and other cream sauces do not freeze well)
  • Egg whites (raw)
  • Grains, cooked
  • Granola (homemade or store bought)
  • Herbs, fresh
  • Nuts, seeds (these should not be kept opened on shelves for long periods of time as they can go rancid)
  • Cheese – some types freeze better than others
  • Fish, poultry, meat (raw meat and poultry freezes better than cooked meat and poultry because of moisture lost during cooking).
  • Fruit, though this must be completely dry and frozen in portions (unless you want it stuck together in big clumps). The texture may change so fresh fruit that is frozen may be best used when blended in shakes.
  • Sauces
  • Soups, stews, stock
  • Yogurt – if you want to eat it frozen. If it defrosts the consistency isn’t so great.

Thaw food in the refrigerator, a microwave or immersed in cold water only (in a leak proof plastic bag submerged in the water that should be changed every 30 minutes), not out on countertops or in kitchen sinks.

Recommended Freezer Storage Time (for quality only, frozen food is safe indefinitely if left frozen).

Food Months
Bacon and Sausage 1 – 2
Casseroles 2 – 3
Egg whites or egg substitutes 12
Frozen dinners 3 – 4
Ham, hotdogs, lunchmeats 1 – 2
Meat, uncooked roasts 4 – 12
Meat, uncooked steaks or chops 4 – 12
Meat, uncooked ground 3 – 4
Meat, cooked 2 – 3
Poultry, uncooked whole 12
Poultry, uncooked parts 9
Poultry, cooked 4
Soups and stews 2 – 3
Wild game, uncooked 8 – 12

See, that wasn’t so tough! Get started planning, preparing and cooking right away. If there are a limited number of dishes you feel comfortable cooking, check out quick and easy cookbooks or resources on line. Each time you try a new recipe you’ll expand your horizons and taste buds and also be able to prepare a wider variety of meals on the fly in the future.

References
USDA. Freezing and Food Safety. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/focus_on_freezing/