Top Chef Meals: How to Choose the Best Meal Delivery Service
How to Choose the Best Meal Delivery Service

How to Choose the Best Meal Delivery Service

Forget the teaser prices and slick marketing pictures, you want a company with the food quality, ethics, culture, delivery methodology and costs that suits your needs.

Food Quality:  Slick Marketing vs Realistic Food Pictures

If you're thinking about signing up for a meal delivery program, where's the first place you'll look? Online of course.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of food portrayed online is either shot by professional photographers with food stylists placing every inch of the food into a proper position to make it look its' best. Or more likely the food pictures are often not even of the meals offered on the program, and instead are just stock photography downloaded from around the web or from photo brokers who have shot stock photography for use by any number of clients.  This latter type is easy to spot by simply right clicking on the image and clicking "Search Google for Image".  Some of the most marketed meal programs in the New York area and around the country fall into this latter group. Unfortunately, most often buyers get duped into believing that this wonderful photography is of the actual food they will receive and instead it isn't unrepresentative of the food they receive.  In order to find the food quality that is actually representative of what you will get, look for companies that have many actual "real" pictures, that aren't over "stylized", of their food on their website.

Company Ethics:  Commitment vs Quality 

Many of the slick marketed programs rely on automatic plan renewals or contracts in order to lock you into purchases before you begin to figure out that what you purchased isn't necessarily exactly what you bargained for.  Even worse most often you have no idea who is actually making your food and what the quality is or is not.  Yet almost all of these programs ask you to commit to these automatic renewals or automatic charging of your credit card on the day you sign up, based on their slick marketing and stylized food photos on their websites.  They "tease" you into signing up with first order discounts that aren't anywhere representative of your actual week to week costs. 

Ask yourself would you walk into a restaurant and based on the pictures in their menu with a coupon in hand sign up for a month worth of food?  Probably not. So why let yourself get committed to a company that no longer has an incentive to earn your trust on every delivery.  Instead, look for a company that sells you meals order to order.  That way you are never at any financial risk and that company has to prove they want to earn your business with every meal they send you.

Company Culture: Customer Service vs Customer Experience

On one end of the spectrum you have those company's who focus simply on responding to customer complaints and the true role of the customer "service" departments is actually to drive plan renewals.  Most of these companies try to satisfy your customer service issues by selling you more plan days at a discount. Companies that do this are just playing a ruse to satisfy your issue with promises of the future commitment.  It is not unheard of for these companies to rack up months of liability to consumers, and then guess what, when they close up shop you are out of luck.  It happened last year to Chefs Diet customers, and it just recently happened again to all of Fresh Diet customers.

These companies are easy to spot; since there is no real information on their website about who runs the company, no background, and no idea of who is responsible for preparing your food. This is often driven by the fact, that many of the most well know names on the internet do not even produce the meals themselves, but instead contract them out to other "co-packing" kitchens, that produce the meals for them.  Some well known company with slick websites that make it look like they make their own food, but in fact do not include:  Dinewise, Home Bistro, WebMD, and many others.   

On the other end of the spectrum you have honest compassionate companies with a real passion for the food, who employ their own chefs and make everything in house.  These companies all have websites that tell you exactly by name who is responsible for your food.  Their customer service departments always answer the phone or at the very least, like a doctor, employ an answering service to take your call and forward it to someone during normal business hours. They have an innate culture of making the customer happy.  They take responsibilities for their mess-ups and they will go to great length to make you happy.  Obviously, this is the type of company you should seek out.

Delivery Methodology:  Frequency vs Quality vs Cost

Let's be honest, there is NO meal delivery service that can give you that same straight out of the oven restaurant experience.  Whether it be the plating, the service or ultimate fresh cooked taste that a chef can create and deliver moments after it is cooked and placed in front of you by that attentive waiter.  So every delivery service must make trade-off between the packaging costs, delivery frequency costs, and food quality and ingredient selections, in order to bring you an affordable meal service.

The largest and now mostly defunct services such as Fresh Diet and Chefs Diet, used to offer daily delivery of one meal each day.  They are defunct because the actual costs to deliver a perishable product is perhaps the largest cost driver that affects the price you pay for the service, and is the predominant reason why both of these services, as well as many others have fallen into financial ruin.  

Change the delivery service to every other day and that fixed cost is cut in half, and deliver once a week and that cost now approaches less than 20% of a daily delivery service.  Since Amazon introduced free delivery our society has come to expect all delivery to be free or nearly so, but the costs associated with delivering products are still present and ever increasing as employee wages climb.  The affordability of meal delivery service is driven by these costs and yet our society no longer realizes that the cost of delivering perishable product at a specific time translates directly into the price you pay for a service ever since Amazon introduced free delivery.

So in order to make the service affordable most of the higher priced daily meal services were forced to cut food quality in order to still make a profit as food costs have continued to rise over the last 5 years.  Customers of course noticed this drop in quality and of course abandoned many of these daily services in search of something better.  Conversely services with a reduced delivery frequency of either every other day or once every 3 days, need to make other food selection concessions in order to try to provide fresh quality meals to clients.  

While those vendors who provide the least frequent delivery (once per week) and freeze their meals in order to ensure the highest quality product with no spoilage.  What many customers do not realize is that these vendors typically produce the best quality meals and that their customers simply need to overcome the stigma of frozen food that has been so tarnished by the historically poor quality of supermarket faire.

Price Value:  Chef Talent and Ingredient Quality

Every time we shop to eat, we are either consciously or subconsciously, "valuing" the relationship between the quality of the ingredients and the amount of "talent" that is used to create the item we purchase.  When we shop for raw ingredients in a supermarket we often know that the "talent" will be our own. 

However, in our time strapped lives we place a value on the time it takes to shop, prepare and clean up after a meal.  We often opt for some level of already prepared food either from the supermarket itself or by choosing to go out to a restaurant or a fast food establishment which we select based on the cost and perceived value of the quality of the food, and the quality of the person preparing it for us.  We choose restaurants based on their prices which are a reflection on the chef's talent or the quality of the ingredients they use or most often both.

When it comes to meal delivery services it is often difficult or even impossible to truly evaluate either the actual quality of the food or the quality of the ingredients used, because of all the slick marketing that is used to try to entice you into signing up for a meal plan or make a purchase.  Even worse there are so many meal plans out there that promise you that they use a particular quality level of ingredient, source from local farms, or promise you that a chef made your food, when nothing could be further from the truth.  And with no one "policing" these claims it is often difficult for you to tell who is telling the truth and who is not.  This is another reason that most of the "meal plan" companies do not show you actual pictures of their meals because as we say a picture is worth a 1000 words and these companies do not want you to be able to evaluate their quality before they have had a chance to lock you in.

Selecting the "Right" Company for Your Needs: 

So how do you navigate this minefield of miss information, wide varieties of company ethics, honesty, culture and level of chef talent and quality of ingredients to select the best service of your needs?

First off you need to determine the value you place on a meal delivery service versus the time, effort, and skill needed to shop, cook and clean up a meal.   Keep in mind that the cost for the raw ingredients for most meals that you prepare for yourself at home typically costs $3.00 - $6.00 per person at the supermarket. Of course quality of the ingredient plays the largest cost factor.  Obviously a porterhouse steak that typically costs upwards of $10.00 per pound is significantly more expensive that london broil at $3.50 a pound.   

The problem for most consumers is that often they do not realize the true "finished" costs of preparing a meal for their family because they are unfamiliar with food loss as it relates to putting a finished meal on the table.  As an example, brisket that is typically priced at say $6.99 a pound at the supermarket typically looses more than half its weight in cooking making its' real per pound finished cost over $14.00 per pound.  The fact that we as consumers often throw out as much as 40% of what we purchase from the supermarket in form of waste from spoilage and keeping items beyond their useful life makes it even more important for you to determine the "value" you place on prepared meals.

Then, once you decide how much you are willing to spend per meal (of course depending on the meal) try to find a company that has the following attributes:

  1. Their website, Facebook, or Instagram has numerous "honest" realistic pictures of their meals.
  2. Make sure there is NO contract, automatic renewals, automatic charging of your credit card.
  3. Makes sure you are NOT required to cancel a program before meals are automatically shipped to you.
  4. Make sure their customer service and not just "sales" actually answers the phone.
  5. You can find information on their website as to who owns the company and who is making your food.  NO company doing this type of service should ever hide behind a nameless website. Someone you can name should be accountable for making your meals.
  6. Specifically ask if they make every meal themselves at their own kitchen, and just where that kitchen is located.  
  7. Find out how they deliver the meals to you and how they are going to ensure your meals stay cold enough (below 40 degrees the whole time) to make them safe to eat.  
  8. If they make ingredient "quality" claims ask who they purchase their raw ingredients from.
  9. Finally, read the online customer reviews from an independent organization (like Trustpilot) that ensures reviews are from actual customers and not one of these fluff services that stuff glowing reviews about companies they haven't even sampled.    

This White Paper is Written By:  Paul Ghiron

Who is Paul Ghiron:  Paul is the President of The Crystal Spoon Corp a Regional Co-packer for the prepared meal industry.  Having under contract produced meals for Chef's Diet, Fresh Meal Plan, Indie Fresh and a host of other diet meal plan companies he has a true insider knowledge of all the pitfalls of ordering from these companies.  Fed up with the industries deceptive practices he started Top Chef Meals to give consumers a way to get the same meal quality at roughly half the cost and without commitments whatsoever.