Gousto, Hello Fresh or Cookaway: which is the best meal kit?

Here’s one they made earlier: the Standard’s features team get ready to cook (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Here’s one they made earlier: the Standard’s features team get ready to cook (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

What was once culturally sacrosanct — sitting down for a freshly cooked meal each evening — today often feels fanciful. Surely only those in a world of make-believe have time to be pressing garlic and dicing shallots every night? And who has the wherewithal, let alone the patience or time, to dream up dishes after a commute?

Hence, perhaps, the continued boom in meal kits, where ingredients are delivered already portioned and with instructions to turn them into a supper.The benefits are obvious: no weekly shop, no frustrated pondering over what to eat, and, with supermarket prices seeming to endlessly rise, a more accurate way to budget food costs.

For those to whom cooking does not come naturally, they’re also an excellent starting point for learning the essentials. Given these boxes usually list the calorie count per portion, as well as other nutritional value, they can also be handy for those looking to change their diet.

But do they work, and what are the results? Here, the ES Features team test six of the biggest names to see how they compare.

David Ellis, Green Chef

 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

I was not a meal-kit sceptic, exactly —I simply couldn’t fathom the point. Who needs every ingredient childishly measured out, every step taken care of? But then, my kitchen shelves creak with unopened cookbooks; I prefer putting together meals by instinct (it helps that I learnt the basics of cooking — the timings, really —  as a teenager). I’m no great shakes at cheffing, but I never stare helplessly into my fridge.

As such, I looked at the neatly put-together package from the Green Chef rather mournfully. Has it come to this? That I need a hand putting together a ginger cauliflower and cashew curry? Endless packets littered my counter worktop — do people really have to have vegetable stock metered out for them? The Green Chef do not, let’s say, overestimate their audience: this is the “explain it to me like I’m five” of recipe writing, with pictures. Only the obstinate could get it wrong.

What surprised me is that I loved it. I liked knowing what the dish offered, health-wise — four out of my five-a-day, it turns out. It took the advertised 25 minutes to make, and looked a twin of the picture, both of which felt minor miracles.

Cooking, for me, means creativity, a bit of a challenge. This took me back to a childhood of making Meccano sets. But there is something peaceful, meditative, about following instructions like this, about every ingredient arriving ready and waiting. It helps that the curry was a cracker. I still don’t entirely see the point, but for a tired mind, it was close to a joy to do, and better than succumbing to a takeaway (much cheaper, too, with an average serving mostly coming in at £4 to £8).

When I can’t be bothered in the kitchen, I tend to call on Charlie Bigham. It’s not a regular thing. But if it were — if I had things keeping me from pottering about at the stove (children, for instance) — I’d likely subscribe in an instant.

From £3.51 per serving (based on five recipes a week for two people), delivery £4.99,

Anna van Praagh, Cookaway’s Malaysian night market experience

This kit included ingredients for prawn fritters, prawn and pork dumplings, spicy chicken wings and prawn noodles, so a real takeaway-style treat.

It isn’t cheap and I didn’t make the fritters because after 45 minutes of cooking and a hungry family to feed I ran out of time. But the instructions were clear and I felt I was expanding my repertoire.

Would I order it again? Possibly. It’s a lot of work and, given the price, would it be easier just to order said takeaway?

From £16 per person for two courses (based on a box costing £48 for 2-3), free delivery,

Harriet Addison, Riverford Organic

 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

I always thought the point of a meal kit was to make the cooking process fast, efficient and easy. This was… not that. My celeriac, kale, ginger and turmeric curry was delicious, hearty and packed with nutrients. And what quality of veg! But it felt long and laborious.

To be fair, Riverford is honest about timings — the recipes vary from 20 minutes (smoky pasta puttanesca) to 70 minutes (Italian pesto pie). But this didn’t need to take as long as it did. Unlike some of the others, where the meat and veg have already been chopped, there was a lot of prep — fresh turmeric (you need rubber gloves to avoid finger stains), celeriac, kale which needed to be washed and stripped ... No wonder it took me nearly an hour.

And from an environmental perspective, I was disappointed by the volume of tiny containers, too. They are apparently compostable, but my council refused to take them. Why not paper sachets, which are more easily recycled?

From £14.75 for two, free delivery weekly depending on area,

Alexandra Jones, Gousto

 (Alexandra Jones)
(Alexandra Jones)

When I lived by myself I mostly dined on raw ingredients — tomatoes, mushrooms, crackers, bits of cheese etc. Why be reductive and call it “girl dinner” when it was just an incredibly nutritious way to eat? Nowadays my boyfriend insists on eating cooked food — and that it shouldn’t always be him doing the cooking.

Founded in 2013, Gousto is one of the original meal-kit companies. What I liked about the recipe — satay sweet potato and kale curry — was that it took just 25 minutes and still came out rich, warming and moreish. The ingredients were clearly marked and the recipe idiot-proof. This was the best of the four plant-based meals in the box; the others didn’t seem to be great value for money.

From £4.50 per portion (based on a box of four meals for two people), free delivery,

Martin Robinson, Hello Fresh

 (Daniel Hambury Stella Pictures)
(Daniel Hambury Stella Pictures)

I might well be the wrong participant for this challenge. Firstly, I’m a food-box sceptic — it’s like takeaway, except I have to do all the work, or those restaurants where you have to cook your own meat at the table. The other issue is that I can’t cook. So these type of kits are all well and good, but the difficulty is it leaves gaps for human error. The problem with it is me.

Hello Fresh’s recipes looked lovely on the easy-to-follow instructions: a Cajun sea bass with herby mash, garlicky green beans and tenderstem broccoli. But I was distracted by house matters (OK, my phone) while cooking and a certain “I know how to make mash” arrogance. I didn’t boil the potatoes for long enough, and left the fish under the grill too long. I had to eat an overcooked and undercooked meal.

The other problem was my children. So while the creamy rigatoni with garlicky greens and crème fraîche I made them was tasty, they wouldn’t touch it because it had green bits on.

I’m sure this is great for single people who need to get off the takeaway treadmill to avoid an early death. But for incompetents and parents, it’s too much of a risk for the money.

From £4.99 per portion (based on three recipes a week for two people), delivery £4.99,