Meal delivery services have become a popular approach to weight loss, but which meal delivery service is the best one for you?
Which of the meal delivery services best suit your individual needs and budget depend on a number of factors. The five most important factors to consider are:
3) Delivery frequency and availability
4) Quality and quantity of the food
5) Flexibility of the program
I put the cost of the program first, because if you can't afford to pay for it, the rest of it doesn't really matter. Meal delivery programs can be very expensive when compared to other weight loss options, so it is very important to evaluate the cost of the program
against your budget and what you are currently spending on food before choosing a program. Many programs have a minimum number of weeks you have to pay for before you can cancel, so you definitely don't want to get in over your head in terms of budget.
The first thing you should do is figure out how much money you are currently spending on food. If you already eat a lot of take out or pre-made boxed meals or ready-to-go foods, then many of the meal delivery programs may be comparable in price to what you are already spending or even in some cases cheaper.
However, even the cheapest plans will generally cost more per meal than a thoughtfully planned, budget conscious, home cooked menu, so evaluating the benefits of a meal delivery program versus the added cost is an important first step.
Once you have done that homework, set yourself a budget range that goes from your optimal food budget to your maximum food budget. For example: I'd like to spend between $125 - $200 per week on food.
The next step is to visit the web sites or call up the various services you are considering and determine the cost of the program. Most programs are billed on either a monthly, weekly or bi-weekly basis and some offer discount rates if you will commit to longer purchase periods.
The important things to consider are:
1) How many meals per week you are getting?
2) Does the plan provide everything you will need to eat, or will you have to supplement it with food from the grocery store? For instance, some plans provide your three squares but expect you to buy your own snacks or may simply offer fewer calories than you need.
3) How much are the shipping charges - shipping charges can add an extra $25 - $45 or so per delivery, so make sure you include that in
your cost per meal calculation.
4) Discounts or special promotions - many plans will offer free meals or free shipping as incentives to try their program. Most of these promotions are temporary, but they can reduce your cost and certain times of the year, such as Black Friday and sometimes New
Years promotions, you can obtain particularly attractive discounts like free shipping for life.
Taking all of that information into account, I suggest you calculate the following:
1) Estimated cost of any grocery foods you will need to purchase
2) Total cost per week (cost of the meal delivery food + cost of any other food you will purchase)
3) Average cost per meal
Yummy Foods Inc provides 21 meals per week at a cost of $120 + $25 shipping. I will need to purchase 14 servings of snacks at an estimated cost of $20 per week from the grocery.
My total weekly cost is $120 + $25 + $20 = $165
My per meal cost is $165/35 (3 meals & 2 snacks per day for seven days) = $4.74/meal.
The total weekly cost is the easiest figure to use when determining if the cost falls into your budget range, while the per meal cost can be useful when comparing meal plans that offer different numbers of meals and also for comparing options some plans offer, such as 5 days per week versus 7 or 3 meals plus snacks or just 3 meals and you buy your own snacks.
Effectiveness is probably going to be the most difficult factor to get a concrete answer on. I always start by looking for reviews and success stories. Most programs will have some sort of testimonials on their page and even sometimes endorsements from celebrities,
doctors or talk show hosts, etc. I always take these kinds of reviews with a large grain of salt, because there is no way of knowing how the comments may have been edited or whether the celebrity endorser has a financial stake in recommending the product.
One of the best places to try and gain less biased information are weight loss forums and blogs. You still have to be leery of financial interest, particularly if they seem to be trying to sell the product to you, but websites with forums such as livestrong.com
or 3fatchicks.com can be great resources to find out what kind of success other people have had with various meal delivery programs.
I would also recommend you use your favorite search engine to look for reviews written by "experts." There generally isn't really a whole lot of extensive research, but you can find some information at least on how nutritionally sound the gurus consider one plan or
another and how much they think it would work, if not actual data on the subject.
Delivery frequency and availability:
Some meal delivery plans are available nationwide, while others are available only in a limited area that might be as small as a specific part of a specific city to as large as several states. Some plans have different options available in different areas. You
might be able to get fresh, never frozen food in one part of the country, but only frozen foods in other areas.
Most meal delivery plans ship flash frozen and shelf stable foods packed in a cooler with dry ice, which means you need to be able to retrieve the package and get the food into your freezer before it thaws out and spoils. A few programs deliver fresh, unfrozen foods and these obviously are the most critical to make sure you get them put away in a timely fashion.
Depending on your schedule and storage space, you might prefer a plan that delivers a big package once a month, over one that delivers smaller amounts every week. A few programs, such as Nutrisystem, offer packages that include only shelf stable foods, so worrying
about food spoiling before you can put it away is less of an issue, though there can still be issues with food getting wet or melting in certain weather.
Quality of the Food:
I have tried several different meal delivery plans and they are definitely not all equal in terms of the quality of the food. Some plans offer "gourmet" foods that many users find to be comparable to dining out in a nice restaurant.
Others offer foods comparable in taste and quality to the frozen "diet" meals in your grocery, such as Lean Cuisine or Healthy Choice. Some plans offer food that users tend to describe as tolerable, meaning they can stand to eat it, if it works and it's cheap enough, but it's not particularly tasty.
Another quality issue is the level of processing. Some plans offer entirely or almost entirely freshly prepared food with a minimum amount of added preservatives and highly processed ingredients. Others offer a mix of whole foods and processed items like breakfast cereals or cereal bars, while others provide almost entirely lower calorie versions of highly processed foods like microwavable pizza, low-fat muffins, meal substitute bars and the like.
Much like effectiveness, you are going to have to rely a lot on what you can glean from online forums to find out what other people think of the taste and quality of the food, but you should also carefully examine as much information as you can find about what sort
of items are on the menu from the meal service's web site and/or customer service representatives. You should at a minimum be able to determine from the website or the phone rep how much processed food is included in the plan and hopefully at least see some pictures of what the food looks like.
Flexibility of the Program:
There are several key areas I look at here:
1) How much can I customize the menu and how easy is it to do it
2) What's the return policy
3) How many weeks do I have to pay for before I can cancel
4) How do I cancel and how difficult is the process?
I'm a bit of a picky eater, so being able to swap out foods I don't like for ones that I do without a huge hassle is a big deal to me. If you're one of those people who will eat about anything, then this obviously isn't as important to you. I prefer plans that will let you customize the menu via the website, but at a minimum I want to at least be able to e-mail or phone and ask they not send the stuff I won't eat at all.
Most of the flash frozen and fresh meals you are not going to be able to return, for obvious reasons, but you sometimes can with shelf stable foods.
It's absolutely critical to understand how many weeks you are obligated to pay for before you can cancel your program. If you think there's a good chance you may not like the food or it may not work for you, you probably don't want to commit to paying for any more
than you have to, just in case you immediately hate the program. Hopefully that won't happen, but it can.
Finally, even if the plan works and you like the food, your finances may change or you may hit your goal or simply decide you want to go another route, so it is important to know how you go about canceling and how much notice you have to give, to avoid paying for food you don't want. I also always look around forums to see if anyone has complained about having trouble canceling a particular program.
Once you have taken all of these factors into account, rank each program in terms of how well it performs in each category and then chose the one that ranks the highest in the areas that are the most important to you.
You probably won't get the full picture on any meal delivery service until you get a chance to try it for yourself, but you can at least give yourself the best possible chance of success by doing your homework before you order.