On the Money: Meal kit companies offer holiday help

Subscription meal kit services can take some stress out of weekday dinners. But they may or may not help you fill your holiday table.

Some companies, like HelloFresh, will mail you premeasured ingredients and instructions for a full holiday meal. Plated and Home Chef will help you with holiday side dishes. But others, like Blue Apron, don't offer holiday menus. They say they've found that customers prefer to cook their own traditional recipes.

Meal kit services have grown quickly in the U.S. since they arrived from Europe six years ago. Nine percent of U.S. consumers — or around 10.5 million households — have bought meal kits online or in groceries in the last six months, and 25 percent say they'd consider buying one in the next six months, according to Nielsen.

At the same time, the companies are figuring out what customers do and don't expect from them. This was the first year Berlin-based HelloFresh offered a Thanksgiving meal kit, for example, after customers repeatedly asked for one. HelloFresh has 1 million U.S. subscribers.

For $159, buyers got a turkey that fed eight to 10 people and ingredients and instructions for garlic mashed potatoes, cranberry and chicken sausage stuffing, green beans and apple ginger crisp. Customers could also opt for a $99 box with just the sides and dessert.

HelloFresh won't say how many boxes it sold, but it's offering two options for Christmas. For $129, it will send customers a beef tenderloin that feeds six to eight people plus sides, sauces and dessert. For $159, it will send a turkey dinner similar to its Thanksgiving box. The boxes will be available for delivery starting Dec. 19. Buyers don't have to subscribe to HelloFresh's weekly meal plans to get one.

Vero, an Italian meal kit company founded by St. Louis-based chef Katie Collier, says it sold twice as many Thanksgiving kits this year as it did in 2017. Its $195 Thanksgiving kit included a cage-free turkey, shallot gravy and fig, walnut and sage stuffing.

For Christmas, Vero is selling a $65 kit to make lasagna, blood orange salad and tiramisu for eight to 10.

Lifestyle maven Martha Stewart also offers holiday meal kits through her partnership with Marley Spoon. For $159.99, customers could order a Thanksgiving box with a 12-pound turkey and ingredients for four sides — including herbed stuffing with dried cherries — and spiced apple crisp. Last year, Stewart also offered a $39 holiday cookie kit for Christmas. A customer service representative at Marley Spoon said the cookie kit will be offered again this year, but details haven't been released.

Some companies are tucking holiday favorites into their regular meal offerings for subscribers.

Plated, a meal kit startup now owned by the Alberton's grocery chain, offers 20 meal recipes and two desserts each week to its subscribers. For a family of four, two meals per week cost $79.60.

For Thanksgiving week, Plated subscribers could opt for sides like pecan pie and sausage, sage and brioche stuffing. For the week of Hanukkah, it's offering potato latkes. For New Year's Eve, it plans to offer roasted grape and brie crostini with a spinach and butternut squash salad.

Chicago-based Home Chef, which was recently acquired by Kroger, also offered Thanksgiving sides like walnut maple Brussels sprouts as part of its weekly meal plans. Like Plated, two meals per week for a family of four cost $79.60.

Non-subscribers can also pick up Home Chef kits at Kroger, which charges $9 for a family-size side of roasted fall vegetables with cranberry orange and walnuts.

But other meal kit companies are opting out. Purple Carrot, which offers vegan meal kits, didn't offer any holiday-themed meal kits but did send a Thanksgiving recipe booklet to subscribers. Sun Basket, which offers organic produce in its kits, has no holiday-themed meals in its rotation.

Blue Apron, which has 646,000 U.S. subscribers, offered a Thanksgiving kit in 2016, complete with turkey and pumpkin pie. While customers liked it, what they were really looking for was help with other meals around the holidays, said John Adler, Blue Apron's culinary chief.

Adler said Blue Apron decided to focus on offering quick, simple dishes with non-traditional flavors — think Chinese or Middle Eastern — for the days around the holidays.

"You should totally have your traditional food moment," Adler said. "As opposed to interfering in that, we will solve everything else before and after."