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I tried 5 meal delivery services and they doubled my usual food bill, but there's one I won't give up

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  • Before the pandemic, I ate restaurant food two to three times per day, grabbing cheap lunches and using coupons to score deals on dinner.
  • Once I was cooking all my meals at home, though, I found that I was spending a lot on groceries and getting bored of my own cooking.
  • So I decided to try out five meal delivery services, and while they were a decent swap for takeout, the portions were sometimes too small and they doubled my grocery bill for myself and my fiancé.
  • I am keeping my subscription to Mosaic though — it sends me five meals a week, enough for when I'm feeling lazy but don't want to order takeout.
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When the pandemic started shutting down restaurants in New York City in March, I had to change my meal situation — fast. I relied on eating out at least two to three times per day using a careful strategy of finding cheap lunch deals and scoring coupons for takeout dinners. I was spending more than I wanted to every month on food, but I moved around my budget and gave up spending on other things (like activities and clothing).

But when I found myself sheltering in place and cooking all my meals at home, I noticed that while my takeout budget fell to zero, I was still spending quite a lot on groceries to be able to create the same kind of meals I used to pick up from my favorite local spots.

After trying different grocery shopping techniques to save money and trying every single new recipe I could find to interest my taste buds, I wondered if turning to meal delivery services would be my happy medium. Would getting pre-made food delivered save me time and money? Would it curb my temptation to get takeout delivered from my favorite local spots? 

I decided to try out five different services — Freshly, Mosaic, Real Eats, Sun Basket, and Daily Harvest — over the course of a month to see if that was indeed true. Here's what I discovered.

Meal kits were a decent swap for takeout

While the meal services cost about 25% more per week than my individual grocery bill, I did find that using these services was a less expensive swap for ordering takeout. 

Services I tried, like Freshly or Mosaic (both charge $8.99 a meal), give you a similar dish (in size and ingredients) than what I'd order for lunch or dinner at my local restaurant for half the price. I decided to stock up on meal delivery services that offered frozen dishes so they would last longer and be a good option when I was craving takeout.

The portions weren't always big enough 

One of the biggest downsides to meal delivery services is the portion size. While the price might seem low enough to say yes to trying them out, once you get the meals, you realize they're more snack-sized than dinner-sized, which then means you need to spend money getting takeout or buying groceries to supplement your meals. 

One service I tried, Real Eats (which charges $9 a meal), was the best value. The portions were so large, I was usually able to either eat one meal as a satisfying dinner or split one meal into two lunches. 

I found deals, coupons, and offers to make it worthwhile

A lot of meal delivery services offer introductory offers or coupon codes that will help you save a big chunk of cash when you order. 

By spending a little bit of time searching for discount codes and asking friends for their referral codes, I was able to save anywhere between $15 and $40 on my first order with a lot of these meal delivery services. 

However, most codes were one-time use only, and then it was back to paying full price. When that was the case, I started to notice that I was spending more money on these services than I would be if I were cooking the meals myself.

It got expensive for 2 people

I cook one to two meals per day in coordination with my fiance (who I split the grocery bills with), and when I started trying out meal delivery services, I noticed how impractical it was for both of us to do this. 

Because we can share a lot of the items we buy at the store and then use the ingredients for multiple meals and make bigger portions, ordering food from these services for both of us almost doubled our usual food bill. If I lived alone it might make more sense to use a service like this, but when I'm cooking for two, it didn't work and cost way too much money to maintain. 

I'm keeping a service that provides one meal per day

In the end, I decided that no, it wouldn't save me money to use a meal delivery service over cooking the meals myself from scratch, but it would help adjust the amount I was spending on takeout. I decided to keep Mosaic, which provided me with five meals a week (eating one per day and cooking the rest of the meals myself). It has helped me expand my meal options, save me time, and allowed me to reduce my spending at local restaurants that charge New York City prices — even for takeout.

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