It happened slowly, then all at once – you couldn't get anything delivered straight to your door in an Australian city, save pizza. But now here we are. Pizza chains still do it, but so do cafes, supermarkets, markets, co-ops and organic farms. And then there are the businesses profiled here – meal delivery services for everyone from the lazy to the gourmand to the fitness fanatic.
So what are they like? We spent two weeks eating them, whether that meant unpacking the ingredients and following recipe cards or tearing off a lid and microwaving on high. The verdict? The quality of the nine services profiled here is seriously good.
They come in two categories: make-at-home meal kits supplying ingredients in appropriate quantities minus a few staples, plus recipe cards; and pre-made meals, which may be refrigerated or frozen. The pre-made meals include meals for special diets (weight loss, muscle gain). All cater for vegetarians and omnivores, but rarely for other choices or intolerances.
All offer slightly different plans that will be out of many people's price range. There are options for ordering more or less frequently, more or less food, and sometimes extras, such as fruit boxes. Waste is a problem for all of them – so much packaging – but each service is conscious of this, with some using recyclable and biodegradable packaging.
We tried two meals from each service, and tried to compare similar dishes. We tested only services available in two or more Australian cities.
Marley Spoon's bright and versatile sweet potato and lentil avocado salad. Photo: Supplied
MAKE-AT-HOME MEAL KITS
We made: 1. Salmon, pea and lemon couscous with dill, turmeric and sweet potato. 2. Lentil and avocado salad with lime dressing and feta.
Ease factor: Extreme. Portion sizes are obvious, packets are easy to open, and ingredients, instructions and steps are all printed on one side of large cards, so you don't have to flip them to figure out quantities. Instructions describe "What we send", "What you'll require" and "Utensils". Photos are clear and informative.
Appeal index: High. These kits come in sturdy brown paper bags with the cold stuff, like salmon and feta, wrapped separately. Marley Spoon is a big multinational and widely advertised. Expect small extra touches – ours came with a wooden spoon.
Taste: Bright and versatile, making a reasonable dinner and a special lunch.
Cost: Two-person box $69.90 a week (three meals)
We made: 1. Meatball puttanesca with penne and pork. 2. Broccoli noodles with cashews.
Ease factor: This is Marley Spoon's budget option, and it's much more like a regular home-cooked meal. Recipes are accessed online rather than mailed in the box, but the PDFs are intuitive, easy to read on a laptop screen, less so a phone.
Appeal index: Easy, and a 30-minute recipe really does take 30 minutes. The prep instructions are thoughtful, e.g. "medium saucepan, colander, wok or deep frypan" – not everyone would think to include the colander, and not every recipe would point out that a frypan is OK.
Taste: Comforting, satisfying, tasty on the reheat.
Cost: Two-person box $47.95 a week (three meals)
We made: 1. Quick Italian pesto beef toss with ciabatta croutons. 2. Goat's cheese and pesto spaghetti with caramelised cherry tomatoes.
Ease factor: Basically smooth. You notice little things, like how ingredients and staples are on the front of the recipe card, which makes things slightly more complex when you go to cook the meal. However, Hello Fresh gives instructions much more clearly than even cookbooks do.
Appeal index: Superlative. Dishes seem to have been picked for colour balance as well as ease. Plus, they highlight key activities on the recipe cards and this gives the whole thing an educational vibe: In this dish you'll "caramelise whole cherry tomatoes", in the next you'll "make your own croutons".
Taste: The panzanella-like beef toss was a giant meal for two, but one person liked it so much they ate the whole bowl.
Cost: Two-person box $69.95 a week (three meals)
Pepper Leaf vegetable coconut curry noodle bowl. Photo: Supplied
We made: 1. Sumac roasted salmon with cauliflower salad. 2. Panang curry noodle bowls.
Ease factor: Easy, with smaller recipe cards than other services – easier to hold, keep and store. Ingredients come with cute symbols, which means orders can be packed together to save on waste. Divided into prep steps, then cooking, with suggestions for garnishes and serving.
Appeal index: Best of the bunch. Pepper Leaf seems thoughtful and local, with a few little typos and irregularities that make you feel like you're in the hands of a person rather than a giant corporation.
Taste: Big highlights within each dish; bold and edible. These meals, especially the curry, felt like home cooking, with a bit more flair and room for surprise.
Cost: Two-person box $69.90 a week (three meals)
FRIDGE AND FREEZER MEALS
Gourmet Dinner Service
We tried: 1. Chicken and leek pie. 2. Vegetable lasagne with pesto.
Ease factor: Perfectly clear. Lift a cardboard lid off a sturdy metallic, frozen-food-type tray, defrost for 10 minutes, heat on high for two or three. Stir.
Appeal index: Could be more comforting than nourishing but in both these meals, the pastry really got the juices flowing. These felt fresh.
Taste: Creamy, buttery and well-proportioned, with enough spices and herbs to provide a home-cooked feel.
Cost: Most mains around $15.
We tried: 1. Vegetable and lentil burger. 2. Thai red curry with tofu.
Ease factor: The healthy-eating version of Gourmet Dinner Service. Instructions clear, with good specifications about defrosting, oven-verus-microwave, timing and treatment of meal.
Appeal index: Did not seem like diet food. Something you could eat every day while maintaining base levels of happiness.
Taste: Crumbly and delicate with good textures, particularly the burgers. Frozen vegie burgers can be bland, but these did memorable things with regular ingredients.
Cost: Most mains around $12.
Lamb shepherd's stew from My Muscle Chef. Photo: Supplied
My Muscle Chef
We tried: 1. Cuban vegetable stew with quinoa. 2. Lamb shepherd's stew with cauliflower mash.
Ease factor: Could not be beaten. Instructions were simply to pierce film or peel open, and microwave on high from frozen with a break in the middle to stir it up.
Appeal index: The portion sizes were exactly right for dinner or lunch, and, owing to journalistic deadlines, in one case breakfast, even though it was stew. These body-building 300 to 330-gram portions felt light and sensible, in sleek black plastic trays.
Taste: Serious, herby, balanced.
Cost: Many plans, highly customisable, e.g. 15 "performance" meals for $145.45.
Youfoodz's lentil bolognese. Photo: Supplied
We tried: 1. Hearty lentil bolognese. 2. Creamy mushroom cannelloni.
Ease factor: Remove the cardboard sleeve and microwave for 90-120 seconds, with small variations, like removing a sachet of sour cream for the bolognese and piercing the film for the cannelloni. Intended to be kept refrigerated rather than frozen.
Appeal index: There's something vibrant and satisfying about the fresh green, zippy packaging and the very direct slogan, "Save time cooking by not cooking".
Taste: Light and snacky, but composed, complex.
Cost: Mains at $9.95.
Chicken noodle soup from Dinner Ladies. Photo: Supplied
We tried: 1. Chicken noodle soup. 2. Coconut and spinach and ricotta lasagne.
Ease factor: Clear instructions for cooking from frozen (lasagne) or defrosted (soup), with clear tips for small steps that make a big difference, such as serving the soup with warm, crusty bread.
Appeal index: These dishes came in meal-appropriate packaging, with the soup in a perfect small plastic pot and the lasagne in a slice-sized tray. Dinner Ladies serves fresh and frozen meals in Sydney, but because we reviewed from Melbourne we were only able to sample the frozen options.
Taste: Well-made meals, with flavour highlights that sing.
Cost: Big range, but lots of mains around $20.