I’m Conflicted About Blue Apron

It’s more like Soylent than you think.

I’ve made several Blue Apron meals with a friend of mine. Our first was the Tomato, Watermelon, and Farro Salad, and I remember squealing at the adorable vinegar bottles, the pack of pre-cut watermelon. The meal tasted good—Blue Apron sends you interesting ingredients like Halloumi cheese.

The process reminded me of this video, which depicts a woman’s hands assembling a Japanese “food kit” that generates a tiny snack through the magic of strange chemistry: twee, appealing, drug-induced.

Like the kit in the video, our salad was easy to make. We followed the step-by-step instructions (complete with beautiful color photos illustrating each technique!) and emerged with a meal looking very similar to the picture above. Blue Apron certainly makes following recipes easier and more fun, I thought. We didn’t have to go to the store, and there were no moments of ambiguity — like when a recipe calls for “one eggplant,” and you realize eggplants come in countless shapes, sizes, weights, and colors.

But the idea that meals require recipes is an assumption many home cooks make, but no professional cooks make.

At 22, when I got my first cooking job, the chef shocked me. Told me to make chili, and gave no further instruction. “Where do you keep the recipes?” I asked. “Just make the soup,” she replied, and went into the office to do paperwork. I had no training, but she was patient, and my labor was cheap. I learned most savory cooking relies on an improvisational assembly of ingredients and basic cooking principles, tasting often along the way and making corrections. Professional cooks do give each other instructions, but not in how-to format. The first thing you learn is when and how to apply the right amount of salt.

That’s why “Salt” is the second technique listed in Ruhlman’s Twenty, a cookbook that advocates the same approach used by restaurant cooks: rely on a process to generate meals. (Rather than saying, “I would like to eat Star Anise & Soy Glazed Cod with Gai Lan & Cashew Brown Rice for dinner,” think, “I have sweet potatoes, a green pepper, rice, canned tomatoes, kale, and bacon on hand — how can I apply heat and salt to those ingredients so that they taste good and fill me up?”)

There are other cookbooks besides Ruhlman’s. An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler, is part cookbook, part memoir, and advocates beginning with what you have. The meal is “everlasting” because leftovers become starting materials for cooking what’s next.

But Blue Apron’s philosophical issues—treating ingredients and meals as isolated units to be carefully assembled for this evening’s performance — actually bother me less than its financial ones.

These bottles are adorable, but what is “Golden Mountain Sauce”?!

Blue Apron’s basic package for two people comes with 3 recipes per week. At $9.99 per serving, that’s a weekly total of $59.94. Now I admit to being on the insane side of frugality, but in my world, that’s really expensive. Last month, my partner and I spent about $120/week on food. That’s about $2.85 per serving, an estimate that includes the two meals we ate in restaurants that month. We don’t avoid restaurants because they’re expensive, though — we like what we cook at home better.

I understand some (most) people spend more on food than I do. And the appeal of Blue Apron isn’t that’s it actually cheap; rather, it’s that the meals are cheaper than similar ones you’d eat in restaurants. But there’s another unexamined assumption at work here: the idea that labor is free.

You should price time — calculating total minutes spent at your own hourly wage — into the total cost of a meal. It’s certainly part of what you pay for when you dine out: labor to plan, assemble, and deliver a meal is actually the majority of the cost of an $18 plate. Your labor isn’t free because (at least in theory) you could have been working instead of cooking that meal — which is exactly what a lot of busy urban people are doing when they order takeout instead of cooking at home.

I do pay this extra cost when I make my non-Blue Apron meals too, which means (since I earn a high hourly rate) my average meal is more expensive than $2.85. But that meal still costs less than one I’d eat in a restaurant, and I’d argue some Blue Apron meal cost even more than restaurant meals do. This is because I imagine most people who can afford Blue Apron also earn a lot of money hourly, which means they’re paying a particularly a high rate — in time — for each Blue Apron meal they make.

So why not just order Soylent instead? At $2.42 for each 400 kcal bottle, the milky meal-replacement shake is cheaper than my own estimated per-serving meal cost, and it requires zero time. Because Blue Apron is selling an experience. Its tagline isn’t about health, or cheapness; it says, discover a new way to cook.

That bothers me because Blue Apron doesn’t seem like cooking. It seems like IKEA furniture assembly — except instead of a MALM dresser, you get an Instagram-ready outcome.

When you buy a product, you’re looking to change the way you experience life via that object or service. The best marketing campaigns disguise our interest in paying for experiences, allowing us to justify a purchase by claiming we need or want the thing itself. But let’s be honest about Blue Apron: the promise is not only easy, healthy meals, but that “homey” feeling you get from doing things by hand.

That’s a lot of packaging!

But when I make a Blue Apron meal I don’t get that “homey” feeling. The experience feels more artificial, in its assembly-oriented weirdness, than going to a restaurant does. It’s a lot like drinking Soylent.

My usual cooking process is much different. At the beginning of the week, I spend about 15 minutes putting together a pot of dry beans, tossing in chicken stock, a whole carrot, garlic cloves, bay leaves, salt and olive oil. During the two hours it takes them to cook, I try to get some work done — sometimes the savory smell motivates me, other times it makes me impatient to eat.

The color beans I choose helps me know what to buy when I go to the grocery store. On a white beans week, for example, I’ll make Pasta e Fagioli: canned San Marzano tomatoes simmer with garlic, onions, and herbs while noodles cook. A scoop of beans warmed from the master pot is followed by parmesan cheese, a glob of olive oil, and chopped fresh parsley. On a black beans week, we’ll warm and season beans and sweet potatoes with chili powder, cumin and garlic, make guacamole, and eat everything with a quesadilla. These meals take about 30 minutes, and always involve some creative thinking in the refrigerator. It feels like solving a puzzle — “How do I put these things together in the right order?”

Sometimes I do crave a nicer piece of fish, or barbecue, or a tangy fresh salad, and I look in the fridge and encounter instead a pot of beans and leftover kale. It’s a feeling of equal parts relief and frustration. But I think keeping a “homey” kitchen is less about things being homemade and more about honest self-examination: “What are my actual needs, and how do I fulfill them?” Even though it’s fun and tastes good, Blue Apron is a choice to avoid self-examination — and that makes me uneasy.