Fried Green Tomato Salad & Marinated Chicken Thighs

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and for us this evening that was certainly the case.

I’ve been in a cleaning-out-the-freezer kick, and one of the items I was planning on using this week was a bag of marinated chicken thighs. I use chicken thighs instead of breasts or tenders because they are juicier and more flavorful, and the thin style of this cut goes great over the grill.

For the marinade, I throw one cup of unsweetened plain greek yogurt, some lemon zest, 1 tbsp salad dressing, and whatever spices you like, and throw it all in a freezer bag with your chicken. Mix and massage it all with the bag closed, and let it marinate for at least an hour before throwing it over the grill for about 5 minutes on each side.

The best part of the chicken recipe is that it freezes well; just smooth your freezer bag of chicken and marinade into a relatively flat layer, and pop it in the freezer for easy stacking and even freezing. When you go to use it, just let it defrost in the refrigerator for 24 hours before hand.

Usually, I serve these chicken thighs with a big Greek salad, but I goofed at the supermarket. I didn’t get enough tomatoes, I didn’t get any fresh mint to add to the spring mix, and I didn’t have any croutons. Womp-womp.

However, what I did have were a bunch of green, unripened tomatoes that we’ve been slow-ripening inside since the first freeze. Bingo.

I sliced three of our unripe tomatoes in roughly 1/2″ slices.  Next, I combined 1 egg, a tsp of sour cream, and a splash of water in a bowl, and beat it together to form a quick egg bath. Finally, I combined bread crumbs with salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, dried basil, and cumin, and mixed it all together.

With all the prep work complete, I dredged the tomato slices in the egg wash, then the breadcrumb mixture, then they went into a hot pan with a tablespoon of olive oil. And these puppies fry up quick! I only needed about 1 minute on each side before they were nice and crispy. Then, they went onto a paper towel, while I pulled together the rest of the salad. I tossed spring mix, feta, kalamata olives, and vinaigrette in a large mixing bowl, then plated it and added the tomatoes on top.

And it was SUPER delicious!  Plus, getting to grill and have fried green tomatoes in the middle of December? It felt like quite the luxury. Enjoy!

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What Did I Learn from the Meal Delivery Review Series?

As most of you know, for the past month, we’ve been trying out the many “meal-in-a-box” type delivery kits.  Having tried five of the leaders in this increasingly congested field, here are my takeaways.

  1.  If you can, you’re still better off just shopping and cooking for yourself.

Looking at these kits from a pure economic perspective, none of the meal delivery kits really make sense. Re-assembling the same or similar meals from the grocery store can be anywhere from 20% – 70% cheaper, depending on what kit you’re using and what go-tos you already have stored in your pantry. And I shudder to think of the environmental cost of all the added packaging and shipment needed here.

But note that I said “if you can.” If you have a disability that prevents you from making it to the supermarket very often, if you’ve just never learned how to cook on your own, or if you have a schedule that doesn’t allow for thoughtful meal planning and prepping, then these kits may still be right for you. In particular, for us, I think I might start ordering these for the week after we return from travel, where I know I’m not going to have time or energy to go to the grocery store. These kits *are* great for situations like that.

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One of the top meals we tried was this pan roasted chicken with potato and brussel sprout hash, from Plated. I gave it a 10/10.
  1. Plated and Green Chef are my top recommendations.

So, if you decide that a kit is right for you, which one should you go with? For us, hands down, Plated was the winner. Delicious meals, good selection, top-quality ingredients, and easy-to-follow recipes made Plated the real deal. In fact, I actually forgot to cancel my Plated subscription after the free box, and so got another shipment the following week. And we were just as happy even when paying for it out of pocket; Plated is the head and shoulders winner of the meal delivery game for the *average* diner.

That being said, I think Green Chef deserves a runner-up consideration for the variety they offer. We felt Green Chef was among the middle-of-the-pack taste wise, but they are the only kit to offer lots of different options for lots of different diners. With vegetarian, vegan, paleo, and gluten free options available, Green Chef is the best option for those with some sort of dietary restriction.

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This was another favorite meal, the Tuna Poke Bowl from Green Chef. I gave this a 9/10.
  1. Be careful about your subscription & cancellation dates. 

If you *are* going to try one of these services, though, make really sure that you know the terms of WHEN you have to cancel or “skip” the next week’s delivery. Several of these kits require you to cancel BEFORE YOU EVEN RECEIVE your first delivery, and certainly before you’ve gotten to try all the meals in your first box. It’s pretty shady, honestly.

So treat these the way you did Columbia House cd services (you know – the buy one, get 12 cds free promotion that 90s kids like myself so loved…) and just assume that the companies are out to trick you. If you do that and take appropriate precautions against being charged when you don’t actually want a shipment, then adding a meal delivery kit here or there can be a great change of pace to your regular cooking and dining schedule.

Want to read the individual reviews again?

I hope I’ve answered all your questions about meal delivery services in this series, but feel free to ask any followup questions in the comments.  Starting in 2017, be on the lookout for our “Resolution Series” of quick, healthy meals to kick off the New Year.

Meal Delivery Review Series: Freshly

This is the fifth and final article in a series on “Meal Delivery Kits”.  Read my first article on Hello Fresh, second article on Green Chef, third article on Plated, fourth article on Blue Apron, or scroll on to see my experience with Freshly. 

We made it! Our final article in the meal delivery kit series, and I gotta admit: we’re kinda glad to be finished. Today, I’ll review Freshly. As with the others, I’ll review them on a scale of 1 (ugh) to 10 (hooray!) in the categories of price, packaging, a rating for each meal, and an overall score.

Freshly takes a slightly different approach to the whole meal delivery kit than the other options we tried: instead of sending you ingredients and a recipe for a “chef-quality” meal, they send you a “chef-prepared” meal that you’re just responsible for heating and plating. With this service, you choose between 24 entree options and 7 breakfast options, and you can mix and match the quantity of meals to your heart’s content. The one other main difference here though is that the Freshly meals don’t change week-to-week. So if you ordered 4 meals a week, you’d have tried every meal they have on offer in just 6 weeks time.

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Price: 2/10

The “default” Freshly plan is 4 meals a week for $49.99, though you can scale up to 12 meals a week for $107.99, if you so choose. Now, you may be thinking “but that’s actually cheaper than the rest of the plans you’ve tried!” But au contraire. Where all the other services used the word “meal” to describe a recipe that’s sufficient for 2 or more people, Freshly uses the term “meal” to mean “serving”. Considering that we only got 2 meals for 2 people out of this box, that means the price per meal is roughly $25, making this the most expensive box we tried.  To add insult to injury here, the food quality was abysmally low, as we’ll discuss in more detail later. Had I actually paid for my starter box (instead of getting it free through a friend’s referral), I would have felt incredibly ripped off.

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Packaging: 5/10

I mean…the food arrived cold, unspoiled, was what we ordered, and came on the day it was supposed to. So I guess that earns them at least partial credit there. But packaging is clearly far less important with this service, as you’re essentially just dealing with tv dinners. The meals come in subdivided disposable plastic trays; each meal has the protein on one side and the side on the other. Reheating directions are printed on cardboard sleeves that bear each meal’s title.

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Meal 1: Grilled Flat Iron Steak: 2/10

This meal tasted like a salisbury steak tv dinner. I did give it one extra point for the sweet potato hash, which was tasty, but the rest just tasted like bad leftovers. The reheating instructions weren’t great either, the “herb butter” that comes with the steak was still partially frozen after we’d finished microwaving it. (By the way – for all the Freshly meals, while it’s not required, I actually went ahead and plated each dish so as to make it more comparable to the photos that both Freshly provides and my photos from the rest of the series.)

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Meal 2: Sicilian Style Chicken Parm: 1/10

This one actually tasted a LOT like the Smart Ones Three Cheese Ziti Marinara frozen dinner, which sustained me through many of my college years. Only difference was that it was accompanied by a rather dry and bland chicken breast. The big difference, of course, being that I can buy a Smart Ones for about $2, and this cost me $12.50. Definitely not worth 5x+ the price.

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Meal 3: Falafel with Sauteed Spinach and Chickpeas: 4/10

By far the best of the meals we tried, though that isn’t exactly saying a lot. The chickpea/spinach/marinara mixture was sweet with a hint of spice, and was actually something I’d be happy to eat again. The falafel themselves, though, would be more accurately described as “moist bread balls”.  They weren’t deep fried as true falafel are, and they didn’t have a whole lot of flavor other than just salt. Still, I didn’t loathe eating this one, so it was at least better than the rest.

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Meal 4: Jamaican Style Jerk Chicken: 3/10

Calling this “Jerk” seems a bit of a stretch, as it barely had any spice at all, aside from the pineapple salsa that was placed on top. But it was the better of the two chicken dishes. The chicken here wasn’t quite as dry, and the rice was fine and otherwise unoffensive.

Overall: 2/10

I’ll be honest: it’s somewhat unfair to even include this brand in the series, because you can’t compare microwaved, pre-made dishes to fresh-cooked food. Even our least favorite of the other kits, Blue Apron, far surpassed the Freshly offerings, and compared to our favorite, Plated, this was basically like trying to eat garbage. You’ll also note that this service was the furthest afield in actual product you receive from the pictures that they advertise with; all the others were at least pretty close.

A better comparison might be to local meal pick-up services; in Austin we have Snap Kitchen and My Fit Foods that offer a similar type of arrangement. Having tried both  of those services in the past (though granted not for several years) I think this was about the same food quality as My Fit Foods, but less tasty/appealing than Snap Kitchen. However, even compared to those types of services, the prices are a problem – My Fit Foods charges $7-8 a meal, not $12-13.  From start to finish, Freshly just felt like kind of a rip off.

Thanks for reading the series! I’ll post one more wrap-up article next week, before starting a new healthy dinner series for 2017 early next year.

Three Simple But Tasty Make-Ahead Lunches

Since we’ve been on our meal-delivery kit kick, I’ve been relieved of having to do my normal meal planning for dinner times, but that has come with one small flaw: we usually use our dinner leftovers for weekday lunches, but with meal delivery kits there aren’t any leftovers.

So, after a couple weeks of sandwiches, I decided it was time to get a bit more creative. I also wanted lunch recipes I could make-ahead, and get ready on Sunday for the week to come. Here’s what I came up with, all of which exceeded expectations!

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Poppyseed Chicken & Spinach Wraps

These were delicious and pretty simple. I marinated chicken tenders in poppyseed salad dressing for a few hours, then grilled them over a skillet. At the same time, I cooked some bacon on a rack for weekend breakfast, and set aside a few extra strips for use in the wraps. Once everything had cooled, I stacked goat cheese, craisins, chicken, bacon, and a large handful of fresh spinach in a store-bought wrap and rolled it up like a burrito. Pro-tip: the wraps will roll easier if you microwave them for 10-15 seconds first! I packaged them up with a little extra dressing, and these were fantastic.

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Charcuterie Bento Box

This one was even easier, and for the first time perhaps in the history of the universe, the hubby was actually EXCITED to eat his packed lunch. Using an existing bento-style lunch box, I filled one compartment with crackers, one with cheeses and a spreader, one with sliced cured meats, and one with dried fruit, almonds, and couple Hershey Kisses. All that’s missing is a nice glass of wine…

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Smoked Salmon and Hard-Boiled Egg Toasts

Finally, my personal favorite: we had a couple end pieces of Sourdough bread left over from last week’s sandwich-madness, so I threw them in the toaster and spread mayonnaise, black pepper, and a generous sprinkling of dill on top. Then, I covered it with smoked salmon, a sliced hard-boiled egg, some capers and diced chives. Delicious!

What’s in your lunch today? Share with us in the comments. 

Meal Delivery Review Series: Blue Apron

This is the fourth article in a series on “Meal Delivery Kits”.  Read my first article on Hello Fresh, second article on Green Chef, third article on Plated, or scroll on to see my experience with Blue Apron. 

Guess who just wrapped up another meal delivery kit? This time, it’s Blue Apron. As with the others, I’ll review them on a scale of 1 (ugh) to 10 (hooray!) in the categories of price, packaging, a rating for each meal, and an overall score.

Blue Apron, I believe, was the first of the meal delivery kit services to surface, and certainly is the one with the most name recognition — for both good and bad reasons: a few months back, the company was making headlines for employee violence at their warehouses. Of the services I’ve researched, though, Blue Apron was the only one that also offered a wine program, which I thought was cool. For an additional $66 a month, they’ll send you six wines that are “paired” (however loosely) with the six available recipes they have to choose from each week. We didn’t try the wine, but it did seem like an interesting add-on opportunity. They also promote their own line of cooking equipment that you can use to make their recipes, which they sell in the “Blue Apron Market.”

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Price: 6/10

Blue Apron actually has the lowest price-per-box of any kit I’ve tried, coming in at $59 for a three-meal box for two people. But you get what you pay for. With Blue Apron, I felt the ingredients were lower quality than what I received from the other services, and the difference in what it would cost to assemble the same meal with grocery store ingredients seemed even more dramatic with this kit as well. For example, in our first meal, the recipe consisted of about 1/2 lb of dry pasta, 1/2 a head of kale, 3 green onions, a head of garlic, a lemon, a pat of butter, and what looked to be about a 1/2 lb of “41/50” size shrimp. I could have probably assembled the same ingredients for about $8, or really even $5 considering what we normally already have on hand, and instead, we paid $20.

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Packaging: 6/10

Blue Apron was packaged much like my first kit, Hello Fresh, in a reflective foil insulating sleeve and included ice packs. But there was one HUGE difference between Blue Apron and all the other kits we tried: the Blue Apron proteins all came frozen solid. Indeed, they were completely rock hard, to the point that we actually had to wait a night after receiving the package before we could make our first meal. Pre-frozen food is a pretty major negative for me. However, they do get some redeeming points for including a card with full nutritional information with each recipe; most other kits only included calorie ranges.

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Meal 1: Spicy Shrimp & Bucatini Pasta: 4/10

This was the first meal I’ve gotten in any box that was really just not good at all. While there were sauces I wasn’t a big fan of in both the Hello Fresh and Green Chef boxes, I could see how other people would have liked them; they just weren’t to my taste. But I’m pretty sure no one would have liked this dish very much. The kale had basically no flavor, nor a purpose in the dish other than to add a vegetable filler, and the shrimp (as previously mentioned) came frozen and so had a somewhat off-putting mushy texture. It was edible, but it wasn’t tasty or satisfying.

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Meal 2: Sautéed Beef & Potato Latkes: 3/10

Taste wise, I probably would have given this meal about a five. The latkes and roasted vegetables were both pretty good. The beef, however, was pretty gross. While the picture of the meal made it look like this was some sort of slow-roasted, super tender beef, it wasn’t; this was thin shaved, tough, very low-quality beef, the type of stuff they make Philly cheese steaks with. And then the sauce was basically just onions, tomato paste, and vinegar — I think they were going for a “red wine reduction” type thing with the vinegar, but it ended up just tasting sour.

The bigger problem, though, and the reason I docked the taste score in half is because this dish was SO MUCH WORK. It took me nearly an hour and a half to make…ugh! I had to peel 5 different vegetables, grate an onion and 2 potatoes, squeeze all the water out of the latke mix, etc. I can see why my Jewish friends save latkes for special occasions. The one good thing I will say about this recipe? Where it called for an egg, they provided an egg (which was my one knock against Plated.)

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Meal 3: Harissa Chicken Skewers: 6/10

This was the best meal we got from Blue Apron. The recipe card noted this was “inspired by North African street food,” which sounded promising.  The chicken skewers, which were coated in labneh (a type of yogurt-like cheese) and harissa sauce, were absolutely delicious. The mixed bed of stuff it sat on, less so.  The Khorosan Wheat was dense and chewy, despite having been cooked the full recommended time. The kale, again, felt like more of a filler than something actually intentional. The persimmon was great, though; and having never cooked with persimmon before, I appreciated the exposure to it. The preparation of the chicken skewers, I’ll carry with me. Otherwise, like all the other Blue Apron dishes, we won’t be making this dish ever again.

Overall: 4/10

Blue Apron was clearly our least favorite of any of the boxes we’ve tried to date. Moreover, it’s the only kit I wouldn’t recommend at all, to anyone. To put it quite simply, I’m really glad I don’t have to eat anymore of their food. Perhaps we just had an off week, or picked less than stellar recipes to try. But between the low-quality ingredients, high level of work required to prepare their dishes, and the majority of the recipes being pretty gross…it’s just not even a contest, Blue Apron’s not even playing in the same league as the other options we’ve tested.

Stay tuned! Next up in the series, we’ll have a review for Freshly, which takes a slightly different approach to meal delivery by cooking the meals for you in advance. 

4 Steps We Took to Save $700+ on Flights to Cancun

This week, after planning out our travel itinerary for all of 2017, it was time to turn to booking and making those vacations we’d planned out in a document actually come to life!

As I discussed in that last post, one of our strategies for elongating our vacations is to book over holiday weekends; unfortunately for cash-based rewards systems (in which the amount of points needed for an award is tied to the cash price of a ticket) holiday weekend are usually more expensive redemptions.

So, sometimes we have to get a little creative. We ended up booking 2 nonstop, round-trip flights from Austin to Cancun over President’s Day weekend on Southwest. The retail price of this trip was $1,012 at time of booking. But we managed to book those same tickets and only spent $276 — just about a quarter of the price.

How’d we do it?

Well, this one took a few steps. At time of booking, the hubby had around 17k Southwest points in his account leftover from work travel this year. I had around 9k in my account. And perhaps most importantly, the hubby had just received 2 $100 “Luv Vouchers” from Southwest for a severely delayed flight experience a few weeks earlier.

Step 1: I booked the most expensive single leg using the hubby’s points stash

This was fairly straightforward. The most expensive leg of this trip was the return flight to Austin at 13,912 Rapid Rewards points. So I booked that with the hubby’s surplus of points, but I booked it in my name – not his. (Reason for that coming later.)

The important thing about this step is the ORDER that I did this. Knowing that I’d be using points for my flights, I needed to book my flights BEFORE I booked the hubby’s paid flights. Because Southwest ties their awards to the cash value of the ticket, and the ticket price is tied to the remaining availability on the flight, I may have risked increasing the points-price of the ticket had I booked the hubby’s paid ticket first.

And, indeed, after booking both his and my ticket, the points price of that return leg has now risen to 17,708 points. So knowing the right order to book in saved me nearly 4k points.

Step 2: I transferred the hubby’s Chase points to my Chase account

With step one complete, my return flight was booked, so I now needed to book my departing flight. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough Southwest points to book the 13,912 point award flight with the points left in my points stash. (And Southwest doesn’t offer a free points transfer for spouses; you *can* transfer points to other people, but they charge you a hefty fee to do so.)

However, we did still have some Chase Sapphire Reserve points left, and Chase points transfer at a 1:1 rate to Southwest Rapid Rewards. Unfortunately, that card is also in the hubby’s name, and Chase only lets you transfer points to accounts affiliated with the user OR authorized users of the account. Since it costs an extra $75 to become an authorized user, and doesn’t garner you any extra benefits, I wasn’t one.

But, there’s a workaround. Since I also have a card with Chase Ultimate Reward benefits, the hubby was able to do an immediate transfer of points to my Chase account. And then, of course, I could transfer those points to my own Southwest account.

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Sunset in Cancun by Flickr user Jose Luis Cruz under a Creative Commons license.

Step 3: I transferred Chase points to Southwest to book my departing leg

So, with an extra 4,000 points recently transferred over to my Chase account, I was able to transfer those at a 1:1 rate to my Southwest account.

Combined with the points I already had in my Southwest account from recent work travel, that was enough to cover the cost of an award flight on the way to Cancun, at 13,912 points. And voila, suddenly I’m going to Cancun, baby.

Step 4: I booked the hubby’s travel with cash + travel vouchers

Now, with my travel secure, I went back to the hubby’s account.  The hubby had recently received two $100 Southwest Luv Vouchers, as an apology for a very bad flight experience on a work trip where he was about 6 hours delayed. So our goal was going to be to use those vouchers on his flights for two key reasons:

  1. Southwest Luv Vouchers expire, so it’s use ’em or lose em.
  2. Southwest Luv Vouchers can ONLY be used for tickets in the name of the passenger to which the voucher was issued.

That second reason is why we used points for my ticket, but cash for the hubby’s, even though moving the points around was a little more labor-intensive. Applying the Luv vouchers, that took the price of the hubby’s RT tickets down to $261.

So there you have it. For longtime readers of the blog, though, you may be asking “but why didn’t you just use your Southwest Companion Pass for the second ticket?” Well, the reason is that our pass is expiring at the end of this year. We’re going to work towards earning it again, but it’s not certain that we’ll have the 2017-2018 pass in time for this trip.

If we DO earn the pass, though, that’s yet another reason that I bought MY fare on points — that would allow me to keep my mostly free fares and still let us CANCEL the hubby’s cash ticket and rebook it for free with the companion pass. Meaning our ending out-of-pocket costs for these flights could end up being even lower, like around the $100 mark for just taxes and fees only!

In the end, all these steps did take me at least a solid hour to complete, and of course, I had to know about all these points and miles rules as well. But if an hour of work can save me $700? Yeah, I’m into that! Here we come, Cancun!

Header photo courtesy of Oasis Resorts in Cancun.

Meal Delivery Review Series: Plated

This is the third article in a series on “Meal Delivery Kits”.  Read my first article on Hello Fresh, second article on Green Chef, or scroll on to see my experience with Plated. 

Another week, another meal delivery kit! This time, I’ll bring you a review of Plated. Once again, I’ll review them on a scale of 1 (ugh) to 10 (hooray!) in the categories of price, packaging, a rating for each meal, and an overall score.

Plated, of all the boxes I’ve researched so far, is probably the most in touch with the millenial audience. From their sleek website to more globally-inspired recipes, they stress not only the convenience or variety of a meal delivery kit, but also the “fun” of trying new recipes and techniques and stress how it fits into a busy working lifestyle. For me at least (I am a millenial, after all!) that resonated – I really liked everything I read on their website.

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The box from Plated.

Plated also offered a nice variety of options; for my three meal box, I was able to choose from among 11 recipes. You can also add additional meals for an extra $24 each or up to two dessert recipes per box, for an extra $8 each (for the 2-serving price). If you have small kiddos, they also offer 3-serving boxes that are intended for 2 adults and 2 kids.

 

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Opening the Box

Price: 7/10

Plated falls somewhere in the middle of the boxes I’ve looked into in terms of cost. The standard 3-meal box costs $72 a week, or $24/recipe.  That’s certainly more than what you’d pay if you bought the ingredients yourself at the supermarket, but we did feel that all the ingredients we received were of a high quality. (Many were even name-brand, for example, Sriracha hot sauce and Chobani greek yogurt.)

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All the unpacked ingredients from Plated.

Packaging: 8/10

I got my Plated delivery on a Saturday, which was great because it was delivered earlier in the day than I typically get my weekday deliveries. This meant everything was still perfectly cold and chilled on arrival, which had been an issue with Hello Fresh. And they used the same nifty, recycled-material insulator that Green Chef did, so I now have two of those! Each meal’s ingredients were bundled together, making it easy to know what went with what. My only criticism, like Green Chef, is around the overall amount of packaging — these services certainly generate a fair bit of plastic trash.

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Meal 1: Beef Bibimbap: 9/10

This recipe was pretty fantastic. Though not necessarily a traditional bibimbap (Plated substituted sautéed spinach for kimchi, for example), I enjoyed the nod to the Korean classic, and the flavor was fantastic. I though the “quick pickle” on the carrots and cucumbers needed to have been a bit longer for my taste, but otherwise, this was a big win taste-wise. I do have issue, however, with the fact that this recipe called for two eggs (a pretty major component of the meal in fact!) and those were NOT included in the box — it was lucky that I had eggs on hand, because none of the email confirmations or anything called this out that I would need to provide them. Had I not had eggs on hand, I could’ve been caught without a way to finish the recipe.

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Meal 2: Lamb Kofta: 9/10

This was another win, and actually is VERY similar to a meal that I make pretty regularly anyways. Since I was familiar with the basics of the recipe, I appreciated seeing where they made variations from what I normally do: for example, I usually add feta and a tzatziki sauce instead of a yogurt sauce; Plated added mint and parsley to the spring mix, and recommended charring the naan. Overall, we were very satisfied with this recipe as well and it was nice to get a new take on one of our classics. And it was super filling; we probably could have just split a single serving of this and been satisfied.

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Meal 3: Pan-Roasted Chicken: 10/10

This meal was completely DELICIOUS. I would have gladly paid $20 for it at a sit-down restaurant. Even the hubby, who abhors brussel sprouts, happily ate the potato-shallot-brussel hash. It was just that good. And so simple! If there was any drawback at all, it was that they wanted you to cook the hash and the chicken in separate pans; however, I didn’t see any reason for that, and just deglased the pan with a little white wine after the chicken was finished and made the hash in the same one. I will DEFINITELY be making this recipe or a version of it again in the future.

Overall: 9/10 

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new favorite!!! Everything about Plated worked really well for us — I loved the fact that I could select from so many recipe options each week, and the more globally-inspired recipe options fit well with our current tastes. The recipes were all delicious and easy to prepare, and even resulted in fewer pans per recipe than previous boxes, for easier cleanup.

The only downside to Plated is the cost — there’s just no getting around that this is still more pricey than handling shopping and meal planning for yourself. However, especially for busy weeks, like the ones where we’re just coming back from or about to depart on a trip? Plated is perfect for that, and we look forward to more meals with them in the future.

Stay tuned! Next up in the series, we’ll have leader in the field, Blue Apron! And in the coming weeks, we’ll have a review for Freshly as well.

Why We Plan Our Travel A Year In Advance

It’s no secret that the hubby and I travel…A LOT. And one question I get asked often is “How do you manage to get all that time off work? Do you guys have unlimited vacation days, or what?”

Well the answer is no, neither of us have jobs that afford us with unlimited vacation days. I get 20 days off a year, plus 7 company-designated Holidays. The hubby gets 14 days off a year, 1 floating holiday, plus nine company-designated Holidays.

So how do we mange to travel nearly every month, without quickly exhausting all of our vacation days? The secret lies in solid, advance planning and utilizing weekends and holidays for all they’re worth.

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On last year’s trip to Hawaii we visited Honolulu, Maui, and the Big Island

 

For example, take a look at our upcoming UK/Ireland trip.  The entire length of that trip is 10 days. However, we’ll depart on a Friday, meaning that we’ll maximize our days off by having two weekends fall within the trip proper.  Additionally, we intentionally planned the vacation to fall over a holiday weekend that both of our companies recognize, so that we could save yet another day off. Our 10-day trip now magically requires only 5 vacation days. 

Similarly, next Christmas, we’ll travel to Kansas to visit the hubby’s family (we alternate Christmas locations every other year.) While it’s way too early to even buy our plane tickets for Christmas 2017, we know that our goal will be to use only 3 Vacation days — so, we’ll most likely leave on the 21st and return on the 27th. That’s a full week, 7 days of visiting family, yet because of how the weekend and office holidays line up, it’ll only require us to use 3 vacation days.

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Our trip to the Maine coast.

So, around November or December of each year, I sit down and plan out exactly when and how we’ll use each and every vacation day we’re allotted. First, I plug in the big, known trips (Ireland/Christmas) and then try to squeeze in 3- and 4-day long weekend trips in the months in between. Weekend camping trips (in which we work a little late Monday-Thursday, to allow us to knock off a couple hours early on Friday to drive out to the campsite) fill out the rest of the calendar, and before you know it we have a celebration nearly every month of the year.

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Camping trips like this year’s to Inks Lake count as travel too!

 

Now I know some of you are saying, “but what about spontaneity?!” And that’s true; this process just gives us a framework, once we see what travel deals become available throughout the year, and/or how work projects shape up, we may shift things around a bit. But the important part, for us, is that we never end up leaving a vacation day on the table.

Why? Well, here’s some stats to convince you.

  • Women who vacation “regularly” are 50% less likely to die from a heart attack than those who vacation “rarely.”
  • People who take all their available vacation days are 6.5% more likely to receive a raise or promotion in the next year than people who don’t use all their vacation.
  • And perhaps most importantly for taking several trips throughout the year? This Dutch study found that planning for and anticipating a vacation actually makes you happier for even longer than returning from a vacation does. So planning several trips throughout the year is a great way to reduce stress and boost happiness!

We couldn’t agree more 🙂

Meal Delivery Review Series: Green Chef

This is the second article in a series on “Meal Delivery Kits”.  Read my first article on Hello Fresh, or scroll on to see my experience with Green Chef. 

So, for our second meal delivery kit, we received another free box through a friend to try Green Chef. Once again, I’ll review them on a scale of 1 (ugh) to 10 (hooray!) in the categories of price, packaging, a rating for each meal, and an overall score.

Green Chef distinguishes themselves in this increasingly crowded market by being the only provider to offer all certified organic “responsibly sourced” ingredients. They also offer a wider variety of meal plans than my first kit did – you can order Green Chef in omnivore, carnivore, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and paleo varieties.

With GreenChef, there’s a lot less choice than with some of the other services; once you’ve selected your plan, you’ll receive the three meals for that plan that week — and that’s final. You can set preferences for any proteins you don’t eat, but otherwise there’s no option to add additional meals for an upcharge, or to choose your preferred options from a variety of featured recipes. So you better hope you like what’s on the menu!

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The box.

Price: 5/10

The prices for Green Chef vary based on which plan you order; vegetarian is the cheapest at $71.94 per box, while Paleo is most expensive at $98.94 per box. I went with the “carnivore” box (because I liked the meals it came with better that week), which would have run me $89.94.

This is the most expensive box on my list to try, and being that everything they provide is organic, I can kind of give them a pass for that. Still, we can usually buy groceries for an entire week — 7 meals AND lunches — for about $100 a week, so in that sense I can’t really see doing this sort of plan long term.

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The insulating sleeve that I decided to take for future use.

Packaging: 8/10

I actually really liked the Green Chef packaging.  They had a recycled insulating packing material that I totally kept – it would be great for cushioning wine bottles on a trip, for example. And it worked well too. All our food arrived properly chilled and very fresh.

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Initially, upon opening this box, I thought it was going to be confusing. Whereas Hello Fresh had separated each meal’s components into a sub-box, Green Chef had everything mixed up together. However, I quickly caught on to the color-coded labeling system; each meal’s ingredients corresponded to a specific color that corresponded with the recipe card.

My only other thought here is that for the supposed mission of the company and the pricetag associated, there was a lot of superfluous packaging. Things like raw carrots didn’t really need to come in a plastic bag. The meats, similarly were double-bagged. And all the bags were thin plastic, instead of something recyclable.

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Meal 1: Tuna Poke Bowl: 9/10

This was my absolute favorite meal I’ve had from any meal kit so far! Though, of course, when you give me sushi-grade tuna, sushi rice, and some fresh vegetables…there’s really not a lot to complain about! Still, some cooking experience helps: I opted to barely cook my tuna at all; had you gone with their written instructions you would have ended up with a very grey piece of fish. And while I enjoyed the quantity of toppings that were provided for this dish, it seemed a lot like gilding the lily. We ended up with quite a bit of left over vinaigrette, mayo, sesame seeds, etc. Still, this dish was a winner in my book, and now that I know how easy poke bowls can be at home, I’ll think I’ll definitely make my own version in the future.

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Meal 2: Tumeric Tahini Chicken: 6/10

Unfortunately, that great first meal had set my expectations really high! And the other meals just couldn’t keep up. This chicken dish was simple, and would have been fairly tasty…if it wasn’t for the addition of that horrible bright yellow tumeric tahini sauce that clashed with many of the other flavors, including the sweetness of the carrots and maple syrup that was served with it. Again, I think Green Chef’s inclination to overdo it in the sauce department pretty much ruined this meal…neither the hubby or I finished ours.

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Meal 3: Paprika-Roasted Pork: 5/10

This meal was a mixed bag; the pork itself was fairly tasty, though the instructions for preparing it were overly complicated. But the sides were both a miss. The “pasta salad” was just weird…comprised of bowtie pasta, raw spinach, orange supremes, and olive tapenade, the flavors just didn’t blend particularly well. And seriously: who has time/energy to supreme an orange for a weeknight meal?? The cauliflower actually paired well with the manchego cheese, but came out undercooked…it needed another 10-15 minutes of roasting that were not accounted for in the instructions.

Overall: 6/10

Much like all the other meal delivery services, Green Chef provides convenience and variety, and the recipes were simple enough for even beginners to make; in fact, I felt these recipes were all easier than the Hello Fresh recipes. In the end, having just the two meal boxes to compare so far…I’d say we liked Hello Fresh a little better.

I could see going with Green Chef if you are looking for a specific diet plan like vegan or paleo. But for people who have no real food restrictions, the meals for Hello Fresh were just tastier overall, and the price difference is of course a factor as well. We also felt that, despite their organic mindset, Green Chef tended to overdo it with sauces and toppings — to the detriment of their recipes. Other than the poke dish, we probably wouldn’t make either of the other recipes again.

Stay tuned! Next up in the series, we’ll have leader in the field, Blue Apron! And in the coming weeks, we’ll have reviews for Freshly and Plated as well.