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Startups offer Thanksgiving in a box

Credit: Carolina Matthews/CC/CNNMoney

Credit: Carolina Matthews/CC/CNNMoney

Can culinary skills come in a box?

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have used meal kit delivery services in the hopes that, yes, they can.

Meal kits are disassembled dinners: Recipes and pre-portioned ingredients delivered directly to your home. (But they still require all the chopping and sauteing before you can actually enjoy the meal.)

The kits come from a host of startups, including Blue Apron, Plated, HelloFresh, Chef’d and Marley Spoon. Subscriptions vary slightly for each service (and some are a la carte, like Chef’d). Blue Apron, the category leader, touts a price per serving of $9.99 on its two-person plan.

But more than just simplifying your shopping, the services promise a boost of confidence and know-how in the kitchen.

“For those who don’t cook much, it can be scary,” Fabian Siegel, cofounder of Marley Spoon, told CNNMoney. Marley Spoon struck up a partnership with Martha Stewart in June, so the meals are based on Martha Stewart recipes.

For Thanksgiving, a particularly daunting cooking holiday, Marley Spoon offered Martha’s classic turkey recipe, stuffing with herbs and dried cherries, cream cheese mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts with pomegranate and apple cider vinaigrette, and of course, apple pie. The kits, which are now sold out, went for $179.

Siegel said Marley Spoon gives people exactly the ingredients that they need, nothing more or less.

Customers don’t have to step foot in a grocery store, which saves them time. The proper ingredients are perfectly portioned off, which helps eliminate food waste. If a recipe calls for celery, you’ll probably throw a whole bag of it into your cart. But will you eat it later? Maybe not.

With Chef’d, people can select turkey, sides and dessert options from among NYT Cooking recipes. (Chef’d is unique in that people can just order sides instead of purchasing an entire kit.) The company announced a partnership with the New York Times in May, one of 120 brands, restaurants and celebrities that Chef’d collaborates with.

Partnerships are one way for startups to gain credibility and create their own niches, like Purple Carrot, a plant-based meal delivery service, or Green Chef, which delivers organic, healthy meal kits.

While it’s no surprise that services like Chef’d and Blue Apron are popular in major cities, they also have strong customer bases in smaller cities. Blue Apron said some of its top markets are places like Charlottesville, Virginia. That’s because those customers may have to drive from location to location to gather ingredients for a particular recipe, if they can get them at all. The meal kits, on the other hand, deliver everything to their doorstep.

There are, however, some questions about the industry as a whole. Companies like Blue Apron and HelloFresh are known for their discounts — a quick Google search will land you three free meals at the former and $40 off at the latter.

But it’s unclear if they’re able to retain customers week in and week out. According to data from 1010data, which tracks consumer spending, companies like Blue Apron have a big drop-off when it comes to retention. Just six months into subscriptions, about 10% of people remained Blue Apron customers.

Blue Apron — which has raised $193 million from investors and is said to be worth $2 billion — refuted the data. “It would be inaccurate to say that many people try our product and do not stick with it for more than a few months,” the company said. In April, it said it shipped more than 8 million meals a month to its U.S. customers.

Other criticisms of these startups focus on the environmental aspect — there’s a lot of packaging waste from all the individually wrapped ingredients.

Marley Spoon’s Siegel said his firm is researching how much waste his company generates. He noted that in supermarkets, people only see primary packaging on items — not secondary packaging. “I hope that we can say we’re more efficient,” he said.

CNNMoney’s Cristina Alesci recently tried out Marley Spoon and Chef’d, cooking a pre-Thanksgiving meal for her friends and family. Her findings? Be prepared for a challenge. Not only are they time-consuming, but they’re not exactly meant for an amateur cook. Recipes required things like knowing the difference between trussing and basting.

Food industry analyst group Technomic projected in January that the fresh food subscription market will be worth billions in the next five years in the U.S. alone.

According to 1010data’s Natalie Seidman, SVP of data insights, meal kit services “still have a lot of headroom to acquire new clients.”

Alissa Lentz is one of those customers. The 27-year-old entrepreneur said she’s feeling the pressure of hosting her first Thanksgiving. She told CNNMoney that while she’s never used a meal kit delivery service before, she’s researching different options and plans to try one that’ll feed four in New York.

“The Whole Foods counter would be easier [but] this seems more fun and cost-effective,” said Lentz.