Is this cooking for idiots? My week eating nothing but ‘recipe box’ food


Meal ingredient subscription services make you feel like a kitchen pro by telling you what to cook and delivering every element in cardboard compartments. Does this mean well never have to go supermarket shopping again?

Unlike standard veg boxes, which feel like homework (what do you do with celeriac?), recipe boxes are the clever kid who’ll let you copy their work in class. They tell you what to cook, how to cook it and only give you enough ingredients to get it done. The recipes, which change every week, are broken down into an almost insultingly easy series of steps. The boxes make you feel like a kitchen pro, while removing the need to think or make choices. Are they the perfected form of home cooking? Or a symptom of our spoonfed uselessness? Can one live exclusively on them? To find out, I have ordered a selection of the best boxes available in the UK, and I’m going to spend nearly 10 days comparing them. I’ll barely have to leave the house, and will pass that time exclusively eating. In other words: the dream, squared.


I kick off with the daddy of recipe boxes from award-winning Riverford. It has a range of weekly recipe boxes: two or three meals, vegetarian or omnivore, with various light or quicker options in each category. I’ve gone for three regular vegetarian meals, which at £33.95 is not cheap. The huge box arrives, rolling into my flat like a tank into town, and I investigate its incongruously cute ingredients: three garlic cloves, two carrots, a baggie of bouillon, a mini-sachet of sesame oil. Meat and dairy are surrounded by frozen water bags, wrapped in wool-lined envelopes, which I will eventually acquire so many of, I could knit into a blanket. (As produce is seasonal throughout the boxes, I treble up on leeks, mushrooms and runner beans during the week, at one point owning eight punnets of cherry tomatoes, which is oppressive.)

Riverford’s organic recipe delivery box. Photograph: Rhik Samadder for the Guardian

Riverford advises on the best order in which to cook its dishes, and first up is romanesco and leek korma. I take a moment to admire the romanesco, that most fractal of brassicas, and dive in. Toast a small pot of almonds; add a sachet of korma spice to shredded veg and ginger; simmer the romanesco in coconut milk, while preparing the rice. I’m paraphrasing, obviously. There’s much garlic peeling and chilli chopping, at which I’m slow, but it’s liberating to launch into a recipe without reading ahead. As with all the boxes, there are no ambush points: no “throw 24 peeled shallots into the pan” or “soak your lentils overnight”. Every step is factored into the instructions, while a frontispiece lists the pans and cookware required, with estimated time and a picture of the dish. It’s cooking for dummies.

I’m not korma’s biggest fan – I find the creaminess to be a baby’s blanket, muffling the punchy stuff. I also get one duff lime in the Riverford box, which cannot be juiced, retaining its moisture in crunchy, gemlike flesh, like an Australian finger lime. Extraordinary, but useless, and it contributes to an overall blandness in the dish, an early shock in the experiment. Heroes will fall, people.

Romanesco and leek korma, an early bland shock in the experiment. Photograph: Rhik Samadder for the Guardian


I have five boxes, containing three meals for two or more people. So that the experiment doesn’t last the rest of my natural lifetime, I am choosing two recipes from each box, switching providers every meal.

Today it’s the turn of Gousto, which produces boxes for couples or families – you choose specific recipes each week, from a pool of 20 (three recipes for two comes to £29.99). I’ve gone for “easy biryani”, albeit sceptically.

I remember dum biryani as a multi-day affair, involving meat marinaded in spices, then soaked in yoghurt and cooked slowly, underneath a pastry lid. I’m intrigued that Gousto thinks I can pull this off in less than an hour. Yet its easy biryani is certainly that: I add a sachet of curry powder to diced onion, break in lamb mince, chicken stock, tomato paste and uncooked basmati rice, and simmer for 10 minutes. Mince may be a poor cousin to cubes of shoulder meat, and there’s no fragrant lift from cardamom or cinnamon, but the result is incredibly satisfying. Meaty oil given off by the mince coats the rice, sultanas pull their weight, and the deep curry flavour is warming, balanced by a dollop of natural yoghurt. It’s a comforting bastard, and ready in an astonishing 35 minutes. Absolutely wolfed down.

The ‘easy biryani’ from Gousto lived up to its name – and was wolfed down.


Hello Fresh offers classic (ie meat), vegetarian or family box subscriptions, which can arrive weekly, fortnightly or monthly (three classic meals for two costs £34.99). I’m staring at the card for “Mexican cottage pie” thinking it should have a different name, because the one it has is meaningless. It has mozzarella and blocks of sweet potato in it, so could just as well be called Italian goulash. I’m also turned off by the recipe’s unvarying use of the word “veggies”, which lacks the dignity of “vegetables” and the brevity of “veg”. Wash the veggies, roast the veggies. I’d rather not infantilise anything I’m about to skin and incinerate, thanks.

The company does, I concede, package prettily. There’s a dinky pot of fajita seasoning, an idyllic wax-papered pat of butter from Netherend Farm. “You leave my nether end out of this,” I chuckle benignly, before remembering I am totally alone. I take stock of the box’s contents. It’s not for anyone worried about carbon footprints, but the quality is undeniable. Latterie Carsiche mozzarella from Italy, feta from a Greek dairy, 100% grass-fed beef steak mince, which is bouncy and full-flavoured. Freshly soured cream from Longley Farm is thick and golden, actually tasting of its name. I cook the beautiful beef and onion up with fajita spice, beef stock pot and tomato puree, then oven finish, topped with roasted sweet potatoes and fat shreds of mozzarella. The unpretty result looks like a little like sick, but the taste is elevated by the class of ingredients. I Hungry Hippo the leftovers in brutal nanoseconds, and pick at the pan.


At risk of super-sizing his belly, Rhik opts for a healthy plaice dish from Mindful Chef.

I’m now in Super Size Me territory: eating meaty meals for two every night, polishing off korma or lamb biryani for lunch. It’s taking a toll. My bloodstream feels 90% cream, and the tomatoes aren’t going down fast enough. In desperation, I turn to Mindful Chef.

Its recipes are gluten and dairy free, sourced from award-winning farms. You can choose from 12 recipes each week, with vegan options. They are wincingly expensive – three meals for two costing £42, but also the only company that offers recipes for one, and for every meal in the box, it donates a school meal to a child in poverty, and the virtue by proxy is already settling my stomach.

I plate up orange-mottled Cornish plaice with peas I pod myself, salsa verde and crushed potatoes. (“Potatoes help to detoxify and balance excess acidity in the body, as well as encouraging healthy blood circulation,” I’m informed.) The salsa verde of parsley, mint, capers and lemon could do with a little chopped anchovy and mustard, but overall it’s satisfying yet light, the fish shimmering with freshness. This must be the plaice.


A standard affair but a fine dish … Red Thai prawn curry from Simply Cook. Photograph: Rhik Samadder for the Guardian

Simply Cook does things differently: you have to buy ingredients yourself. For £9.99 it sends four recipes weekly, each with an accompanying cartridge of spice and stock pots, which fits through the letterbox. Shopping lists are short, with each recipe designed to be cooked in 20 minutes or less. It’s a break from mountains of cardboard, and means you can select your own quality of ingredients; or if, like me, you live in an area without posh shops, crawl back to Tesco with your tail between your legs.

Its red Thai prawn curry is a standard affair: heat peppers, add coconut milk and Thai paste, finally prawns, basil, a twist of lime. I pay particular attention to the stocks. The garlic paste is fruitful, potent, heavy with fish sauce, while the red Thai paste does heavy lifting of its own (more so than the pot of Thai garnish, mainly there to make up the numbers). These big-hitting flavour bombs mean there’s no chopping up chilli or garlic. It still takes me 30 minutes, longer than it should, but the dish is fine, piquant with tomatoes, fragrant with basil and jasmine rice. Fine, I tell you.


Undeniably, these boxes have nailed convenience. By any normal perspective, I’ve barely moved in six days. Like Howard Hughes without the money, I pad around the flat, muttering how I’ve beaten the system, which is my phrase for anything that involves going outside. Unwilling to break my streak by getting milk, I’m breakfasting on weird stuff scavenged from the cupboards – peanut butter on crackers, Kendal mint cake, promotional chocolate. It’s a real-life version of Home Alone: a problematic premise once examined in any detail.

Still, Creole blackened cod tacos by Gousto are laughably easy. I roughly chop a salsa, mix chipotle into mayonnaise. Combining smoked paprika and allspice, I coat cod fillets in it, before charring in a hot pan. I’m perturbed by squeezing out single-serve sachets of Hellmann’s mayo. Is this cooking? It feels more like the semi-feral desperation of a man living in his car. But I’m done in a record 25 minutes, and this dish should come with an allergy warning, because frankly, it is the nuts. Taste is superb, the pillowcase of each taco housing pert salsa, smoky fish and a surprisingly long note of spice from the chipotle. An absolute keeper of a recipe.

An absolute keeper of a recipe … Creole blackened cod tacos, although having to squeeze out single-serve sachets of mayo was perturbing. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian


Can Riverford redeem itself? Time to give it another go, courtesy of baked mushroom and chard gnocchi. I soak dried mushrooms to a brooding stock, reduce with portobello garlic mushrooms, nutmeg, gnocchi and chard, before folding in unspecified Italian cheese and mascarpone. Tomatoes round proceedings out, vinegar-macerated baubles creating a salad with a self-made dressing. Rather than the predicted 45 mins, it takes me an hour; there’s some washing and chopping, a few stages with the mushrooms, reduction and then 20 minutes of baking, but the result is well worth it. Intensely earthy, yet classy. It’s soporifically comforting, as if I’ve injected it intravenously. Yes, yes, yes.


Christ, I’ve been doing this for a week. I’m getting cabin fever. Breaking my rules, I hit up Gousto for a third meal, breakfasting on fish nuggets with Asian dipping sauce. It’s tasty, but basa fillets fried in a panko crumb coating are, let’s be honest, fish fingers for Guardian readers’ kids. I turn to Mindful Chef in search of vegetables. Ginger and beef kebabs don’t quite fit the bill, though the rice is brown and paired with chilli mango salad. (“Zingy ginger helps with digestion and fights inflammation.”) Getting all the flesh out of a mango is an existential punishment, and the simple recipe takes 45 minutes. I’m not sure my digestion is thrilled to contend with cubes of flat-iron steak, no matter how much ginger they’re in.


Chipotle grilled steak … a glorious punch of a dish but Rhik was so delirious with incipient gout by this stage that he left half the meal in the oven. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

More slabs of meat, this time in Simply Cook’s chipotle grilled steak salad. It strikes me as the sort of dish consumed heavily in the 1990s that now feels out of step with food trends. Neither dirty enough for the burger crowd, nor quite right for vegans, it falls between two stools. Trying not to think about stools, I rub my sirloin with a peppy, fennel-heavy mix, and sear. Served on a salad bed with avocado and feta, topped with sour cream mixed with their chipotle paste, it’s a glorious punch of a thing. Delirious with incipient gout, I don’t notice I’ve forgotten the lemon-herbed roasted peppers, which burn in the oven and function as a sort of air freshener for the rest of the day.


Crispy chicken-skin with veg, except it’s turkey steak instead. Photograph: Rhik Samadder for the Guardian

I turn – with zero appetite, bad dreams and acne – to Hello Fresh’s crispy-skin chicken and buttery veggies with basil oil. Except I don’t, because they’ve run out of chickens, and have substituted turkey steak. I speak for all right-minded individuals when I say: screw turkey steak. It doesn’t have any skin to crisp, but the bag does contain an appealing amount of vegetable. I soak bulgur, finely chop the courgette and leeks for sautéeing. I suspect the recipe to be heavy-handed on fat and salt, but having abdicated all responsibility for more than a week, do what I’m told. After dissolving a large chicken stock pot in just 200ml of water for the bulgur, I salt and pepper the turkey steaks, salt and pepper the vegetables, salt and pepper the basil oil. Even the bulgur isn’t immune, the instructions urging me to add salt and pepper if I fancy (high blood pressure). Something snaps, though, at the point of being ordered to crumble an entire block of feta into the vegetables; vegetables that have been fried in 30g of butter.

Made it over the finishing line, but not in good shape … Rhik Samadder. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

It is an unheroic resistance, coming too little and too late (I know the feeling). Without skin, my oven-finished turkey is dry, the bulgur is drunk on chicken stock, the vegetables are salty. At least I’m not consuming a pack of cheese.

I have struggled over the finish line, not in good shape. I suspect myself to be in the early stages of gout. While recipe boxes use less gratuitous packaging than a supermarket shop, I’m collapsing cardboard boxes so frequently my recycling must look like a cubist montage. More than that, an element of creativity has gone astray. Starved of human interaction, I’ve started to find precise instruction very comforting, and I am reminded of the film Synecdoche, New York, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman wanders an apocalyptic landscape in isolation, while an earpiece issues short, affectless commands. Get up. Go into the kitchen. Prep the veggies. Fall face-first into cherry tomatoes. Recipe-kit living will be a game changer for some; for me, this is just too much convenience. Time to break out of the box.

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