Meal Kits for Inspiration in the Kitchen

Blue apron cover pic

I think we can all agree that simplifying weeknight meals is a top priority. Whether you’re a busy working parent or a retired Baby Boomer, trying to cook homemade dinners can be a real pain.

As a result, a lot of different meal  delivery kits have become popular in the past couple of years, such as Plated and Hello Fresh, but my go-to (and the most popular of the bunch) is called Blue Apron.

So what is it, you may ask?

Each week, you get mailed all of the ingredients (less salt, pepper and cooking oil) you will need to make a well-portioned meal, along with step-by-step recipe instructions with pictures. The services vary slightly, but in general, the meals are truly delicious while being reasonably priced (Blue Apron’s costs, for example, are $60 for 3 meals for 2 people, or 2 family style meals for 4 for $70).

Whereas some people who are new to cooking enjoy learning new techniques they never thought of before, I like trying ingredients I never would have purchased myself (chicken demi glace or the nut-spice mix dukkah, for instance).

Hello Fresh recipe

A recipe from Hello Fresh.

The team of Smart Perks is all about giving you the best bang for your buck, which is why I started meal delivery services in the first place. Shipping is free and you can cancel or skip weeks, but this way I’m not spending time driving to the grocery store, waiting in line behind the person writing a check while trying to calm their crying baby, and then ultimately making a meal that leaves leftover ingredients I won’t use.

Seriously, who among us finishes a whole head of cabbage in one meal, or the rest of the bag of arugula before it goes bad? It’s an awful feeling to throw away perfectly edible food because you didn’t use it before it spoils, and that’s a huge advantage to the carefully packaged individual portions of ingredients in meal delivery kits.

Now, on to the fun part: the meals themselves!

Since I already order Blue Apron, I chose to highlight one of their meals here, but I’m also including two sample recipes from the other major meal kit services. Hey, whatever floats your boat!

blue apron curry photo

Doesn’t this motivate you to try this dish?!

 

Blue Apron’s Trinidadian Chicken Curry with Coconut Grits and Collard Greens:

See what I mean about the recipes being exciting and different? I for one would never think to cook this meal on a Thursday night after a long day of working, exercising and volunteering, but here we are! Just cooking away at a fragrant Caribbean curry with toasted coconut and fresh lime and cilantro accents. Not exactly the type of meal I think of, but totally a dish I am happy to have in my repertoire. Warm, filling, and just the right amount of spice!

Ingredients:

  • 4 Boneless, Skinless Chicken Thighs
  • ¾ Cup Yellow Grits
  • 1¾ Cups Light Coconut Milk
  • 3 Cloves Garlic
  • 1 Bunch Collard Greens
  • 1 Lime
  • 1 Bunch Cilantro
  • 2 Tablespoons Dried Coconut Flakes
  • 1 Tablespoon Butter
  • 2 Teaspoons Trinidadian Curry Spice Blend (Curry Powder, Ground Nutmeg, Smoked Paprika, Dried Thyme, Ground Cumin & Ground White Pepper)
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The ingredients laid out for easy cooking.

Although I linked to the recipe, here are the basics:

Step 1 – Prepare all of your produce by washing and drying it. Combine the coconut milk, salt and 1.5 cups water in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Zest the lime, mince the rind, and quarter it. Pick the leaves off the collard greens and the cilantro, discarding stems. Peel and mince the garlic cloves. Dry off chicken and sprinkle on salt, pepper, and spice blend.

Step 2 – Cook the grits by slowly adding them to the boiling coconut milk mixture, then reducing the heat and whisking occasionally, cooking for 12 minutes. Turn the heat off, and add half of the butter and the lime zest, and salt and pepper. Keep covered.

Step 3 – As your grits cook, heat a nonstick pan until just hot. Add the coconut flakes and toast by stirring frequently for about 3 minutes. You’ll know they’re done when they’re golden brown. Then transfer to a plate.

Step 4 – Also while the grits are cooking, add 2 teaspoons of olive oil in the (now-empty) pan, adding the garlic and collard greens when it’s hot and seasoning with salt and pepper. Cook 2-4 minutes, and then transfer to a plate.

Step 5 – In the same pan used to cook the coconut and the collard greens, heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil until hot. Add the chicken and cook for 5-7 minutes, making sure to cook through. Turn off the heat, and then add: the rest of the butter, the juice of 2 of the lime wedges, 1 tablespoon of water, and salt and pepper to taste, stirring until combined (and mixing up the yummy brown bits from the bottom of the pan).

Step 6 –Divide coconut grits between two bowls, topping with the collard greens and pieces of chicken. Garnish with the coconut, cilantro and 2 leftover lime wedges.

Still not your thing? Try one of these recipes from Plated or Hello Fresh.

smoresS’mores Fondue – Can you say ‘yum?’ This Plated dish takes all of the elements of a delicious s’more and turns it into a one-pan delectable dessert in under 10 minutes. Crunchy toasted marshmallows sit atop chocolate ganache, just waiting for your graham crackers to dip themselves into the sticky treat. No campfire required.

Jamie’s Incredible Sicilian Eggplant Stew – This dish was created by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, a frequent Hello Fresh contributor. Combining rich eggplant with salty baby capers and olives, tart tomatoes and crunchy almond slivers all atop warm couscous certainly sounds like a brilliant idea.

For more recipe inspiration, check out the Smart Perks Pinterest page. Juicy Lucy cheese-stuffed meatballs, anyone? Be still my beating heart!

In the words of Julia Child, “No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” So try!

Blogger Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, can’t wait for her chicken curry leftovers for lunch.

Holiday Gift Ideas for The Hard-To-Buy-For

Picture it: the twinkling lights blinking off fresh snow, a heady evergreen-and-sugar-cookie scent in the air, a table laden with delicious treats…and no gifts under the Christmas tree due to poor planning.  Uh-oh!

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Disappointed kids on Christmas do not a merry day make.

 

Though the winter holidays are typically a time of great joy, this busy time of year is not without its trials and tribulations. Whether it is perfectly planning a five course meal with family or friends or remembering to buy gifts for said cherished ones, there are certain holiday stressors everyone is affected by. Luckily for you, we’re here to guide you with suggestions of gift ideas for the trickiest of cases, so no one in your circle gets forgotten.

Got a gadget-obsessed great uncle but you’re kind of a Luddite? A friend’s daughter who is obsessed with some trendy toy you’ve never heard of? Help is on the way! Spanning price ranges and generations, we’ve got you covered.

For Preteens Who “Just Hate Everything”:

Groovy Coloring Books

We were all in that stage once: you’re 11 and everything is the worst and no one understands me. Well, they might not know it yet but they need to chill out. And what better way to relax with a coloring book! You may have heard that coloring books are making a big comeback – and are totally not just for little kids anymore. Now, there are numerous options for the hip preteens in your life, including our favorite: Oodles of Doodles: Over 200 Pictures to Complete and Create. This coloring book inspires creativity with a few drawings here and there, encouraging the artist to finish the page themselves. Another great one is the Creative Haven Fanciful Faces Coloring Book, a crowd favorite which has detailed outlines of psychedelic portraits.

Coloring BookFanciful Faces

For older kids (and preteens with great taste in music) there’s also the Indie Rock Coloring Book which has illustrations dedicated to some of the most popular indie musicians, such as Iron and Wine or Hot Chip. Bonus? A portion of the proceeds goes to music-related charities, so you’re (in a good way!) double-gifting.

Alternate Ideas: Emily + Meritt Animal Headphones, Gameband Minecraft, Classic Chuck Taylors

For Your Best Friend’s Young Kid:

A Gaming Toothbrush

We’ve all noticed how into gaming and technology kids are these days, but this gift combines those things…with hygiene. Confused? So were we! But the Grush Gaming Toothbrush is a genius way to get kids to enjoy brushing their teeth, helping them visualize their brushing in a fun, healthy way. Instead of getting your BFF’s baby a game that will rot their brain or something noisy like drums that will rot your friend’s brain, this interactive toothbrush is giving them the best of both worlds.

 

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Grush works by displaying a personalized game on a handheld device and guiding the child with the moves to perfectly brush each quadrant of the mouth for 30 seconds. The results can even be sent to the parent, helping them track their child’s progress.

Don’t be worried about seeming like a weirdo getting a kid a toothbrush; kids really do like the darndest things. For instance, at the age of 8 one of my favorite gifts was a suction-cup magnifying mirror. (Note: the staff of SmartPerks doesn’t recommend buying this for your niece or nephew, no matter how weird they are.)

Monster hoodie

Monster Hoodie, $39 at BustedTees

Alternate Ideas: Monster Hoodie, FurReal Friends, Imaginext Ultra T-Rex

 

For Gadget Heads:

Futuristic Wireless Device

The Amazon Echo is a wireless speaker and voice command device brought to you by Amazon. Voiced by “Alexa,” consider the Echo a pseudo-assistant. As it’s designed around your voice, think of Echo like a tabletop version of the iPhone’s Siri – but more advanced. It can make to do lists, set your alarms, give real-time info like traffic and weather, and of course also play music from a variety of sources. Amazon Echo

At $179.99, it is definitely a splurge, and maybe more of a gift for a family or a super special friend, but any tech-y person would be ecstatic to get this gadget they might not have bought themselves. Functional but fun, tiny but mighty, the Amazon Echo would be welcome in any savvy smart home.

Alternate Ideas:  UP4 by Jawbone, Perfect Drink App-Controlled Smart Bartending, Tile Dongle

For Your Uncle (or adult brother, boyfriend, husband or dad):

A Gift-of-the-Month Club

Sure, you’ve thought of a gift-of-the-month club before for a special man in your life, but then decided it wasn’t personal enough. That’s all changed. No matter how specific the interests of your male loved one are, there’s a gift-of-the-month club for them.

Do you have a forgetful, quirky male relative always wearing socks so holey they seem biblical? Check out Sock Club, which delivers American made socks directly to your door.

Know an adorkable dude who refuses to grow up? Look into LootCrate, which has an assortment of gamer-related gifts.

Sophisticated cigar connoisseur, always looking for the next trend? SmartPerks has an awesome discount with Cigars International! Just use promo code SA4360 to send your loved one four new cigars a month!

Are there some big foodies in your family? There are gift-of-the-month clubs for hot sauce, a variety of meats and cheeses, and even alcohol! Our favorite is the long standby Club W, which personalizes your wine delivery based on your tastes.

There are plenty more exotic ones, so look around! Get creative. Everyone likes a fun, free surprise each month. Gift-of-the-month clubs fulfill that without you even having to run to the store.

barware

The Great Deal Company’s Stainless Steel Bar Set, only $39.99

Alternate Ideas: Smart Control Remote, Whiskey StonesStainless Steel Bar Set

 

 

For the Picky Mother-in-Law:

You’ve screwed up one too many times with your persnickety MIL. The baking supplies you happily gifted her last year were met with a snarky comment about how she already owns five whisks; what does she need with another? And so it’s gone for years.

But not this year. This year, you’ll get her something the whole family will appreciate; a one-two punch of a gift. Organize a time all of your extended family can get together, and hire a professional photographer to take family photographs. That’s not it. Also, have them each write a letter or note (kids can draw pictures) of what this matriarch means to them. Then, gather all of the photos in a personalized scrapbook/photo album with the notes and drawings. Sit back, relax, and smugly watch as your MIL is blown away by the thoughtfulness of this gift. It’s personal, sweet and endearing. She’ll never look at you the same way again! Warning: you’ll be setting a high standard for all future gifts, but worry about that next year.

Bluetooth activity tracker

Bluetooth Activity Tracker, $49.99 from the Great Deal Company

Alternate Ideas: Bluetooth Activity Tracker, Crafting Classes, Restaurant Gift Cards

The holidays are the happiest time of the year. Hopefully, with our gift suggestions, even your hardest-to-please loved ones will share in your joy. Have more ideas? Shout them out in the comments!

Blogger Katie U, a Smart Perks employee, would like all of these gifts herself, especially the cheese-of-the-month box.

 

“The Best & the Brightest in the Surprise Box World: From Beauty Products to Bowties for your Boxer

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Ipsy Glam Bag – May 2015

My heart flutters as I approach the magical portal at the end of the driveway. Opening that small hinged door has the power to transport me to pure, unadulterated, retail nirvana. Hooray! A package for me! You see, I am a surprise box junkie. My mail carrier and I are on a first name basis. He knows my dogs’ names. Yes, it’s that bad.

If the post office ever does go out of business, as they keep threatening (for Pete’s sake give them whatever they want…I need Saturday delivery) I will be completely inconsolable.

For the past year and a half I have been on a retail odyssey that has seen me sign up for virtually any and all curated, surprise boxes available in the marketplace.

If there is a club out there that sticks surprise stuff into a box, chosen just for you and delivers it to your door, I’ve tried it. I will never be able to afford a personal shopper, but curated box programs are the next best thing.

Here’s how they work: In most cases, you fill out a profile, telling the company a few things about yourself, your pet, your child, whomever the box is intended for. If it’s makeup, they may ask you for your skin type, your hair color, your style (i.e. preppy, romantic, classic, edgy, etc.) Some programs will even scour your Pinterest board or Instagram account to get a better idea of who you are. Then a stylist or curator selects products that she thinks would best fit your personal style.

Here’s a quick summary of just a few of the boxes I’ve tried:

Birchbox

Category: Makeup & beauty

Frequency: Monthly or special Limited Edition one-time boxes

Bottom Line: At $10 a month, it’s an awesome value. However, I decided I needed to choose between Birchbox and Ipsy,  and this program felt heavy on skincare and hair products. Those are both consumables that I don’t change up every month. Birchbox does feature high quality brands (Benefit!) and occasionally some mass-market products are thrown in. I still shop from the Birchbox online store. I would recommend it.

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Ipsy Glam Bag

Category: Makeup & beauty + a cute bag

Frequency: Monthly

Bottom Line: I’ve been an Ipsy subscriber for over a year at $10 a month, which is a bargain. I would give Ipsy as a gift to every teenage girl I know, but there is a wait list and last time I checked they had disabled the gifting option. Each month you receive a cute little makeup bag, customized for Ipsy, and the designs are darling. Ipsy does do some skincare, but is more makeup focused than Birchbox. They send some great products from brands like Urban Decay, Dr. Brandt and Pacifica, as well as some unusual brands that I never would have tried, like Kat Von D. Tremendous value and the bag really pushes them over the top.

JewelMint Box

Category: Jewelry

Frequency: Monthly or one-time

Bottom Line: Jewelry preference is really subjective. The pieces they send are very trendy and are not going to hold up to years of wear. However, you do receive some really cute items and the presentation and packaging are fabulous. It’s a fun little pick-me-up for yourself or as a gift. The JewelMint online store is fabulous, too. You’ll find low prices on the same on-trend jewelry included in their mystery boxes. Sign up for emails and receive notice about special sales!

NatureBox

Category: Healthy snacks

Frequency: Monthly

Bottom Line: Do you love Trader Joe’s? Then you will love NatureBox. They give you some choice in what you will receive, but you can also let them choose for you too. You receive 5 snacks a month, but you can order separately, if you find something you love. I’m more of a “cupcakes and donuts snacker,” but my healthier friends really like Nature Box. Cost is $19.95 a month.

Stitch Fix

Category: On-trend clothing & accessories

Frequency: As frequently as you wish

Bottom Line: You pay $25 to have a Personal Stylist choose 5 different clothing or accessory items based on your profile. Whatever you buy, the $25 is deducted. You’re under no obligation to buy. Return shipping is free and packaging provided.  I always found at least two or three items I wanted, but usually could afford one or two. It’s REALLY fun to try. They encourage you to snap a selfie wearing their clothes and post, even if you plan to return. The clothes are cute, boutiquey, on trend, and give you a chance to play Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Another great retail therapy experience.

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FabFitFub Club

Category: Fitness, beauty, fashion & more

Frequency: Quarterly

Bottom Line: This is Entertainment TV personality Giuliana Rancic’s program. Being as it’s quarterly, it’s more expensive than others. $49.99 per box. However, you can typically get $10 off your first box through a pop-up when you go to the site, which makes it a great deal. I loved the items in this box, which felt very boutiquey, indulgent, L.A. princessy (I live in Minnesota.) Items are full-size and range from: a fitness DVD, a Sonia Dakar skincare product, an exercise ball, a fabulously funky headband, a cool retro apron, delicious Kai roll-on perfume, and then there were always a couple mass-market freebies thrown in that made no sense, like pantiliners. But the quality of the overall box made up for it. I stuck with it for three boxes.

Candy Club

Category: Retro candy in cute packaging

Frequency: Monthly

Bottom Line: Darling, colorful, unique and out of the ordinary candies. If you want to simply photograph your box for Instagram to show your friends, and your money is burning a hole in your pocket…this is for you. Otherwise, if you’re like me, you can run to the grocery store and for $10 buy yourself some M&Ms, a Kit Kat, some Jolly Ranchers, and a Hershey Bar, and call it good. The monthly box is $27.99.

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Luxury Beauty Box from O’s Circle of Friends

Oprah’s Circle of Friends

Category: It’s from Oprah. I don’t care what it is. Just give it to me!

Frequency: Annual fee and surprise Items throughout the year, including subscriptions for yourself and two friends

Bottom Line: There are three levels. Don’t tell my husband, I bought the Premier Level for $199. I had to do it. I thought Oprah might send me to Australia, or give me a car. Or at the very least, invite me to her house in Hawaii to spend some time with her and Gayle. So far I got a luxury beauty box. One of the items, a thermal face mask containing 24kt gold is valued at $298. I’ll get back to you on this one. But I’m holding out hope for my surprise gift from The O List! C’mon trip to Australia!

BarkBox

Category: Dog toys & treats

Frequency: Monthly

Bottom Line: If you’re not a dog lover, I generally don’t talk to you much. So basically all of my friends subscribe to BarkBox and think nothing of spending the $19 a month or more to indulge their furry family members. Treats and toys are made in the U.S. and all the pups I know give BarkBox four paws up. Money well spent.

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Wagdrobe Curated Dog Couture

Wagdrobe

Category: Canine couture & accessories

Frequency: As frequently as you wish

Bottom Line: This is like Stitch Fix for dogs. Wagdrobe is a newer company, and so I hope their customer service continues to be as AWESOME as my recent experience was! Super fast shipping, darling customized packaging and FUN, FUN, FUN for pet parents and pooches alike. Well, that is if your pup likes to get lots of treats for dressing up and posing for ADORABLE pics. I bought boxes for all three of my dogs. Beanie got the Hipster Box, Eloise got the Spoiled Princess and Bacon got the Trendsetter Box. The value compared to finding these darling outfits and accessories in stores is awesome!

Okay, I could go on…but here are a few tips if you want to try some boxes on your own.

  1. Don’t do too many at one time. You can only wear so much moisturizer.
  2. Set a reminder for yourself to cancel before your next ship date if you want to try a recurring program.
  3. Keep track of how many of the items you actually use/wear/eat to determine value. Don’t get caught up in the fun.
  4. Share with others. Take pics and share on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Check out the items others receive in their boxes before you order, too. You can get a feel for whether or not it’s product you’ll like.
  5. Most importantly FILL OUT YOUR PROFILES and GIVE FEEDBACK. That’s the best way to ensure you’re going to love what’s inside the box, as much as you did receiving the bright, shiny package in the mail.
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Beanie sporting one of his Wagdrobe ensembles from the Hipster Hound collection.

– Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee, enjoys dogs, cupcakes and shopping, and considers herself an expert on all three.