Meal Kits: From Good to Worse

Paste for Butter Chicken Curry

By: Kitchens of India

I Paid: $1.79 for 3.5-ounce packet of tomato paste and spices (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 5stars


Marketing: 2stars

The theory behind the Kitchens of India butter chicken curry paste is almost shocking in its audacity: By using a bag of premade spiced gravy and the consumer’s own chicken, a butter chicken curry of a quality equivalent to that made in a decent Indian restaurant can be prepared in one’s own home. Even more shocking: The stuff actually works.

If you’ve ever lived in a U.S. Indian-food mecca (Boston and Chicago come to mind), you’ve probably become familiar with, and eventually enchanted by, chicken tikka masala and the nearly identical dish butter chicken curry. Deeply spiced but not particularly hot, creamy and rich with a hit of tomato-driven acid, they’re both instantly comforting. (Note: They’re also not authentically Indian. Chicken tikka masala, anyway, was supposedly created by Brits using cream of tomato soup.) This product delivers on the fake Indian comfort food thing pretty well.

The final dish takes about 20 minutes to make, via the simple process of simmering a pound of your own chicken breasts or thighs in the spicy tomato mixture. A bit time-consuming for a mostly premade dinner? Perhaps, but the tasty results and low cost justify the modest effort.

Garlic & Herb Chicken Penne and Chicken Marsala with Linguine

By: Romano’s Macaroni Grill

I Paid: $3.99 for an 18.2-ounce box of dried herbs, tomatoes, pasta, and cheese (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 2stars


Marketing: 3stars

Meal kits inspired by restaurants are an unpredictable and sometimes exciting field of semiprepared food. Because most large chains contract out the formulation and manufacture of their meal kits, you never quite know what to expect.

You shouldn’t expect very much, unfortunately, from the meal kits bearing the Romano’s Macaroni Grill name. The Garlic & Herb Chicken Penne features watery tomatoes and offensively mild herbal spicing, plus a bag of dried penne pasta. In a separate packet there’s also “cheese,” equivalent to the stuff shaken from a green can of indefinite age. There’s little opportunity for the consumer to salvage the stuff—all he or she is supposed to provide is the chicken and some oil, which offers little zip or impact. The whole thing tasted washed out and undersalted, and had no visual contrast.

The Chicken Marsala with Linguine was a bit better—it’s difficult to have floured and pan-fried chicken pieces with a butter-spiked sauce be inedible. (The home cook provides both the butter and the chicken in this case, plus some oil and water.) Still, it was no great shakes, and a long way away from what a diligent home cook could create with an equivalent amount of time and a bit of ingredient-shopping.

Sure, you could add more salt or seasoning. But if you’re dealing with a chef comfortable enough to fix the damage done by a cheap and neutered meal kit, you’re dealing with a chef comfortable enough to cook without a kit.

James Norton edits the Upper Midwestern food journal Heavy Table. He's also the coauthor of a book on Wisconsin's master cheesemakers. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.