Home Chef Coupons and Cash Back

This is part of a series offering reviews of the top meal delivery services, plus tips and tricks on how to get these subscriptions shipped straight to your kitchen for a fraction of the advertised price.   Other posts include A Low Price for PlatedHow to Hack Hello Fresh, and Save Big on Blue Apron.

Home Chef

Cost:  Regularly advertised price for the three meals per week plan for two people is $59.70.  But after redeeming a generous 20% cash back rebate from MrRebates.com, plus an automatic $30 credit for first time Home Chef customers, my adjusted cost was $23.76 or $3.96 per meal.

Delivery dates available:  Wednesday, Thursday or Friday

Meal choices:  Home Chef offers plans for two, four or six people.  Any family size can pick between two and six meals delivered per week.  They offer ten different recipe choices per week, and you are able to select meals by dietary preference (low-calorie and low-carb) as well as choose to avoid foods that may contain common allergens or aren’t permissible for consumption by certain faiths (soy, nuts, gluten, dairy, mushrooms, red meat, pork and shellfish).

Home Chef offered a range of options, from traditional to adventurous.  Selections the week I ordered included steak and potatoes, burger and fries, mushroom flatbread, quinoa and arugula salad, and parsley and pistachio fettuccine.  The three meals I opted for were “calorie conscious” choices (ranging from 402-538 calories per serving) but you never would have known, as they were all filling and far from lacking in flavor.

Packaging and ingredients:  My Home Chef box and its contents, insulated with a thick padded liner, were still cold when I arrived home from work.  While I couldn’t think of a reason to store and way to re-purpose it, this paper-based insulation was easy to recycle.  Produce, spices, starches and other ingredients were divided by meal and situated at the top of the box, with the proteins at the bottom.  Also included in the box were my three recipe cards, a booklet with information on food safety, cooking tips and kitchen tool basics, and a plastic binder were these and future recipes could be kept.

Home Chef box contents, insulation and recipe binder

Recipes and instructions:  Our menu for the week included blue cheese, smoked almond and chive-crusted pork chops with honey-roasted carrots, steelhead trout niçoise with warm potato and spinach salad, and mojito lime chicken with roasted cauliflower and blistered tomato-jalapeño relish.

The recipe cards include a suggested cook by date on them.  The fish was recommended to be cooked within three days, so the trout niçoise was the first meal I made.  I’ve always been wary of warm potatoes and string beans on a salad of leafy greens, but I gave it a go.  And while I don’t think it’ll become a diet mainstay, I did enjoy trying it.

Although the trout was among the best fish we had from any of the meal delivery services, the chicken was another story.  When I opened the package for the mojito lime chicken, one of the filets seemed a little off, both in color and texture.  As much as I hate waste, I maintain an “if in doubt, throw it out” philosophy when it comes to meat, so I discarded both and instead defrosted two chicken breasts that were in my freezer.

The pork chops were the last meal I made.  Like the trout, the pork chops were fresh, juicy and delicious.

Level of difficulty:  Two of the meals did start on the cook-top and then required transfer to the oven, which meant more dishes to do than usual, but otherwise, all three of the recipes were quick to prepare and easy to make.

Ease of cancellation:  I was able to cancel future orders online the same day my box arrived without issue.  Customer support and subscription information were included in the booklet that came inside the box, indicating that “You can make change to your weekly menus anytime before Friday at noon CST.  You are always able to skip weeks in advance, pause your account or cancel our service if necessary.”

Overall impression:  My biggest, and only, disappointment was the questionable meat.  I was very pleased with Home Chef’s introductory cost, the menu variety ranging from home-style to hipster, the option of up to six meals per week (!!!) and the transparency and ease of cancellation.

I’m also impressed with Home Chef’s cause marketing efforts, partnering most recently with Heifer International, an international economic development charity.  During the month of February, if customers select the one meal each week marked with the Heifer logo, Home Chef will make a donation to help Heifer International fight world hunger.

Stayed tuned for one last post in this series – a final analysis and comparison of the cost, quality and convenience of Plated, Hello Fresh, Blue Apron, and Home Chef.

A Low Price for Plated

This is part of a series offering reviews of the top meal delivery services, plus tips and tricks on how to get these subscriptions shipped straight to your kitchen for a fraction of the advertised price.  Other posts include How to Hack Hello Fresh, Save Big on Blue Apron, and Home Chef Coupons and Cash Back.

Plated

Cost:  Regular list price for the three meal per week plan for two people is $72.  I was unable to find a cash back rebate through Ebates or MrRebates.com, or points and miles for purchasing through any other shopping portal.  I used Google to find a $30 off coupon code, which is better than their currently advertised offer of your first night free, valued at $24.  After coupon redemption, my total cost was $42 or $7 per meal.

Delivery dates available:  Wednesday and Saturday.  Plated also required more lead time than the other meal delivery companies I reviewed.  The earliest weekday I could receive an order placed on Thursday, January 5 was Wednesday, January 18.

Meal choices:  Plated offers two, three or four meal per week plans for families of two, three or four.  They also offer a great deal of flexibility when it comes to choosing your menu.  Each week you can pick between eleven different meals, seven unique to that week, as well as four “Encore Recipes,” top-rated customer picks available all month.

Packaging and ingredients:  Produce, spices, starches and other ingredients were divided by meal and situated at the top of the box, with the proteins at the bottom.

In addition to several large ice packs to help keep the contents cold, Plated lines their boxes with strips of plastic covered polyurethane fiber insulation.  While this worked well for its intended purpose, I wasn’t a fan of the waste.  Other boxes have been lined with bags that could be reused for grocery trips during hot summer months or to transport warm pot-luck dishes during the holidays.  But I didn’t foresee a way to re-purpose these strips of plastic and polyurethane fiber, so while it pained me, into the trash they went.

On their website, Plated says you can recycle these liners at polyurethane facilities.  But the recycling facility locator they suggest, Earth911.com, didn’t find one near me.

Box contents and insulation

Recipes and instructions:  The choices I made for the week were Chicken Shawarma with Tomato, Cucumber and Tahini, Creamy Garlic Spaghetti Squash with Kale and Parmesan, and Garlic Butter Salmon with Spinach Rice Pilaf and Roasted Lemon.

The week before my box arrived, I received an email from customer service telling me one of the recipes was missing a step and providing several options to view the amended instructions.  A few days later, I received a second communication from customer service letting me know that on the day my box was to arrive I would receive an email with tracking information.  That email also provided other key information, including a reminder that I wouldn’t need to rush home from work because the contents of my box was guaranteed fresh until midnight the day of delivery and a recommendation to cook any seafood dishes first.

Level of difficulty:  My three meals were easy to prepare and I really appreciated that they were also reasonably low calorie at 590-660 calories per serving.

They were all delicious, but I think my favorite was the Chicken Shawarma.  The naan was fluffy and filling, the cucumber and tomato salad fresh, and I could have licked the tahini from its bowel .  Were it not so tasty, we likely could have shared one portion and saved the second for sacked lunches.

Chicken Shawarma ingredients
Presentation could use some work, but delicious nonetheless!
Garlic Butter Salmon with Spinach Rise Pilaf and Roasted Lemon before
Garlic Butter Salmon with Spinach Rise Pilaf and Roasted Lemon after (don’t mind the steam!)

Ease of cancelation:  I cancelled my subscription the day my box was received.

In the frequently asked question section of their website, Plated offers the following information about cancellations:  Subscription can be canceled at any time and at no cost. Simply visit the “Subscription” tab of your account page to manage your preferences.  At the time Subscription is canceled, any boxes with an “Open” status will be canceled. Any box marked “Confirmed” or “On its way” will still be delivered and charged as your final box. To confirm your final box status, see your account.

This seems intentionally vague and annoyingly confusing.  A separate FAQ answer indicates you have up to noon six days prior to its delivery date to modify your box.  Since their answer about deactivating your account was so unclear, I assume this is the also the cut-off to cancel before you’re locked into your next delivery.

Overall impression:  Compared to the other meal delivery services I tried during this experiment, Plated offers the most freedom and variety of recipes from which to choose, as well as more flexibility on the number of nights per week and diners per order.  However, the delivery days are limited, it took nearly two weeks to get my first order, and the company lacked transparency about their cancellation policy.  Most importantly, (this is a series about getting the most for your money, after all!) their first time and subsequent orders are significantly more expensive than other subscriptions.

How To Hack Hello Fresh

This is part of a series offering reviews of the top meal delivery services, plus tips and tricks on how to get these subscriptions shipped straight to your kitchen for a fraction of the advertised price.  Other posts include A Low Price for PlatedSave Big on Blue Apron, and Home Chef Coupons and Cash Back.

Hello Fresh

Cost:  Regular list price for the three meal per week plan is $59.94.  I scored $25 off through MrRebates.com by using the coupon code FRESHNEW50HF, which is advertised as $50 off your first two orders but still worked for this single purchase.  After my coupon redemption and a $5.94 cash back rebate, my adjusted total cost was $29 or less than $4.84 per meal.

Delivery dates available:  Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday

Meal choices:  For two people, Hello Fresh offers plans that include three, four or five meals per week.  (Families of four only have the option of three meals per week.)  There are six meal options from which to choose every week and you are given complete freedom when it comes to choosing your menu.

Hello Fresh menu options

Packaging and ingredients:  An insulated liner and several large ice packs helped keep the Hello Fresh box contents cold.  The proteins were located at the bottom of the box.  Separated from the meat by an ice pack, the produce, spices, starches and other ingredients were divided by meal into separate boxes.  I appreciated this help to keep my fridge tidy (ha!), as well as not needing to hunt for each night’s ingredients.

Organized!

Recipes and instructions:  The choices I made for the week were Crispy Shrimp Tacos, Cherry-Drizzled Pork Chops and Quick Sausage Bolognese.   In addition to the recipe cards for the three meals selected, Hello Fresh provides a booklet that includes all six of the week’s recipes with ingredient lists and step-by-step instructions with photos.

Another added value was the portion size.  While we polished off all the shrimp, I had enough tangy red cabbage and carrot slaw, tortillas and sour cream for lunch the next day.  And the same was said for the Bolognese.  Bonus points to Hello Fresh for enough leftovers for two extra meals!

Level of difficulty:  All three of the meals were relatively easy (thanks in large part to the chopping attachment that came with my Cuisinart Smart Stick, which is pretty much the best kitchen tool in my arsenal), and delicious.  I’d never in a million years considered making my own pasta sauce, but after being introduced to Bolognese (a great way to sneak veggies into my carnivore of a husband’s diet), I could easily replicate it.  And the slaw for the tacos… better than any restaurant.

Again, the only negative was my lack of non-stick cookware.  My stainless-steel skillet left most of the crispy from the shrimp stuck to the bottom of the pan.  Nonetheless, they were still devour-able.

Bolognese before
Bolognese after

Ease of cancelation:  You can modify, pause or cancel your delivery before midnight five business days before your next delivery.  I appreciated this information being clearly stated in my order confirmation, and had no problem logging-in to my online account and stopping any additional shipments.   Shortly after deactivating my account, I received a confirmation indicating my subscription had been cancelled.  Five days later, I received an email offering me a $5 incentive to give Hello Fresh another go.

Overall impression:  Compared to several of the other meal delivery services I tried during this experiment, I seemed to get a little more with Hello Fresh.  They provided more upfront options, extra delivery days, better packaging, additional recipes, and two brown bag lunches.  Hopefully, they’ll send me a coupon for more than $5, so I can justify a second order!  If they do, I’ll let you know.

Save Big on Blue Apron

We struggle with getting healthy, balanced meals on the table for dinner every night.  After long days in the office, it’s hard to come home to more work in the kitchen.  To make meals more exciting, regain some semblance of portion control, and introduce vegetables into my husband’s meat and potatoes diet, I challenged myself to see how cheaply I could get a week’s worth of dinner from four of the most popular meal delivery services.  Here’s how I did:

Blue Apron

Cost:  Regular price is $59.94 for the two person, three meals per week plan.  Through Ebates I was able to redeem a $30 off coupon and a $7.50 cash back rebate, for an adjusted total cost of $22.44 or incredible $3.74 per meal.

Delivery dates available:  Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday (residential only)

Meal choices:  Blue Apron’s two-person plan includes three meals per week.  (For a family of four, you have the choice of receiving two or four meals per week.)  There are six meal options from which to choose every week when on the two-person plan.  However, you aren’t given complete freedom when it comes to choosing your menu.  Based on your initial selection some options may be blocked, which I assume is to keep the customer from choosing the three meals with the costliest ingredients.

Packaging and ingredients:  All the meat and produce received was fresh and delicious.  It was kept cold thanks to an insulated liner inside the box and two large ice packs.  The proteins were located on the bottom of the box and the produce, “knick knacks” like sauces, spices and starches for all three of the dishes were intermingled but separated from the meat by one of the two ice packs.

The box is recyclable, but I kept the insulated bag for summer Costco trips and put the ice packs in my deep freeze for future road trips and tailgates.  Knowing the shrimp should be the first to be used, I made that dish the same evening the box arrived.  When I went to cook them, the shrimp were still somewhat frozen.

Shipping container and insulation
Loose ingredients
Heavy duty ice-packs separating the meat from the produce
Entire contents of the box

Recipes and instructions:  The choices I made for the week were Spicy Shrimp and Korean Rice Cakes, Guacamole Burgers, and Seared Chicken and Couscous.  All were delicious and the recipe instructions easy to follow.  Even my husband, who during the course of our marriage has refused to eat anything containing chlorophyll, ate and enjoyed the shrimp dish which contained a healthy amount of cabbage and several other ingredients he considers “exotic.”

Recipe card
Delicious!

Level of difficulty:  All three of the meals were quick to prepare and easy to make.  They would have been even easier if I had a non-stick skillet.  Using the stainless-steel cookware set I bought just after college meant I had to keep a closer eye on the temperature and amount of oil in the pan.  While I made do with a standard cheese grater, another tool I wished I had was a zester, as I’ve encountered multiple meal delivery service dishes during this challenge that call for lemon zest.

Ease of cancellation:  I was very easily able to stop any additional shipments by logging-in to my Blue Apron online account the day after my first box was received.  Shortly after adjusting my account settings, I received an email confirmation indicating my subscription had been cancelled with a link to restart my deliveries should I choose.

Overall impression:  I was very pleased with the introductory cost, which was one of the lowest I encountered, as well as the freshness and quality of the ingredients, the simplicity of preparation, and the ease of cancellation.  Compared to several of the other meal delivery services I tried during this challenge, I would have appreciated more meal choices and options on the date of delivery (I get why Monday is out, but Tuesday would be better than Wednesday).

Follow-up:  Shortly after cancellation, I received an email coupon offering me $30 off if I reactivated my Blue Apron account.  I elected to redeem that great deal, taking a gamble by signing-up through Ebates again to try and redeem that stellar $7.50 rebate.  It’s yet to post, but once it does – or doesn’t – I’ll report back to confirm whether it’s only available for first time orders.  Otherwise, you could try for 550 Southwest Rapid Reward or 400 United miles.

This is the first post in a series offering reviews of the top meal delivery services, and tips and tricks on how to get these shipped straight to your kitchen for a fraction of the advertised price.  Other posts include A Low Price for PlatedHow to Hack Hello Fresh, and Home Chef Coupons and Cash Back.

The Top 7 Tax Deductions to Maximize Your Return in 2017

The daughter of a CPA, my memories of tax season growing-up weren’t great – my dad spent most nights and weekends at the office, and was stressed from New Year’s Day to Tax Day.  I’m not kidding when I say April 16 was celebrated as a holiday in our home.

Which is why, as an adult, it’s a wonder I actually enjoy preparing our annual return.  Seriously… every year I eagerly anticipate the receipt of each form and ritualistically on January 1st, I start compiling a file of all our other paperwork.  I get giddy over completing our yearly 1040 form for the same reason that points, miles and portals get me excited: I enjoy seeing how my savvy can save or make us money.

Investing time into preparing for and compiling the necessary documents well before visiting your tax professional or logging-in to your online software of choice will help you get a larger refund or owe less, depending on your situation.  If you’re one of the millions of Americans who benefit from itemizing qualifying expenses on their return (versus taking the standard deduction), here are a few common deductions to consider:

Mortgage interest, insurance and points – Interest paid on your primary owner-inhabited residence is  typically deductible.  Points paid during refinancing can be deductible.  And in limited instances, if you pay private mortgage insurance (PMI), that expense may also be deductible.

Student loan interest – You can deduct up to $2,500 of interest paid on some types of student loans.  This is claimed as an adjustment to income, so you don’t even need to itemize to benefit.  However, the amount of your deduction is reduced if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is between $65,000 and $80,000 as a single person, or between $130,000 and $160,000 if filing jointly.  Singles with a MAGI of $80,000 and married couples with a MAGI of $160,000 no longer qualify for this benefit.

Charitable giving – If you made donations to your church or a qualifying charity, you can deduct those full amounts so long as you have a written record of the qualifying donation and no goods or services were received by you for the gift.  In addition to monetary gifts, you can also deduct in-kind donations like clothes and home goods.  Websites and apps like ItsDeductible can tell you the deductible value of these items.  And even though your time spent volunteering isn’t deductible, your mileage driving to and from volunteering is deductible.  Since 2016 was an election year, it’s important to note that campaign contributions are not deductible, neither are gifts to individuals even if they’re given through sites like Go Fund Me.

Medical, dental, vision and mental health expenses – If they exceed 10 percent of your MAGI, you can deduct your expenses associated with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of injury or illness.  You can also deduct the cost of transportation, health insurance premiums, prescription drugs, and non-cosmetic procedures.

Taxes paid and tax return – Eligibility varies, but you may be able to deduct personal property taxes, such as those paid to the state for a vehicle or boat.  While you might be able to deduct this and other state taxes, federal taxes, including penalties and interest owed are not deductible.

If this cost combined with other miscellaneous deductions (several of which are mentioned below) totals more than 2 percent of your income, you can deduct the cost of tax preparation software or the fees associated with hiring a Certified Professional Accountant (CPA) to prepare your annual return, provide advice on tax issues, or assist you during an audit.

Job search and moving expenses – If you are applying for positions in the same line of work as your previous job and the combined costs exceed of this and other miscellaneous deductions total 2 percent of your MAGI, you can deduct unreimbursed recruiting and employment agency fees, the cost of printing business cards, advertising and resumes, and travel and hotel expenses.  Unfortunately, the same expenses cannot be deducted if you’re new to the workforce and looking for your first job.

If you moved more than 50 miles for a new job or to start a business, you can also deduct your out-of-pocket moving expenses, including mileage, parking fees and tolls.  Obviously, if you received a relocation stipend from your employer, you are ineligible for this deduction.  You can take this deduction for your first job.

Educator expenses – Teachers can deduct up to $250 (or $500 if both spouses are eligible educators), for unreimbursed purchases like books, supplies and equipment, including computers and software, as well as the cost of relevant professional development courses.

The deadline for filing your 2016 return is April 18, so you have three extra days this year to make sure you’ve accounted for every single deduction that will benefit you.   

And if you’re filing online, don’t forget to use a portal!  Both Ebates and MrRebates.com offer cash back from H&R Block and TurboTax online or you can earn 1,000 miles by going through Southwest’s Rapid Rewards shopping portal.

Disclaimer:  Many of the deductions mentioned above may have other qualifying criteria not expressly mentioned.   I am not a tax or accounting expert, so I encourage you to seek the advice of a professional to confirm your individual eligibility for these and other deductions and credits.