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6 top food boxes for the holidays and beyond

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Chance are that even if you haven't ordered a "meal kit" yourself, you know someone who has. Meal kit services like Blue Apron are growing in popularity because they take the stress out of dinner prep, putting together recipes and ingredients in one weekly box.

At this time of year, meal kits can also be excellent gifts for friends and family members who are juggling the demands of family get-togethers, gift-giving and holiday parties, which can put the squeeze on the free time needed to plan a menu and shop at the grocery store.

A host of competitors have popped up to meet the demand, with most following a similar format. Each week, customers receive a box filled with ingredients that are premeasured, along with chef-developed recipes for healthy, relatively quick meals. While customers can subscribe on an on-going basis, the companies generally offer a one-off gift subscription, such as Purple Carrot's choice of a one-week gift for two- or four-person meals, at $68 or $74, respectively.

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Food-subscription services are more expensive than shopping for ingredients on one's own, but customers are paying for the convenience of skipping menu planning and a visit to the grocery store. Most companies provide every ingredient needed, except for basics like salt and oil.

With more Americans turning to these preplanned food kits, venture investors haven't been far behind. Blue Apron has received almost $200 million in venture backing, while rival Hello Fresh has received more than $275 million in investments.

The good news for home chefs: Across the board, the recipes are tasty and easy to prepare. Picking one service over another may come down to dietary preferences (such as Purple Carrot's vegetarian focus) and which recipes appeal to you.

Read on to learn about four top meal-prep kits tested by CBS MoneyWatch, as well as one gourmet box and a wine-subscription service.

Purple Carrot: $68 per week/$11.33 per person

Purple Carrot

This kit has earned kudos for its plant-based menu, featuring vegan meals such as latkes with horseradish cream, apple chutney and sautéed broccoli. The company earned some buzz when The New York Times' Mark Bittman joined as its chief innovation officer, although the cookbook author left earlier this year.

Purple Carrot's recipes are fairly quick to prepare and inventive, such as a kale caesar salad with included roasted chickpeas and an open-skillet sweet potato lasagne.

Customers can choose either a two-person ($68) or four-person plan ($74), and can choose if they want to skip a week or cancel their plan. One drawback: Purple Carrot offers only one menu per week, while some competitors provide more recipe choices.

HelloFresh: $69, or $11.50 per meal

HelloFresh

HelloFresh offers three meal options: its classic box, its veggie box and its family box.

That may appeal to home cooks who want to switch between eating vegetarian and adding meat or fish to their diets.

The recipes were easy to cook and tasty and came with a booklet that explained the culinary theme of the week, which was brassicas. The booklet explained that brassicas like kale and brussels sprouts are full of phytonutrients but warned they can have a pungent odor when overcooked.

This week, the service is offering a classic box, with recipes such as drizzly balsamic fig chicken and veggie options including a vegetarian shepherd's pie.

Pricing varies by box. HelloFresh charges $69 for its two-person classic plan; $59 for its two-person veggie meal plan; and $79.95 for its family plan, which serves four people.

Like Purple Carrot, customers can skip a week or cancel their subscription at any time. HelloFresh also sells gift cards, which provide a one-time box delivery.

Plated: $48 per week, or $12 per plate

Plated gets high marks for diversity and menu choice. The company offers roughly half a dozen new recipes each week, as well as a selection of "encore" recipes, which are top-rated dishes from previous months.

The service's directions are easy to follow, and the meals were tasty. Plated says it uses only meat raised without antibiotics, sustainably caught seafood and organic produce when possible.

Gift cards for one-week meal boxes are available here.

Blue Apron: $59.94, or $9.99 per plate

Blue Apron

Blue Apron may be most familiar to most Americans, due to its rapid growth and its upcoming $3 billion initial public offering.

The service offers six recipe choices each week, with its Dec. 26 menu including Jamaican-style turnovers and sesame chicken with bok choy and jasmine rice. Of all the meal kits CBS MoneyWatch tested, Blue Apron's offer the most ethnically diverse menus.

The service also provides a wine subscription, with bottles of vino paired to match its menus. That may appeal to consumers who want a glass of wine with dinner but also wouldn't mind skipping a visit to the wine store.

Pricing for its meal service is either $59.94 for its two-person plan or $69.92 per week for its four-person plan, while its wine delivery is $65.99 per month for six bottles, which are split between red and white.

Gift cards that provide between a week to four weeks of meals are available here.

Try the World: $39 per box

Try the World

If your gift recipient doesn't like to cook or you want to send something unique, Try the World might do the trick. This subscription box curates a selection of gourmet foods each month around a country's cuisine, such as Italy or Sweden.

Its current holiday box takes a slightly different approach, with items that were picked by members of the Michelin restaurant-rating publication. Each month, a booklet describes the box's food items and provides tips and recipes for how to use them. For instance, in the Michelin-themed box, the booklet recommended trying its Italian truffle sauce folded into an omelet or spread on crostini.

Customers in New York City can send a Try the World box via same-day delivery. The company also offers the choice to order as many as 12 monthly boxes as gifts.

Winc: $39 per month, or $13 per bottle

Winc

Winc, which was formerly known as Club W, is a monthly wine-subscription service that asks customers which flavors they enjoy and then picks out wines that will match their taste profile.

The Winc membership plan costs $39 per month, as well as a $6 shipping fee. The company also offers gift cards in $50 increments, starting at $100.

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