This is the era of convenience. Everything can be delivered to your front door without you leaving the sofa: clothes, groceries, taxis, even STI-testing kits. However, could I get a slimmer, healthier me couriered over?
Diet boxes have been around for more than a decade, offering their customers fully prepared, calorie-counted meals. Yet in the past year the number of players in this crowded market has taken off. Boxes start at £6 a day, climbing to well over £40 for the specially tailored recipes of cacao nibs and courgetti consumed by Hugh Jackman and Lily Cole.
“People have become aware of the value of their time,” says Catherine Cottney, the manager of trends at Mintel, the research company. “People are willing spend money to get that time back.” To discover if having all my food prepared in advance was the answer to losing weight without losing time, I spent a week trying different diet boxes.
Mediterranean Diet by Bodychef
Price £21.73 a day (cheaper if you order more weeks’ worth)
Calories 1,600 a day (£1.75 cheaper if you choose 1,200 calories)
Four days’ worth of food arrives in the sort of polystyrene freezer box used to pack haddock in Billingsgate market, and the contents look about as appealing: some ready meals, a single slice of bread, a tiny bag of rice, a lonely pear and salads in containers like those little plastic pots you have to pee in when you visit the prostate doctor. For something costing nearly £20 a day, this feels quite downmarket.
Bodychef was set up by Jayne Ritchie, 55. Based in Lowestoft, Suffolk, its most famous client is the former X Factor contestant Olly Murs, who is definitely less of a porker than he used to be. The breakfast of strawberry yoghurt and muesli is pleasantly agreeable, although by 10am I am already reaching for my snack of blueberries and brazil nuts.
I am in the middle of filming a documentary and, after a freezing morning trying to cajole the shoppers of Melton Mowbray to give their opinions on camera, we break for lunch in a café. The crew all order ploughman’s with pork pies (it’s obligatory to eat pork pies in this bit of Leicestershire). The cameraman looks at my forlorn collection of plastic pots, including a minuscule receptacle of low-fat cream cheese that I am spreading on my oat cakes. “It’s like hospital food,” he says. It’s true.
All the items are individually bagged and labelled: Harry Wallop, Monday Lunch, Mixed Leaf and Tomato Salad (10 cals). It’s an utterly joyless experience. Although, to give Bodychef credit, it is very easy to track exactly how many calories I am eating. “A lot of us fall down on portion control,” says Ritchie. And I do feel full for some of the afternoon.
In the evening we check into the Best Western, Melton Mowbray, where I sheepishly hand over my plastic box of vegetable biryani to he waitress and ask if she can reheat it, while the director and assistant producer tuck into beef wellington. A miserable way to end a Monday, capped with a two-calorie jelly that tastes of Benylin.
Good for Calorie-counting
Bad for Flavour. Self-respect
Paleo Inspired by Pure Package
Price £44.95 a day (cheaper if you order more weeks’ worth)
Calories 1,800 a day
This is more like it. If Monday’s diet was for C-list former X Factor contestants, this is for A-listers, with a price tag to match. Hugh Jackman, Lily Cole and Erin O’Connor are all customers.
And no wonder. Your food arrives daily (left at 6am in a designated place by the recycling bins) in a swish little freezer bag with a personalised menu attached. If you are dining out in the evening, the company will ring the Ivy or Nobu on your behalf to check what dishes are best suited to your DNA type.
Today’s location is a studio in Hackney, northeast London. As I tuck into my roasted courgette and leek frittata breakfast, I reassure myself that this is how Hollywood actors start their day. The assistant producer makes admiring noises in my direction as he munches on a Costa croissant. I vow that carbohydrates will never cross my lips again.
However, after a lunch salad of grated raw mooli, julienned courgette and bland herbed chicken, my body starts to shut down due to extreme hunger and cold. The studio is heated by only a wood-burning stove (with limited fuel) and I resort to foraging in the local park to find firewood to keep warm. This is a low point of the week.
Good for Pretending that dieting is glamorous
Bad for Hunger
The Market Menu by Balance Box
Price £24.99 a day (cheaper if you order more weeks’ worth)
Calories 1,800 a day
This is a more affordable offshoot from Pure Package — for those who only want to sell one kidney to lose some weight. “I felt we needed something more accessible,” says Jenny Irvine, who runs the company and has a strange definition of accessible. I think that more than £20 a day is pretty steep. “We get a lot of feedback from people saying they are saving money on a Balance Box,” she claims. Well, maybe if you are the type who dines out every night.
“The issue is it’s so convenient, it’s right there,” she adds. She is right. The four days arrive in a large cardboard box, with each day clearly laid out in sturdy plastic pots.
The meals taste good too, with the stewed fruit and granola-topped yoghurt for breakfast particularly satisfying.
Good for Flavour
Bad for People who already have a full Tupperware drawer
Botanical Superfood Radiance Programme with active protein by Spring Green London
Price £53 a day (cheaper if you order more weeks’ worth)
Calories 1,700 to 1,800 a day
It was one of Vogue’s “health hacks for 2017”, and Spring Green London’s clients include the fashionistas Saffron Aldridge and Princess Florence von Preussen. “Our aim,” says the menu that comes with my box, “is to leave you feeling more hydrated, vibrant, lighter and brighter.” Only one of these is true. I feel lighter — in my wallet and my stomach.
Breakfast was a Radiance raw cacao chia bowl with coconut yoghurt, raw sprouted buckwheat sprinkles, blueberries, bee pollen, cacao nibs, vanilla and coconut butter. It looked and tasted like some muddy frogspawn at the bottom of a dredged pond. It was so disgusting I couldn’t finish it.
Then came the detox juice. Spring Green London is by no means the only diet company to boast about its detoxing powers — but it is a term that drives many dieticians up the wall. Aisling Pigott, a registered dietician and the spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, says: “The only thing that will detox you is your liver, which will do the job absolutely fine. The whole detox term is based on complete pseudoscience.”
Still, the green bean and seaweed noodles with prawns and spinach pesto weren’t too bad.
Good for People who like cacao nibs
Bad for Your wallet
Everdine clean and wholesome gourmet classic meals
Price £8.50 a meal (cheaper if you order 12 or more meals)
Calories The dishes vary from 347 to 714 calories
Approaching the weekend, I went for a service that doesn’t offer you a fully regimented daily plan. Instead, it couriers you frozen meals in eco-sheep’s wool packaging.
For lunch I had king prawns, soba noodles and shiitake mushrooms in a miso broth, which contained 337 calories. It had the richness of a proper ramen and the shiitake were authentically leathery — in a good way. Although I am baffled as to how something is “clean” because it uses agave syrup rather than sugar and buckwheat flour rather than wheat flour. And I am not convinced it is any more convenient than grabbing an M&S Count On Us ready meal.
In the evening I went to a birthday party and drank my full weekly alcohol allowance.
Good for Stocking up your freezer
Bad for Serious weight loss
The Green with Protein by the Detox Kitchen
Price £42 a day (cheaper if you order more weeks’ worth)
Calories 1,200 calories with 50g of lean protein
I’ve fallen through the rabbit hole with this one. On opening the box the first thing I see is a pot containing pills. There’s a white biocare acidophilus capsule — “the most potent probiotic around” — and a black chlorella supplement, made out of algae.
“I bet they are trying to murder you. Just like Litvinenko,” says my 11-year-old as he wolfs down his Weetabix before heading to school.
Detox Kitchen, which was founded by Lily Simpson, 31, counts among its customers Elle Macpherson and Gwyneth Paltrow, who, let’s not forget, has extolled steam-cleaning her uterus with mugwort. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the box includes a clutch of bottles, hardly big enough for a Sylvanian Family rabbit. They contain wheatgrass, spirulina and ginger antioxidant “shots”.
Mid-morning I open the snack. Yet more sodding seeds. My week has been plagued by bird food. However, in a moment of ecstasy I discover that the seeds are not only roasted, but salted too. Hallelujah! Some taste has re-entered my life.
Simpson says: “To cook without salt would be criminal.” A woman after my own heart. The lunch of courgetti, radish and pea salad has a luscious dressing. Dinner of king prawn Thai green curry has salt, chilli and coconut in full flow; I’d gladly order it in a restaurant.
If only Simpson didn’t attach the faddy “detox” label to her brand, which is big enough to have gained 134,000 Instagram followers, spawned two delis in London and even have a Pilates studio. “I would never say to someone, ‘Eat loads of courgette your hangover will be cured,’ ” she argues. “But I do really believe through food you can improve how your body functions.”
Good for Taste
Bad for Gwyneth loopiness
Total cost £195.17 for 6 days
Weight lost 5½lb
By the end of the week I have fallen from 11st 9lb, to 11st 3½lb — a weight loss of five and half pounds in only eight days. This is impressive. And for people with more money than time, who are keen to drop a dress size before a holiday or wedding, I can see the appeal of these portion-controlled boxes.
But anyone can lose weight that quickly if no carbs or alcohol pass your lips. I am not sure a £40-a-day melange of pumpkin seeds, spinach leaves and cacao nibs is the most cost-effective route.
On the upside, I have collected an impressive array of high-quality Tupperware pots.