A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to try out MealPal – a meal service that allows you to pre-order dishes at local Denver restaurants during weekdays. One of the selling points of MealPal is that since you purchase your meal packs ahead of time and then go pick up the meals at the restaurant yourself, they are able to offer you restaurant quality food at a much lower cost than delivery. So for example, if you purchase a 12 meal pack, each meal comes out to be $6.39 plus tax – not significantly more than it would cost you to buy a frozen meal at the supermarket.
The MealPal folks hooked me up with a 5 meal plan to test out. Here are my thoughts on the service:
Once you purchase a meal pack, you’ll be asked to answer a few questions about your meal preferences so the system can show you stuff you’re more likely to enjoy – including whether or not you’re a vegetarian and generally how big of a meal you’re looking to eat for lunch.
Really what answering these questions does is pre-select the filters that appear at the top of the general meal search page – so you can always change these at any time.
Initially I did choose vegetarian but found the vegetarian filter to be limiting since I do eat chicken and fish. In the end, most days I left that preference off.
Also in terms of the meal size – I usually didn’t elect for that preference to be on – I was more swayed by the type of food it was than the size of the meal.
Ordering each day
Ordering each of your lunches is easy once you get the hang of it. Each day at 5pm the lunch choices for the next day become available. You have until 9:30am the day of pickup to choose meals – then no more orders can be taken for that day. You’ll get an alert email at 5pm and 9:30am reminding you of these deadlines.
I’ll be honest, with my email box being a general disaster area, the daily emails didn’t always surface to my attention – I’d probably be better served by a text message alert or something, but I did like the reminder when I happen to catch the emails.
Once the kitchen is “open” at 5pm each day, you can filter and search for what you might want to eat the next day.
One of the things I didn’t realize the first day I tried it was that the meals offered by the restaurant can change every day – you are not selecting from the full menu from each of these restaurants – each eatery seems to offer ONE lunch per day. Once you figure that out, the urgency of choosing a dish you really want becomes more apparent – it might not be there tomorrow! They sometimes repeat meals over the course of a week, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever see that dish on MealPal ever again.
As I stretched into my second and third days, I did like the favorites feature – where you basically can favorite a restaurant and then filter on your favorite restaurants in the subsequent days, making it easy to zero in on places that you liked in the past.
You aren’t allowed to customize any of the meals (I think that’s part of what helps keep costs down), so all you do is choose the meal and when you’re going to pick it up, and you’re done!
The meal selection was varied, and each day I could always find something I wanted to eat. The toughest thing was trying to predict what kind of food I would be in the mood for the next day.
Pickup at the restaurant
When you order the meal you choose a 15-minute window you agree to come pick up your lunch. They warn you to be punctual because “If you don’t pick up during your selected window, we can’t promise that the restaurant will honor your meal.”
Generally, for all the restaurants I ordered from, it was a relatively quick process – I’d just go up to the cash register or pickup counter, give them my name and the meal was handed over to me. Only on one occasion did I need to wait a few minutes for my order – but no longer than it might take if you called ahead and ordered anyway. Since I’d already pre-paid for my meals, I never had to sign anything or pay for anything during pickup. Easy!
Here are the meals I tried out during my MealPal trial run…
Day 1: Five on Black
I had no idea that Five on Black was a quick-service Brazillian place before I showed up to pick up my order. I was super excited! I got the chicken bowl with a chunky tomato vinaigrette on brown rice with collard greens and pao de queijo. Everything was very tasty (loved the cheese bread) and the portions were great – definitely plenty of food and then some. Loved that in addition to the good-tasting food, it was relatively healthy. Would definitely order from here again. Definitely my hands down favorite.
Went to the prep counter past the register where they had a sign for pickup order. Guy helped me straight away. Wasn’t in the restaurant more than two minutes total. Success!
Day 2: Green Fine Salad Co
Went straight to the pay counter at Green Fine Salad Co and the cashier fished out my salad from the refrigerated case directly behind her. In and out just like that even though there was a long line of folks waiting to order and pay. Felt like royalty.
My southwest salad was good – pretty big salad, I had leftovers for the next day!
Day 3: Mint Indian
Fairly crowded in the Mint Indian restaurant, seemed like it was a convention crowd. I strolled up to the bar and gave the guy my name, he went back into the restaurant and it took a few minutes, but I shortly had my meal in hand.
Got the vegetarian Baigan Bhartha (eggplant) with rice. Meal was about medium sized – I finished the whole thing for lunch. This place gets great reviews, but I probably would order something else the next time.
Day 4: Mangiamo Pronto
Waitstaff at Mangiamo Pronto was a bit busy – actually took me a minute or two to get someone’s attention, but once I did got my order quickly.
Got the Caprese Panino with a basil pesto pasta salad with feta and olives. Medium sized portion – finished the whole thing.
Overall, I would recommend MealPal as a lunch service. The prices are pretty competitive, especially if you’re the kind of person who orders out lunch every day. I would say that you have to be good at remembering to order your meals – especially as you are approaching the end of your meal pack is eligibility. For example, I forgot to order my Friday meal before 9:30am and I was shut out of getting my last meal of my trial run. It’s use it or lose it!
Something to note, all plans start immediately after purchase – so if you buy 12 meals to use in 30 days, the clock starts ticking immediately – you can’t purchase and then choose a date to start. The current meal plans offered are:
- Lunch a Bunch: up to 12 meals for $6.39 per meal plus tax, after 30 days your plan will automatically renew
- Lunch a Lot: up to 20 meals for $5.99 per meal plus tax, after 30 days your plan will automatically renew
One thing about the website, you can’t really get to the main part of the website until you purchase a meal pack, which is a bit of a barrier to entry for those who aren’t sure if they want to join. I would have liked to have seen an introductory offer (say purchasing 3 meals to use in 10 days) to get my feet wet rather than having to jump in and commit to at least 12 meals from the get-go.
Something I liked about MealPal was that it introduced me to some great restaurants I’d never ordered from before and allowed me to see a wide variety of things I could eat for lunch. I’d look forward to MealPal expanding this to dinner (which they make available in different markets), which if the price point was the same would be some pretty decent value.
One of the things about MealPal is you do have to make the commitment to choosing and picking at least 12 meals out in the future, but based on the level of quality food you’re getting and the array of places you get to choose from, I’d say it’s worth it, especially if you’re the type of person who’s taking out for lunch anyway.