As the editor in charge of food and dining for a regional lifestyle magazine, I receive invitations on a fairly regular basis to sample the offerings of local food purveyors. I was especially skeptical of an email invite from ZoneManhattan.com that came last month: a food delivery service that billed itself as providing “healthy” low-salt meals that you “simply pop in the microwave for 60 seconds and enjoy.”
“Healthy” often translates to poor tasting or bland. Let’s face it—fats, sugar, and salt makes food taste wonderful. It’s not the only way to enhance flavor (fresh herbs, not processed ingredients, etc, will do the trick, too), but The Big Three often yield the most crave-worthy results. Now I did think there was a modest possibility that ZoneManhattan.com could pull off meals that tasted good while also being relatively healthy (the CEO is a chef with a strong restaurant pedigree; his wife is an accomplished pastry chef), but the fact is most businesses in the food service industry go in one direction or the other: we will feed you tasty food that’s not so healthy, or we will feed you healthy food that’s not so tasty.
The second part of ZoneManhattan’s email invite was also troubling. Any machine that ruins bread, one of humankind’s greatest works of art, is no friend of mine. The microwave has its limited uses (reheating liquids, warming up brown rice for lunch at work, and to cook potatoes) but there’s a reason most fine restaurants don’t have one—they are about convenience and speed and not cooking tasty food. Call me an old-fashioned oven purist, but meals designed to be heated in the microwave don’t give me hope that they’ll be anything but mediocre.
It was with this cynical mindset that I decided to try the company’s generous offer of complimentary meals for 7 days.
The first step is a call from a nutritionist, who asks about height, weight, activity/exercise level, any dietary restrictions (options include low-sodium, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and sugar-free), and whether you are trying to lose weight or maintain it (my choice was maintain). Based on the conversation, the nutritionist gets a calorie-per-day amount (I got 2,200 and my wife, who joined me in the service, 1,500).
The next thing you know, blue duffels show up daily (6 am) to your doorstep (or in my case, as a condo dweller, to the front desk concierge) full of food in plastic containers marked “breakfast,” “snack 1,” “lunch,” “snack 2,” and “dinner.” There’s also a printout with descriptions of each dish and microwave instructions. The meals are based on the Zone Diet, which purports the body needs the right balance of carbs, protein, and fat (40:30:30 ratio) to stay healthy, slim, and operate at peak performance.
The first meal was a breakfast of steel-cut oats, blueberries, walnuts, and turkey bacon. While the flavor was there, thanks in large part to the turkey bacon and blueberries, both my wife and I felt the portion was small. This was a recurring theme with the breakfasts though the lunches and dinners were better proportioned.
Vegetarian minestrone was the first snack from Day 1.
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The first snack (meant for mid-morning) was vegetarian minestrone and almost too thick to call a soup but nonetheless delicious and full of brightly colored and fresh tasting tomatoes, zucchini, and parsley. In fact, the color and bright flavors of all the produce and herbs throughout the entire trial was impressive and lends credence to the press release assertion that CEO Steve Lindner is picking out ingredients 5 am daily at the Fulton Fish and Hunts Point Food Market in the Bronx where the company has a 5,000-square-foot facility.
Lunch was a white meat tuna salad with pickled cauliflower and asparagus, a decent-enough tasting meal but better was the Day 4 lunch of basil-poached sweet Maine lobster with golden quinoa and snow peas that two of my co-workers commented, “looks good!” And oh it was.
In fact eight of the 10 lunches and dinners were fish (an apricot-barbecue shrimp lunch on Day 5 was almost as delectable as the lobster), and while a portion of them tended to be underseasoned (easily fixable by turning to my spice rack), they were cooked well and accompanied by varied grains, legumes, and colorful veggie medleys that are a highlight of the plan. Accompanying Friday’s dinner of a mustard- and rosemary-crusted rack of lamb—as good as or better than I’ve had at a number of sit-down restaurants, by the way—was a sweet, crunchy veggie medley that included zucchini, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, yellow peppers, broccoli, and spinach. You’ll eat your veggies on ZoneManhattan, and like doing it. I had some of the best butternut squash, kale, and turnips (yes, turnips, believe it!) I’ve ever tasted while on the Zone plan.
Snack 2 (afternoon) is a sweet; the first day it was a red rice pudding topped with pineapple and strawberries—a sweet hit, but not overwhelmingly so, that kept my sweet-tooth at bay. The sign of a good dessert is that you can taste flavor beyond the sugar and all the snack 2s (e.g., mango lassi panna cotta, cappuccino mousse) had this attribute. And the dessert’s flavor is especially notable when you consider Zone doesn’t use any cream or butter.
In summary, since I was on the plan for just seven days, I can’t attest to long-term weight loss/weight maintenance effectiveness of the program (for the record I lost a pound and a half in the 7 days and that included eating two non-Zone cheat meals and doing my usual 30-minute or so cardio workout every other day), but was mostly satiated (a few breakfasts being the exceptions) and thoroughly impressed with the ingredient quality, meal execution, and thoughtfulness behind the dishes at ZoneManhattan.
• Healthy-eating food pyramid brought to life
• Amazing variety of vegetables
• Produce is fresh
• Thoughtful, creatively designed meals
• Varied daily menus
• Fun opening up duffel to see what meals you’ll have
• Small but delicious afternoon snacks by gifted pastry chef satiate sweet cravings
• Local company (owners live in Briarcliff Manor)
• Fish and turkey entrées tended to be underseasoned.
• A few of the breakfasts left us still hungry.
PRICING: The cost is $37.95/per day (plus tax) if you sign up for 31 days. Any less time commitment and the price goes up: $39.95/per day for 21 days; $42.95/per day for 14 days; $45.95/per day for 7 days. There is a Winter Work Out Special for a 90-day commitment at $32.95/per day until March 1, 2016.