Photo (cc) by StarsApart
If you’re busy with work, family, and life in general, eating healthy isn’t always easy. It takes time to plan out menus, buy food, and cook meals.
If you regularly grab restaurant food instead of cooking, you’re not alone. A 2011 LivingSocial dining out survey showed the average American eats 4.8 meals each week in restaurants – including takeout.
Luckily, there’s help: Meal planning sites can help you eat healthier and more cost-effectively by planning meals for you. Since I’m always on the lookout for new and quick recipes to try, I took a look at five sites and weighed them based on how easy they were to use, recipe variety, and what they offered. I can cook, but most of the time my cooking is simple, quick-to-prepare meals to fit into a busy lifestyle. So time taken to use a site also factored into my review.
Here’s a breakdown of the sites (in no particular order):
Food on the Table
The site Food on the Table allows you to set your preferences for what you like to eat, if you are on a restricted diet, and what chain supermarkets you like to shop. The site suggests recipes tailored to your preferences. After picking recipes, it will create a grocery list you can print, email, or send to your smartphone. The site also tracks what’s on sale at three stores you choose. You can submit recipes, review recipes, and connect with other users through a member forum.
- Overall impression: This site was user-friendly and interesting. But there were two drawbacks: One was the limitation of being able to select only three grocery stores at a time. Since I usually shop sales at more than three stores, I found that slightly annoying. The other drawback was I could only choose one main category under its restricted menu preference out of five choices. For example, I couldn’t choose both gluten-free and low carb as main restrictions.
- Recipe variety: The site has a wide variety of recipes to fit every palate. The ones I looked at all appeared simple to make with common kitchen ingredients.
- Cost-effectiveness: Food on the Table allows you to plan up to three meals at a time for free. If you want the ability to plan out a whole week of meals, the site has subscriptions starting at $5 a month for a three-month trial, then $9.95 a month afterward.
The site Pepperplate allows you to put together your own list of recipes on its site. All meals, including breakfast, can be planned out for the week using the recipes and menus you create. It will create a grocery list based on the recipes’ ingredients and arrange the shopping list by the way you shop – the site has a store model to replicate your favorite store.
- Overall impression: The ability to plan out all meals in a day is helpful to someone who is on a restricted diet or following a weight-loss plan like the South Beach Diet or Weight Watchers. That being said, the site is still time-consuming to set up and use. It takes time to build up your recipe list, compile the menus, and set them in the planner.
- Recipe variety: Since you’re the one adding the recipes, variety is what you make it.
- Cost-effectiveness: It’s free. The site also has mobile versions for iPhone, Android, Windows, and Nook platforms.
Once a Month Mom
The site Once a Month Mom offers monthly menus designed to cook once in a month, freeze the meals, and reheat. The site provides shopping lists, instructions, recipe cards, freezer labels, and a blog with tips and tricks to get the most out of the menus. The lists, instructions, recipe cards, and labels are for paying members and I, as a visitor, couldn’t access those. The rest of the site is easy to use and lets folks see the current menus and recipes.
- Overall impression: I’m intrigued, although skeptical that someone who doesn’t have a large freezer could pull off cooking once a month. The site claims it’s possible with an apartment freezer. I did like the variety of menus and recipes.
- Recipe variety: The recipes the site picks are varied enough to keep meals interesting throughout the month.
- Cost-effectiveness: The site costs $8 a month or $72 a year. Since it’s healthier (and cheaper) to throw a ready-made meal in the microwave than hopping in the car and hitting a drive-through fast food joint, there’s potential for some serious saving here.
Plan to Eat
With Plan to Eat you can build your own recipe book from the Web and your own collection. The site allows you to drag and drop any recipe into the meal planner you can sync with your Google calendar. Plan to Eat makes grabbing recipes off the Web even easier with a button you add to your browser to put recipes into your recipe book. The planner also creates a shopping list for you and there’s a mobile version of the site to take on your phone or tablet.
- Overall impression: The site is easy to use and it gives you 15 recipes to start your collection. It will take some time to stock the recipe book, so if you’re looking for something already planned out, this may not be the site for you.
- Recipe variety: Since you build your own list of recipes, the variety is what you make it.
- Cost-effectiveness: Plan to Eat offers a 30-day free trial to take the site for a test run. After the trial, it costs $39 a year or $4.95 a month.
With Say Mmm, you can plan dinners for up to a month from your recipe collection or browse and use one of the meal plans. You can also save restaurants to Say Mmm, post reviews, and track prices for meals and groceries. It has a Web browser “clip it” button to grab recipes from websites and will create custom shopping lists. The site also lets you share recipes and messages with other members.
- Overall impression: It was the only site I saw that allowed you to search Facebook for recipes and change the page themes on its pages. I liked the ability to include restaurants in the meal planning because it’s more like a budget planning tool. It does take time to set up the grocery list and meal plans, even if you grab the ready-made plans. The site was a little awkward to navigate at first, but after a short learning curve that was no longer a problem.
- Recipe variety: It has a wide variety of recipes and you can customize it even more with your own.
- Cost-effectiveness: It’s free to use and you can save up to 100 recipes with the free site. The site also has a subscription program, Say Mmm Plus, for $3 a month. What the subscription gets you is the cost tracking, no ads on your screen, and the ability to save as many recipes as you want.
Other menu planning sites including MealMixer and The Six O’Clock Scramble offered free trials of their sites after you provided a payment method to pay for a subscription when the trial ended. You could cancel the subscription before the trial was up and not get charged.
So the next time you’re wondering what to make for dinner, try a menu planning site for ideas. They take the guesswork out of cooking and can be handy tools for watching food spending.