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3 Solutions to Ease Meal Planning for Healthier Eating

Updated: Jul 5, 2020

One question, three little words. That's all it takes to set off feelings of dread in the pit of your stomach.

You could simply ignore them, but the smaller ones usually don't go away, at least not for about 18 years or so. Of course, you can avoid this stress by planning ahead. But meal planning can feel like a task that hijacks your time. I mean, c'mon, wouldn't you rather do this?

You could run away to live alone in a lovely little cottage by the sea, but if you want to get healthier, leaner, or fitter, you going to have to do some planning. Yes, you can go the old school route, and make a list of meals and then groceries. If you enjoy that and it works for your schedule, more power to you. But for the rest of us, we can put our tech to use to make healthy eating happen, consistently. Here are 3 ideas that could alleviate meal planning stress and give you time back for things you enjoy:


Meal Planning Apps

There are loads of options for this one. Many appear to be free at first glance, but are either free for a trial period or require a subscription to get more robust functionality. For my highly unscientific experiment, I picked two that looked promising and tried them out for the week. Both apps saved me time a ton of time compared with my previous handwritten meal planning and list method because they automatically generated the list from the recipes. Considering that your time is an asset that can't be replace, even the paid subscriptions (either work out to less than $1/week) could be well worth it! Please note: This overview is based on the iPhone app, but these apps are available for Android phones. Also, I don't work with affiliates and all costs came out of my pocket.


Paprika

The basics: This app has a flat fee of $4.99 (desktop app is $29.99.) You can add recipes from the web (doesn't work for all websites, but worked well overall) or type in your own, easily add the recipe's ingredients to a grocery list, and schedule meals on a calendar.


The details: I use a lot of recipes from the web, so I found this app very useful. My previous method was inefficient, time consuming, and frustrating (make list on paper or phone, then make grocery list on an app.) With this, I can browse for and add a recipe, then tap an icon to add its ingredients to my grocery list. Once imported, you can scale your recipe up for a larger crowd. When you add your recipe's ingredients to the grocery list, it brings up the list to let you check off items you already have. This means you're less likely to waste money on buying duplicate pantry ingredients. The grocery list also shows which recipe(s) each ingredient is for, directly below the item. This was helpful when I had just enough time to shop for one dinner, because I could decide which recipe I was making and only purchase the items I need for that recipe. If you and your partner share meal planning, this app allows family sharing, which means you only need to pay for it once per household. It also syncs to the cloud, so you can share and update the grocery list on the fly. One drawback is that if you want to use the app on a different type of device (e.g. computer or tablet), you must purchase the app for that separately. The upside is that the app syncs across devices.


Pros: Flat fee (and even if you splurged for both a desktop and phone app, it would work out to less than a $1/week); flexibility of recipe choice; shareable across the household; makes it easy to scale up a recipe

Cons: Fee for each type of device; you must build your own recipe list; requires more time because you need to plan each main and side yourself


Mealime

The basics: This app is free, but has limitations unless you want to pay $5.99/month or $49.99/year. I tried the free version, which still offers a lot. It's actually more of a meal planning service app, with some flexibility. You choose from a variety of recipes which are categorized (grill, budget friendly, top rated) and it automatically generates your grocery list.


The details: When you initially set up the app, it allows for a lot of customization (vegetarian, allergies, dislikes, servings, etc.) Fantastic if you have a family member who has allergies or is picky about certain ingredients. If you add recipes to your meal plan, you can narrow down the search (by ingredient, budget, type of dish,etc.) This makes it easy to use up produce you've purchased, and comes in handy if you have a farm box subscription. At first glance, I thought I had the best of both worlds: I could use their recipes and add my own. But after adding one recipe, it prompted me to start a paid subscription in order to add more. It doesn't have built in options to share the grocery list or meal plan, but multiple people can use the same account to work around this. It also has a handy reminder you can set to help you remember to plan your weekly meals.


Pros: less food waste, less decision fatigue (you choose from a set of recipes), recipes are 30 minutes or less; customizable if you have specific preferences or food allergies; recipes include main and sides; can follow recipe prep on your phone without touching screen; menus include mains and sides; shareable; built in planning reminder

Cons: can only add your own or online recipes with subscription; some recipes only available with subscription; can only add notes to the recipe with subscription; doesn't schedule meals; can't set a different scale for individual recipes; using the hands free dinner prep feature uses a lot of battery power


Online Meal Planning Services

This was also an unscientific review of just two of the many options (can read about more here) out there for meal planning services. They both offer weekly menus and will automatically generate a grocery list that you can edit, print, and email. (Neither have an app, so the grocery list can't be updated on the fly.) These services can make all of the deciding for you on the planning side, which can be helpful if you want to spend less time on the that task. They design their menus to prevent waste and save you money. Both allow you to add recipes from the archives if you want to go beyond their weekly menu (though this may not save as much time on planning.) Both have healthy recipes that are family tested and approved and include nutrition facts with each recipe. Both allow you to scale individual recipes. Choosing one is largely a matter of preference.


The Scramble

The basics: This is a monthly subscription that delivers 8 dinner options a week, plus a make ahead breakfast option. Cost is $35 for 3 months ($3/week), $100 for 12 months ($2/week), or $150 for 24 months (less than $2/week).


The details: This service's tagline is: Healthy 30 minute meals your entire family will love. I have a friend who has used the app for years and is happy with it. She described their recipes as traditional, but healthier, and well received by picky eaters. The weekly menu includes some ideas for healthy lunches and snacks. Most of their recipes suggest substitutions if you are vegetarian, gluten-free, or nut-free, but you can also search for recipes that meet your dietary restrictions.


Pros: lots of kid friendly options, reduces grocery costs and minimizes food waste, great if you suffer from decision fatigue; has a free 14 day trial with signup

Cons: many recipes require more than the 30 minutes, especially if you're making a side dish as well; weekly menu doesn't include sides, but offers suggestions with separate recipes; minimum commitment is 3 months; if you want to expand your repertoire with global dishes, this may not be the one for you


Cooksmarts

The basics: This is a monthly subscription that sends a menu with 4 complete (main & sides) dinners a week. Though it doesn't send breakfast, they do have recipes in their database. There is a free 30 day trial, and you can then subscribe monthly - $8, quarterly - $7/month, or yearly - $6/month, which averages out to less than $2/week for any option.


The details: Their tagline is "Simple, healthy, flexible meal plans and grocery lists designed for your busy life." Each meal has a gluten-free, paleo, and vegetarian diet option. They focus mostly on dinner, but there are breakfast options that are fairly quick. Their recipes are divided into prep and make steps. I have a friend who uses this service and said she really appreciates the efficiency of their recipes. For example, a sauce is often used as a marinade and a dressing in the same meal. They also have instructional prep videos, which is handy if you'd like to involve your kids in some of the cooking. If your local grocers offer delivery through instacart, you can upload your grocery list and have it delivered, saving even more time (and probably money too, as there won't be any impulse shopping, LOL.)


Pros: lots of kid friendly options while slightly expanding culinary horizons, reduces grocery costs and minimizes food waste; great if you suffer from decision fatigue; can save you loads of time on planning and shopping; each meal is complete (no need for additional recipes for sides); has a free trial for first 30 days

Cons: total time from start to finish is often more than the 30 minutes; if you're looking for mostly traditional recipes, this may not be the one for you


Online Meal Delivery Services

The basics: These services deliver kits to your home with recipes and the ingredients for them, already prepped. This can help take a lot off your plate. I have not personally tried any of them. I have spoken to several friends who have, and all enjoyed the recipes and the ease of making the dinners. If you are struggling with getting started on eating healthier, or are expecting a particularly busy period, this could be helpful.


The details: Rather than reinvent the wheel, I will refer you to an Epicurious article that recently (May 2019) reviewed 17 of the major meal kit delivery services available in America. They range widely from $20 - $70+ per week, depending on how many meals you order and some have an additional delivery charge. Some offer breakfast and/or lunch meals as well. Many companies offer discounted rates to try out their service.


Pros: Convenient and delicious; gives you a from scratch meal without all the work; healthier than take out or drive through

Cons: Lots of waste from packaging for most services; more expensive than preparing your own dinner; you still need to prepare the dinner yourself before the ingredients spoil


None of the above options are perfect, but if you hate meal planning or just want to get more of your time back, choose one that appeals and give it a go.

I hope you found this information useful. If you know someone that would like to make their life a bit easier and healthier, please pass this article on and share on social media.
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