Plan To Eat: A meal planning review & giveaway

May 22, 2011

Eating is necessary, planning for it is optional.

However, over the years I have discovered (or been reminded-again and again) how helpful it is when I take the time to plan out our meals for the week. As silly as it may sound, I can recall the first time this idea of planning meals ahead of time occurred to me.  I was newly married with no kids and standing in the middle of a friend’s beautifully retro themed kitchen.  Neatly attached to her antique fridge door was a little handwritten note indicating what she planned to make for dinner each day of the week.  I stood looking at that list in wonder and amazement as the realization that I could have control over our dinner plans began to take root in my mind.

Since that day, I have worked to implement dinner planning into my routine with varying levels of success.  The frustration point for me is that there are so many steps involved in the process:

-Choose the meals/Find the recipes
-Decide which day each meal will be made
-Check the ingredients needed
-Confirm which items are on hand
-Create a grocery list for needed items
-Remember to take list to the store
-Attempt to maintain my sanity and not forget anything on my list as I shop with young kids
-Buy the items
-Cook the meals
-Repeat the process, again and again and . . . well you get the idea

Because the end result of planning ahead is always more rewarding (and less expensive) than the alternative of frantically coming up with something at the last minute (before diverting to getting a Papa Murphy’s pizza), I have persevered though the trenches of meal planning refusing to give up.  Last year some of my friends may recall my all out attempt to beat the system by pre-planning a several weeks worth of meals, creating a word document for the needed ingredients and noting next to each ingredient which recipe it corresponded to.  My plan was to get several weeks of meal plans ready to go so that I could simply pick a week, print off the grocery list, cross off what I already had on hand and head to the store to buy the rest.  Although this plan was pretty good in concept, it took a long time to set up and unfortunately, lacked the ability to be easily customized.  For example, I don’t often make zucchini quiche in the winter (I prefer it made from garden fresh veggies).  If I added my quiche recipe to a week then that week wouldn’t be ideal year round.  I decided that I needed more flexibility in my meal planning. I eventually abandoned my project and returned to my previous planning methods (which was mostly wait until the last minute and secretly hope someone had come to my house and magically put dinner in the fridge without me noticing).

My world began to change when I was introduced to ZipList and found a way to upload recipes into an online data system which could then push the ingredients from selected recipes into a shopping list accessible from my phone or computer.  Despite the appeal of this free service, after several weeks of use, I found that there were some key features missing from this website which prevented it from being ideal.  Missing features included:

-The ability to tag, organize or label recipes for easy categorization, organization and locating.
-The missing “calendar” component, helping me to plan and remember which night I would make each dish.
-Duplicating (rather than consolidating with a new total amount needed) like-ingredients on my shopping list when more than one recipe calls for the same ingredient.

I was willing to put up with the missing features until I was introduced to the Mother of all meal planning websites (cue Heavenly music. . .):

Plan to Eat takes all the needed components of meal planning and combines them into one consolidated, user friendly, eye pleasing system that takes all the yucky parts of meal planning out of the equation.

I won’t sugar coat it: In my opinion, the most tedious part of moving to an online meal planning service is the front end work of uploading your recipe favorites.  Thankfully, even this part of the process can be pretty straightforward especially if you have begun to save recipes from the internet.  Plan To Eat allows you to add new recipes in just seconds using their import feature. Search for recipes across more than 100 popular sites using keywords such as recipe names, ingredients, courses, cuisines, etc. or simply enter the direct URL of a specific recipe. Import them to your Recipe Book with just one click.  Have some old favorites in cook books?  Add recipes from your own collection using the bulk input option, which formats each recipe for you.

Once your recipes are uploaded, you can search for them in a number of ways such: your custom tags (Vegetarian, Bean Recipes, Family Favorites), the type of cuisine (French, Italian, Mexican), or by course (Breakfast, Dinner, Dessert), Prep time and more.

After you have located the recipe you want to add to your upcoming meal plan, you simply add it to your “cue”. Now that you have the number of meals you want to plan for saved in your cue, you can add them to your meal planning calendar (or if you haven’t yet added any to your cue, you can simply scroll through your recipes located to the left of your calendar).  Dragging and dropping the meals from your cue to your calendar is easy, as is rearranging them to a new day should your schedule change.

Hovering over a meal in your calendar will allow you to see a handy summery of that meal’s summery description, prep time, nutritional information and the URL link from which it was imported.

Ready to create your shopping list? It couldn’t be easier.  All your ingredients have been consolidated and categorized according to where it should be located in the grocery store (baking, canned goods, produce).  Taking it a step further, you can then organize ingredients by store allowing you to plan what needs to be purchased where.  If you already have some of the ingredients on hand, simply mark “don’t need” and they will be moved to your “pantry inventory”.  The “recipe key” allows you to easily identify which ingredients correspond to which recipes.

With the click of a button, your grocery list can be shared via email or printed.  Or if you prefer, you can access the list via your smart phone and mark the ingredients off your list as you shop (which will move them into your pantry inventory along with the date of purchase).

Unfortunately, dinner clean up is still going to need your manual attention, but perhaps you will find that you have more reserved energy for dishes once you have simplified the preparation process!

What do you think?  Can you see yourself using a service like Plan To Eat?  Would you like to give it a try?  Why not sign up for their free 30 day trial (that is how I got started) and take it for a test drive.  Paid plans start at $4.95/month or $39/year.  Want to learn more?  Click on over and take a tour of their site!

Plan To Eat has generously offered to give away 2 yearly subscription to their service (a $39 value).  To enter, simply visit the Plan To Eat website and then come back and tell us which feature is most exciting to you.  You have until this week Thursday at noon PST to enter.  The winner will be announced this Friday on the blog, good luck!

(May 26: Congratulations to Mechele and Susanna for each winning a year subscription!!)

Full disclosure: After using the free trial service from Plan to Eat, I was pleased enough with the service to want to pass it on to you in the hopes that you would also find it useful.  I have signed up for their affiliate program, so if you click though the links above and later sign up for a paid subscription I will get a small percentage, thanks:)!

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