This post has been updated as of April 2013!
Meal planning is one of the essential keys to eating healthfully. (I talked about meal planning in my Steps to Healthier Eating.) It ensures that you’ll have the ingredients on-hand to make what you want and takes the stress out of dinner time. Not to mention, it generally saves you money! I’ve put together a list of my favorite meal-planning services that focus on real ingredients and quick meals that are family-friendly. Never wander the grocery store again!
A little about meal planning sites… Generally, these services help you plan DINNER and that’s it. A few sites may suggest lunch items or give you the option to search for other meal or snack recipes in their database. “Meal planning,” therefore, suggest “dinner planning,” and it should not be assumed that all meals will be organized with one service.
I have used all of the services below for at least a month (except for Once a Month Mom–I haven’t tackled that commitment yet!). These are what I have tried and I think they’re worth sharing!
Paid Membership Required
For paid services, I encourage you to look for reduced membership costs available through group discount sites (like Groupon). It is how I discovered most of the services I used.
Pros:eMeals is simple, yet not boring, classic, yet innovative. Tons of diet options (and the ability to change plans once a month) make this the most versatile of all the meal planning sites. eMeals plans seven dinners, and the option to add breakfast and lunch plans is fairly affordable. The new iPhone app for eMeals is clean and concise; I can’t remember the last time I printed out a grocery list nor recipe.
Cons: You can’t choose your own meals, but that’s not the point of a meal-planning service, now is it?
Read read my full review of eMeals.
Pros: The Fresh 20 is one of the most effective, efficient, and easiest of all the meal-planning sites I’ve tried. The Fresh 20 creates a 5-dinner menu using twenty ingredients each week, which means you’re buying only 20 items (assuming you’ve stocked your pantry with essentials already)! All meals include fresh, unprocessed ingredients and members can choose from Classic, Gluten-free, Lunch, or Vegetarian/Vegan plans. I chose the Veg plan since we don’t eat too much meat and cheese, and add my own meat or fish dishes to the plan for the week (or modify a veg dish to include meat).
Cons: You have to choose from the four different menu plans; you can’t access them all. The menu plans for only 5 dinners, so you’re on your own for the other two days of the week.
Pros: The whole food menu option eliminates the packaged, canned, and processed ingredients that often accompany once-a-month-cooking plans. OAMM has recently added a Paleo meal plan for those who are focusing on a grain-free diet. Purchase your ingredients and storage containers, spend a weekend cooking, and you have dinners, lunches, and breakfast for most days of the month. Simple spreadsheets allow you to change portion numbers and number of meals. Links to recipes are available without membership.
Cons: the up-front grocery costs are rather large and you need to commit an even larger chunk of time to cooking. Additionally, *most* meals are made, but not enough to cover you for every day of the week. OAMM was formerly ad-supported, but now membership is required to take advantage of the planning tools.
Pros: There’s a lot to love with Plan to Eat, and I don’t mind saying I’m addicted to the site. Much like Pepperplate in that you can easily add recipes from any site and plan multiple menus (not just dinner) and a grocery list, Plan to Eat functions much faster and is more user-friendly. Additionally, you can add friends or join a group, and share recipes, so you have access to a variety of recipes already on-site. (Add me! I’m HealthfulMama .)
Cons:The site won’t plan a menu for you, but with an easy “queue” to hold recipes until you’re ready, throwing together a list is simpler than you think. Read my full review of Plan to Eat HERE.
Food on the Table
Pros: Enter your zip code and choose your local grocery stores in Food on the Table’s database. Choose your diet choices. Then sit back as Food on the Table creates a meal plan and grocery list based upon what’s on sale in your stores and what you’d like to eat.
Cons: The grocery-store-sales feature is rather useless if you’re not into buying processed foods. I didn’t find the recipes to be very appealing.
Pros: Easily sync to your iPhone and have your shopping list, meal plans, and recipes with you at any time. Pepperplate’s program allows you to set the menu, grab recipes from any site (including your own uploads!), and add additional items to the grocery list. You have the ability to plan breakfast, lunch and dinner on a matrix-like calendar where you can swap, copy, and delete menu items.
Cons: It doesn’t actually plan a menu for you. You still need to find and choose the meals you’d like to make (read: time-consuming) and decide when to have them.
Know of a great meal planning service that you think should be on this list? Email me! gretchen at healthfulmama dot com.