Choosing an online meal plan: 7 features to look for & 7 pitfalls to avoid

 Tips for choosing a meal plan

 

“Failing to Plan, is Planning to Fail.”

While we hope, of course, that you’ll choose SimplySmartDinnerPlans to help you prepare the healthy and delicious dinners your family deserves, but we also know that not ever meal-planning service is right for every home cook. This guide is designed to help you, the consumer, evaluate ANY meal-planning service, and understand what the options and features mean for you, BEFORE you subscribe.

Read this consumer guide, from beginning to end, then grab a pen and paper, and re-read it, making notes as to what features YOUR family needs in a meal plan.

This might look like:

4 servings
diabetic-friendly
3-5 nights per week
dinners only

Now you have a simple guideline to compare the feature you need with those being offered by each service you research.

7 features to look for & 7 pitfalls to avoid

1. DOES THE PLAN MEET MY BASIC NEEDS?
Again, no single service (that we’ve found) is perfect for everyone. Many families are dealing with nutritionally restrictive issues like diabetes or gluten intolerance, and need meal plans designed specifically to those needs. Some customers want complete meal plans for breakfast, lunch and dinner; other find this too restrictive to their lifestyle, and want dinners only (perhaps with the option of left-overs for lunch the next day)…and those are all great options; the key is knowing what YOUR family needs and wants.

Grocery shopping tips

2. ARE THE RECIPES SEASONAL?
Also, are the recipes seasonal? Are you going to be able to find the fresh ingredients and, if so, are they going to be at “out of season” prices, or a significant loss of quality when out of season? Are they asking you to grill in January? (I grill year round, lol, but many don’t); are they featuring soups and stews in August?

3. ARE THE RECIPES WITHIN MY SKILL LEVEL?
Take a look at the recipes and make sure that you are familiar with MOST of the ingredients and techniques. Again, this is a gray area, as it never hurts to learn and try a few new things, as long as it’s not overwhelming. If no more than two of the meals in a week contain ingredients or steps that are going to stretch your kitchen skills, then you’re looking at a plan that will save you time and effort, but still have enough challenges to comfortably expand your cooking boundaries.

Shopping list tips4. DOES THE SHOPPING LIST MAKE SENSE & IS IT FLEXIBLE?
First of all, is the shopping list divided into the same sections you would typically find at the grocery store? I.E: produce, meat & seafood, deli, bakery, dairy, etc.?

If not, throw it a way, it’s going to be way more trouble than it’s worth.

Also, does the list give you quantities for each recipes, as well as the total amount of the ingredient needed for the week? The shopping list is a key item in any successful meal plan.

Secondly, let’s face it, even on  great week, most of us don’t eat at home every single night.

Other issues, like allergies, dislikes of certain foods, religious or personal restrictions, etc., can effect the number of meals you’ll be preparing from you meal plan each week, as well. Make sure that you plan provides a shopping list that is easy to use REGARDLESS of the number of meals you’re shopping for.

The last thing you want to do is have to re-write your grocery list just because you’re not going to be home one night this week.

Free Tip: Regardless of whether you get a shopping list from a meal-planning service, or write your own from scratch, the first thing you should do, on completion, is take the list and “shop” your own pantry and fridge. You will be amazed at how many item you forgot you had, or that you can use to creatively replace something similar on your list. This can be a BIG budget (and waste) saver!

6. DO THEY OFFER CUSTOMER SUPPORT/Q&A?
People who take pride in their work, and have a passion for what they’re doing, WANT to help others do the same.

A good meal planning service will offer unlimited customer support, and have a same-day response time. Call or email a service you’re considering and see what kind of response you get…is it a form-letter reply, is it a thinly disguised sales pitch, or is somebody there taking the time to ensure that every customer, and potential customer, is getting the best help possible?

By the way, if you have any questions regarding this consumer guide, your personal meal-planning needs, or meal-planning services in general, please don’t hesitate to contact us at: mykitchenoutreach@gmail.com or on our Facebook Page.

Shopping on a budget

7. ARE THE INGREDIENTS WITHIN MY BUDGET
Again, there is no right or wrong on this one.

Some people just have a higher grocery budget than others, that’s life. Take a look at the recipes and shopping list – are there a lot of high-ticket items like steak, salmon, shrimp, etc.?

Are those items withing your weekly budget, or do you typically restrict those purchases to holidays or special occasions?

MY KITCHEN Outreach ProgramBy the way, if you’re enjoying this recipe, please subscribe to our free newsletter!

We’ll send seven amazing dinner recipes and a shopping list to your inbox each Friday. Plus, you’ll be helping us teach nutrition, shopping, and hands-on cooking classes to at-risk kids.

 

 7 THINGS TO AVOID…

1. NO PHOTOS
It’s hard to believe, in this age of smart phone cameras, that any service would offer recipes without at least a photo of the finished dish. Typically, this indicates that the recipes haven’t been personally tested, and are probably just a “cut on paste” from The Google.

2. EXCESSIVE NUMBER OF INGREDIENTS
Crazy lists of 20+ ingredients are going to take a LOT of shopping time, a LOT of prep time, and a LOT of wasted space in your cabinets.There’s nothing wrong with going gonzo on an all-day gourmet dinner (in fact, it’s one of the great joys of cooking) but unless you’re getting paid to do it, that kind of project more than once or twice a week is going to drive your burned-out carcass right back to the drive-thru window.

3. UNLISTED RECIPES/INGREDIENTS
Keep an idea out for recipes that suggest you “Serve with” a variety of salads, sauces, and side dishes that aren’t included in the recipe or shopping list. (Which kinda defeats the whole point, right?) It’s a great (and very deceptive) way to create a short and tidy LOOKING grocery list, that is actually going to turn into a bloated, expensive hassle.

An example: One of the “Box Store” recipes lists “Garnish: Salsa or shredded cheese ($.50-$1)” – so they’re giving you a “per serving” price on ingredients that aren’t being used the rest of the week. At box stores, specifically, these two items alone could easily add $10-$15 to your shopping.

This is a common marketing ploy!

Remember, you’re paying for the whole package…if you only use half, then it’s twice as expensive as the “per-serving” price. Avoiding processed food

4. PACKAGED/PROCESSED FOODS
Avoid recipes with lots of packaged or processed foods on the ingredients list  – we call these “Hamburger Helper Plans.”  Not only are they terrible for you, but they keep you under the thumb of the corporate food industry. Cook free or die, baby.

5. LACK OF RECIPE CONTINUITY
A lack of continuity between recipes means that there are lots of ingredients that your only going to use a portion of in just one or two recipes. This leads to an excess expense, excess leftover ingredients, and a to waste each week.

This means food…and money, in the garbage can. Bad for your wallet and bad for the planet.

In short, does the service maximize your food dollars, and minimize your food waste?

6. EXCESSIVE COOKING TIME
Let’s face it, we’re all busy. If you have three hours of free time to prep, cook, and serve a meal…you probably wouldn’t be looking for a meal planning service, right?

There’s no reason you can’t prepare delicious, healthy, “real food” recipes in twenty minutes or less.

7. MISLEADING COST PROMISES
I get skeptical whenever any meal plan makes ANY cost promises, as there are so many factors that effect price, like location, season, personal preferences (like organic or free-range products) and store  idiosyncrasies (especially Costco, lol). A good plan should save you money if you keep your normal shopping routine, but to promise an amount is unreasonable, and likely a bait and switch.

IN CONCLUSION

We’ve found it’s VERY easy to throw together random recipes and shopping lists, and there are a lot of “niche” sites now doing just that…it’s a lot more work to create meal plans that encourage healthy, affordable, maintainable, and socially-responsible cooking.

Good luck!

Chef Perry
SimplySmartDinnerPlans.com
MY KITCHEN Outreach Program


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