This article is re-posted from User Centric’s blog.
In my job, I spend a lot of time making products more usable for people, but as a working wife and new mom, I recently have been thinking harder about how technology might help make life easier. Planning meals is a chore I find time consuming and challenging, and it happens every week. I thought some sort of online help organizing recipes, planning menus, and creating shopping lists might make a big difference for me.
Here’s what I was looking for:
• I need a place to combine all the recipes I have, whether they’re online, in books, or written down.
• I don’t have time for manual entry, so digital recipes need to be easily imported. When I do need to enter manually, it has to be fast and easy.
• So many times I would carefully select my recipes, labor over making a grocery list, actually purchase the groceries….only to forget what I had planned to make! (Did I mention that I’m a new mom?)
• Yes, a paper list on the fridge would suffice, but I like technology.
• Ok, I didn’t know I was looking for this at the start of my search, but discovered how wonderful this feature is along the way. I make decisions all day, so the ability to see a suggested menu for the week and just say yay or nay is a little piece of heaven.
Automated Shopping List
• Once I pick my recipes, my miracle tool needs to automatically create an organized shopping list based on the ingredients. Ideally, this would be organized by store aisle, so my trip to Whole Paycheck will be more efficient.
• It needs to be smart enough to combine like items and I need the ability to modify the list so I don’t end up buying a dash of salt and pepper every week.
• My smartphone has become like another appendage. I need it to have access to all my information at all times. What I will be eating in the future is no exception.
• Remember that shopping list? Gonna need that at the grocery store, and no, I don’t want to print it out before I go. Can you imagine lugging around an 8.5×11 sheet of paper at the store with you? It’s much more in vogue to reference your shiny new smartphone… everybody at Whole Paycheck is doing it these days.
• At any rate, checking things off the list needs to be easy. As does adding new items to the list from the phone. Even better, my husband needs to have access via his phone too, so he can make note of when he uses the last bit of maple syrup.
• To some extent, this could also be a handy recipe reference once in the kitchen. Manipulating the small screen with food-covered fingers gets a bit tricky, so I’m ok walking over to the big screen PC in the kitchen.
What I don’t need
• A tool that is sponsored by a food company. I don’t trust that its recommendations would be in line with my philosophy of trying to eat organically and locally when possible.
I found four sites that met most of my criteria. The two free sites I looked at are DinnerTool (www.Dinnertool.com) and Tasty Planner (www.Tastyplanner.com); the two you pay for are called Relish! (www.relishrelish.com), and Plan to Eat (www.plantoeat.com).
Here’s my take on each one:
Pros: DinnerTool has a one-click option for meal planning, which pulls recipes from the database and fills out your meal plan for the whole week. It also suggests side dishes for each recipe. There’s good information about nutrition, time the recipe will take, cost, etc. Dinner Tool automatically categorizes ingredients on your shopping list. It also has an iPhone app.
Cons: Though free, the site is sponsored by NBC in some way. Even though it’s not a food company, they do have advertising supported by food companies. It just makes me a little skeptical. Also, while I love the idea of a one-click option for meal planning, it’s useless to me because I’m a vegetarian and it won’t allow me to specify that.
Pros: It seems to be run by a group of web designers, who clearly enjoy developing the site and making it usable. It treats every member as a chef, so maybe there is an assumption that recipes posted will be more original (this could be a pro or a con, depending on your needs.) Tasty Planner also has an iPhone app.
Cons: The search feature isn’t great, and it relies on the assumption that contributors have tagged their recipes properly. You can manually enter your own recipes, but there is no ability to import. Adding recipes to your meal plan is a two-step process, which seems inefficient and error-prone. You can organize your shopping list….but there is no default sensible organization.
Pros: Relish! is very quick and simple, will plan a week’s worth of meals for you (including suggested side dishes), and has vegetarian options. It’s good if you don’t want to think about what to fix; it’ll tell you what to eat each week. It also has an iPhone app.
Cons: It’s the most expensive ($7/month), and the interface seems outdated and clunky. There is no free trial, so you have to sign up for a minimum of three months in order to see it. Adding your own recipes involves contacting support and waiting a few days to have it processed…not really practical as a personal recipe aggregator.
Plan to Eat
Pros: It’s the only site with the ability to import recipes. It’s very intuitive to use. The developer has a food philosophy similar to mine (organic and local), and actively incorporates ideas into the site gathered from his Facebook community. There is a mobile version of the site (i.e. you don’t need an iPhone). Ingredients are automatically categorized on the shopping list. You can specify where you purchase particular items, and it will automatically make lists by store. The meal planner appears on almost every screen, so it’s easy to refer back to it. Plan to Eat offers a 30-day free trial (after which it costs about $5/month.)
Cons: There is no database of recipes, just a few samples to get you started. So, you do need to spend some time entering or importing recipes (which is really quick and easy). I’d like to see improvements in the features and speed of the mobile site. The mobile Shopping List doesn’t seem to organize your list by store and Adding Items has been a bit cumbersome and buggy for me. I’d also like the ability to see and edit my Meal Plan from the mobile site. Currently, you can only view Recipes and your Shopping List.
Final food for thought
Each site is useful, but which one came out as the winner for me? Plan to Eat, in large part because of the ability to import recipes. To me, that feature is very important. I’ve found that it’s worth the monthly fee, because I’m spending less on groceries. Choosing recipes also has become much easier. Creating a shopping list is simple, and my visits to the grocery store have gotten shorter. Even though putting information into the computer takes time, the overall time I spend on meal planning has gone down.
In a lot of cases, technology intended to save us time actually ends up creating more work for us. I’m happy to say that online meal planning really works for saving time, money, and making my life easier. Has anyone else tried it? What did you think? What sites are your favorites and why?