I know I've experienced it— that moment of panic when looking into the fridge and realizing I have nothing to make, while the chorus of “I’m hungry” swells from behind. Options include:
1. Getting fast-food (again) or
2. Running to the grocery store for supplies.
Neither of these are all that appealing.
In fact, those quick grocery store runs have a negative impact on your budget’s bottom line and, well, your bottom. That's because last-minute grocery shopping quickly adds up and often contributes to impulse purchases.
The best option, of course, is to plan your meals in advance, but who has time for that?
How Do You Keep Your Kids Healthy?
Have you tried a meal planning service before? How many nights a week would you say you're able to make dinner?
Enter: online menu planning services. These services promise time-saving and penny-pinching value by sending you pre-thought-out menus for the whole week, while taking into account your family's special dietary needs.
Most services are as simple as signing up and picking out a weekly menu, either by choosing from a preset option organized by preference (low-carb, low-fat, family-friendly, vegetarian, gluten-free, quick, budget-friendly, etc.), or by choosing your own recipes from the site's archives. Some will even provide recipes based around food that's on sale at your local supermarket. You get a shopping list based on your choices, plug in your zip code and voilà! Instant menu.
But is it really worth paying someone else to tell you what to cook? To figure it out, I tried four different menu-planning services to determine if their cost was justified in time and money savings.
(If reading this gives you meal-planning envy, don't worry! We're giving away a three-month subscription to one of them below!)
The Six O'Clock Scramble
Cost: Plans start at $3 per month for a 2-year subscription, $6 per month for a 6-month subscription or $7 per month for a 3-month one
What You Get: The Six O’Clock Scramble focuses on menus that incorporate simple, quick meals for busy families. Subscribers are emailed weekly customizable menus based on dietary needs. Unlike some competitors, you can choose your own recipes rather than being stuck with what's chosen for you.
What People Are Saying: Jen Levine-Fried, mom of two, notes that, money aside, the Scramble has saved her sanity because she no longer spends hours deciding what to make for dinner and doing last-minute grocery runs. But a word of caution: Refresh the computer-generated grocery list each week or else you could end up shopping for meals you made last week.
What I Thought: I thought the meals on The Scramble were wholesome and easy to prepare, but I did find the "search recipes" function on the site a bit confusing. It was a struggle to add a new recipe to my menu and I ended up having to print different grocery lists—one for the prepared menu and the other for selected recipes.
Mobile App: No
The Verdict: The weekly newsletter, which is only available through the paid meal plan service, is helpful and interesting, including tips on things like engaging children in the kitchen and the best food apps. The recipes are simple and easy to prepare, and don't have way-out ingredients that will leave you with a cupboard full of cardamom.
Cost: $7 per month
What You Get: With Relish, subscribers get 15 meal ideas (plus a dessert) each week, with the ability to choose the ones they want. You can also search a recipe database, save favorites and get special freezable meal suggestions. This makes generating a menu more complicated, but also more tailored to your family's wants.
What People Are Saying: Mom of three, Shelley Fletcher, raves: “I love their features, which include dinner and a movie, party menus, holiday-themed recipes…I know [Relish] has saved us great deal, because it’s cut down on junk food. Plus, we use the coupons tab for additional savings."
What I Thought: Relish was the most tech-savvy menu planning service I reviewed. They have an easy-to-use mobile app, a desktop menu-planner currently in beta and a coupons tab for additional savings. Plus, their recipes were tasty—our favorites were the homemade fish sticks with old bay sauce and coleslaw and the mozzarella and bacon stuffed chicken with garlicky spinach.
Mobile App: Yes
The Verdict: Relish's distinction is its coupon center, which allows users to print coupons from their dashboard, and their vast array of simple and delicious recipes. It's definitely worth using.
Food on the Table
Cost: The free version provides menu plans for three nights a week; the premium version costs $15 for three months, and $9.95 per month thereafter
What You Get: When you sign up, you'll fill out a questionnaire to determine the types of meals you prefer. You can add or remove meals from your list and the easy-to-use dashboard allows you to save recipes. You can also read recipe reviews and see popular ones among other members.
What People Are Saying: One blogger reviewed Food on the Table and raved, saying, "The site organizes my [grocery] list by category, making note of any items that are on sale. I can also add other items, and it categorizes those as well. I love this feature, because I really value an organized list. It would be completely perfect if it were organized in order of my store's layout, but I know that would be really complicated ... The current organization [groups] like items together, which means they'll most likely be close together in the aisle."
What I Thought: On the whole, this service was a bit cumbersome and the recipes were expensive. Unlike all the others, this one doesn't include side dishes, yet the bevy of dinner options—almost too many—made meal-planning time-consuming. Plus, I had trouble adding recipes to my list and ended up making a separate handwritten list for side dishes. There was an option to view sale items at local grocery stores, but that feature told me there were no sales at any grocery store in my area, which isn't true. The recipes were good, especially the Thai peanut chicken fingers, but shopping off this app for four days used up my whole grocery budget for a week!
Mobile App: Yes
The Verdict: If a quick, intuitive service is what you are looking for, this isn't it. The site basically offers recipes and reviews, which you can find for free from sites like Allrecipes or Epicurious.
Cost: Menus start at $5 a month
What You Get: eMeals offers downloadable, five-day-a-week menus and shopping lists based on your dietary preferences. Unlike the other services, you don't have the option to search for different recipes if you don't like one. But, one perk is you can choose a menu that uses leftovers from other meals so you don't waste any food, which none of the other services offer.
What People Are Saying: Subscriber Amy Korn-Reavis, mom of two: “I started spending about $200 a week and went down to about $225 every two weeks for my family of four. I really liked it because eMeals took advantage of what was on sale. I have tried several different menus, but really like the low-fat one, which also has the Weight Watchers points on it.”
What I Thought: For full disclosure, I will say that I myself use eMeals regularly, and it has definitely saved my family money, mostly because we’ve cut down on mid-week panic grocery runs. I would like to see eMeals offer a recipe database that allows suggestions and ratings by users. Additionally, the budget-friendly options are often carb-heavy and tend to lack imagination (though they only cost between $50 and $70 a week for a family of three!). My family recently switched to the low-fat menu, which costs us $20 more per week in groceries, but the meals are delicious and very healthy.
Mobile App: In the works
The Verdict: Although the menus lack the customization options of The Scramble and Relish, they are simple, tasty, easy to prepare. The pared down approach to meal planning will help you pinch your pennies. This is the service I choose to use at home with my family.
LearnVest is giving away a 3-month meal plan to The Six O'Clock Scramble, as well as 3 Lunchskins two-bag sets, to one LV Moms reader. To enter, share this story on Facebook and leave a comment telling us what your kid's favorite healthy meal is!
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