The more we can simplify the 3-Step Meal-Prep Rhythm, the less stressful the whole food + healthy eating situation is. Meal Planning is hands-down the biggest factor in saving time, money, and sanity in the kitchen.
Buuuuuut, busy life happens and meal planning often falls by the wayside.
In enters the world of meal-planning programs and apps. In a recent survey on using a meal planning program:
- 86% had less anxiety around planning meals
- 73% of people increased consumption of healthy foods
- 78% of people reported less food waste
- Time spent planning was reduced by almost 50%
- Grocery bills decreased an average of 23%
- 46% ate more meals together at home (also a savings!)
Why Use a Meal-Planning Program?
While it may seem like a stretch to pay a monthly fee, most find that they save this money on food waste alone (plus your sanity is worth something!).
Compared to meal planning on your own, the benefits of using a meal-planning app include:
- inspiration & ideas–less thought is required on your part
- drag & drop capability of meal planning with ease
- your grocery list is automatically made based on your meal plan
- many programs now also import directly to Instacart or Amazon Fresh, or several grocery stores for grocery delivery.
There are many meal planning tools & apps available on the interwebs, each of them with different capabilities and varying price points.
Some come with only their recipes, while some offer you the capability to upload your own recipes or pull from the internet. Some are even specifically designed for those with food intolerances or restrictions, or following a specific therapeutic diet (AIP, Whole 30, GAPS, etc.)
Pre-loaded recipes only
All of these services are great if you want to make a meal plan with a database of pre-loaded recipes. Each service has varying levels of customizability for the recipes themselves (serving size, ingredients), and meal plan customization (100% set for you VS. picking recipes yourself based on your criteria).
Note: Price ranges indicate differences based on if you pay monthly, quarterly, or for the full year.
Meallime (FREE version)
The Mealime app offers hundreds of pre-loaded recipes within 8 different diet categories– Classic, Low Carb, Keto, Flexitarian, Paleo, Vegetarian, Pescetarian, or Vegan. You can further filter recipes with allergy restrictions and dislikes and customize recipe yield to 2, 4, or 6 servings.
Based on criteria you set, you can choose if you’d like them to make a meal plan for you, or if you want full control–choosing to drag & drop your own selections.
A grocery list is automatically created from your meal plan with the ability to choose pickup or delivery from Kroger stores, Walmart, Instacart or Amazon Fresh.
*The paid version has a few added bonus features–including the ability to import your own recipes (see below)
$5-$10/month–extra fee for breakfast, lunch plans. They offer a free 14-day trial.
This completely ready-to-go plan is emailed to you each week, and includes 7 days of recipes with a grocery list. From this list, you can pick and choose which recipes you actually want to make for the week to update your customized shopping list.
Your grocery list can then be imported to Kroger Clicklist, Instacart, Amazon fresh, Shipt, or Walmart Grocery.
Emeals has 18 different meal plans to choose from, including specific diets/cuisines, recipes from popular magazines, and store-specific plans based on weekly sales (see full list of options below). You can even customize recipe yield by family size!
Diets/Cuisines Offered: 30-minute meals, budget friendly, clean eating, diabetic, gluten free, heart healthy, kid friendly, low calorie, low carb, Mediterranean, Paleo, quick & healthy, slow cooker, vegan, vegetarian. They also have plans featuring recipes from All Recipes, Better Homes & Gardens, Good Housekeeping.
I love the idea of having a plan 100% done. Emeals is best for those with few dietary limitations/picky preferences, desire ultimate time efficiency, and just want the ease of someone else telling you what to do!
While Emeals doesn’t allow customizability within each plan, you do have the flexibility of switching between their 18 plans as often as you’d like.
$6-$8/month. Their free trial includes three meal plans.
This program was voted #1 meal planning service by LifeHacker.
Cook Smarts helps you cook restaurant-style meals at home with four gourmet dinner recipes per week in one of 4 categories- Classic, paleo, vegetarian, and gluten-free (with the ability to mix & match). They are conscious about using similar ingredients to cut down on food cost and waste.
A grocery list is generated for you, and can load your Instacart. Serving sizes can be adjusted to fit your family size.
I LOVE the added membership resources, including educational tools, cooking videos, prep tips, nutrition info for each meal, and compatibility with My Fitness Pal and Weight Watchers.
Nourish cooking school is available for an additional cost and is a great resource to get more comfortable in the kitchen!
$6.50-$14/month Try their FREE sample meal plans in EACH category (classic, vegetarian, paleo, gluten-free, or for singles plan).
The Fresh 20 was created by a mom who was frustrated with their busy unorganized lifestyle and money spent on takeout (GO mama!) This plan mixes and matches twenty seasonal ingredients per week to create 5 nutrition-packed homemade meals. Their program generates a menu, shopping list, and a to-do list of one hour of prep work to complete at the beginning of the week in order to save you prep time throughout the week.
Plans offered include classic, gluten-free, vegetarian, paleo, kosher, dairy free, lunches, and meals especially designed for one person.
I love that The Fresh 20 they consider what’s in season, which would allow you to shop at a Farmers Market and save money. They also have a great library of resources including food substitution charts, essential cooking tools, and food prep tutorials!
Preloaded Recipes + Add your Own Recipes
These programs are basically a virtual recipe binder that allows you to plan, organize, and shop more efficiently with YOUR recipes.
If you’re like me, you may have a stack of random recipes (Grandma’s Famous Meatballs, anyone?) somewhere in your kitchen, or maybe you have hundreds of ideas pinned on your Pinterest boards. Either way, it can feel overwhelming to organize them and put a plan in motion to actually make them.
This is where it’s nice to have the ability to import all of these into one place— a place that will also make a plan AND shopping list for you.
The paid version gives all the features of the FREE version (see above), plus allows you to import your own recipes, filter by specific nutrient requirements (ie grams of carbs), grocery price, and cook time.
$3.25-$5/month You can try it free with nothing to cancel if you don’t like it– no credit card required!
Your account allows you to import from websites, Pinterest, blogs, etc. and gives you the tools to drag/drop these recipes into a calendar to create a meal plan. A shopping list is then created for the date range you choose (also customizable!).
While this program only comes with about 400 pre-loaded recipes, it does offer HUGE flexibility to organize your own meal plan based on your family’s preferences and desires.
Verdict: I LOVE the fact that this puts ALL the recipes you want to make into one program which organizes them for you. The added bonus is that it cuts down on kitchen clutter of random recipe clippings. 😉
This program is for you if you like flexibility to use recipes that you have found but desire a bit more flexibility with the planning piece. It will take a bit of time on the front end to import recipes that you have floating around your kitchen, although their browser plug-in makes this quick for recipes found on the internet. You can also share recipes with friends which makes for easy family sharing and meal-planning teamwork!
We love this program for those that want FREEEDOM, but probably not for the “just tell me what to do” kind.
Specific health considerations
As a dietitian, I see many families who are following a therapeutic diet (AIP, GAPS, etc.) or have varying food preferences, or allergies/sensitivities in the house. It’s hard enough to get dinner on the table- not to mention accommodate everyone’s different needs and preferences.
$6-$14/month. They also offer a 30-day money back guarantee
Real Plans is the perfect combination of flexible and efficient. This program allows you to choose from several food preferences/plans (Paleo, Whole 30, Autoimmune Paleo, Keto, Classic Healthy, Vegetarian, GAPS, Gluten-free, and dairy-free), and then within each of these plans specifically identify ingredients you want to add or subtract.
It is the perfect answer to the person doing Paleo that may still want to add potatoes (give a girl a break), or someone who is doing Keto but avoids dairy.
Real Plans has over 750 recipes in their database, and for a small price ($1/month/add-on) you can upgrade your plan to include recipes from your favorite food blogger(s). Add-on options for their ‘classic healthy’ plan includes popular recipe contributors PaleoOMG, Wellness Mama, Fed&Fit, Nom Nom Paleo, and The Real Food RD’s just to name a few!
If you’re on a restricted diet such as GAPS or AIP they have you covered here, too. Their Autoimmune Paleo (AIP) plans include recipes straight from PaleoMom, and Autoimmune Wellness, 2 major authorities in this area.
A grocery list is automatically generated weekly based on meal plans you choose, and is compatible with Instacart for a more efficient shopping experience. Their timeline tool for meal prep can make both shopping and cooking WAY more efficient.
I LOVE the flexibility and customizability of Real Plans, particularly if you have specific food preferences or restrictions that make you not fit in a specific ‘diet category’.
This plan can get a little pricey, especially if you’re like me and want to add ALLL the recipe contributor add-ons (cue kid in a candy store). Hypothetically, if you did the yearly plan for $6/month you could still add up to 4 recipe contributors to keep it in the $10/month range which is comparable to many of the other plans.
There are a wide range of meal planning programs available to fit your families needs, budget, and preferences.
I’d love to hear about your experience with any meal planning program and how it has served your family!