It’s that time again, when summer freedoms are swapped for structure. Late bedtimes were fun for a spell, but they lose appeal when the kids must arrive at school awake and alert. And although ice cream every afternoon sure felt right while at the beach, let’s be honest — that too must taper.
For many families, the back-to-school stretch is more central than the new year for resetting schedules, routines and rules. In our household it is. As nostalgic as I am that another summer is ending, I look forward to having a set mealtime, knowing my kids are getting three squares, and regularly sitting down for family dinner instead of grabbing takeout after another late baseball game.
I admit that I wing dinner a lot during the summer, especially while on vacation. I pop to the grocery store more days than is efficient, rely on the grill and the same summer vegetables, and allow my meal-planning skills and recipes to collect dust until September. All of which leaves me dreaming of days when my family’s favorite meals are plugged into my calendar, my weekly grocery list matches my meal plan, and my pantry inventory is managed so I no longer have to rethink dinner at the last second because I am out of black beans.
Meal planning is not always simple, especially for working parents who have kids participating in after-school activities spanning the DMV. Thankfully, there are many Web and app-based tools to help streamline this daily task. Many of these services have a monthly price tag and also take time to set up, but once you invest the time and money, you can expect to save hours every week, save dollars on takeout and wasted food, and prevent last-minute dinner disasters. In other words, these services are worth the investment.
I use Plan to Eat because I prefer to use my own recipes, but I have tried CookSmarts and eMeals and think they are fantastic for someone who wants the recipe inspiration.
These are the timesaving features you can expect from online meal-planning tools:
• Weekly meal plans.
• Recipe suggestions tailored to your family’s food preferences.
• The ability to import recipes from across the Web and add to your meal plans.
• Grocery lists based on the planned recipes, so you shop just once a week — time saver!
• Grocery lists to correspond to your selected store aisles.
• Interactive, digital grocery lists, so items can be checked off in-store.
• Pantry management.
• The capability to share your recipes and meal plans with friends.
• Community recipe rating, so you know which recipes are a hit with families like yours.
• Coupons for your selected grocery store — money saver!
• How-to-cook videos.
• Timers embedded in recipes to facilitate cooking.
• The ability to sync between devices, so you can shop from the interactive grocery list on your phone yet cook from an easier-to-read iPad.
Before you begin picking one of these tools, determine whether you have a mountain of printed or online recipes that you would like to incorporate into your weekly meals, or if you would prefer to have a service provide all of the recipe inspiration.
Then give one of these services a whirl. You might just feel like you’re back on vacation because you aren’t worried about what’s for dinner.
●Features: interactive grocery lists; how-to videos embedded in recipes; cooking, pantry and kitchen guides
●Cost: $8 per month to $72 per year
●Features: a large selection of meal plans (Mediterranean, clean eating, quick and healthy, paleo, 30-minute meals, slow cooker, kid-friendly), coupons, grocery lists, recipes with embedded timers and steps, seven-day meal plans, as well as the option to add breakfast, lunch or dessert meal plans
●Cost: $10 per month or $60 per year (14-day free trial)
●Features: recipes based on how much time you have to cook, coupons, grocery lists to match store aisles, seven-day meal plan
●Cost: $10 per month or $89 per year ( seven-day free trial)
●Features: calendar tool that lets you drag and drop recipes from across the Web; interactive grocery lists; recipes with embedded timers; pantry planning; option to plan breakfasts, lunches, snacksand dinners; sync meal plans with a spouse or caregiver
●Cost: $4.95 per month or $39 per year (30-day free trial)
●Features: interactive grocery lists, recipes with embedded timers, option to sync between devices
●Cost: a one-time cost ranging from $4.99 to $19.99, depending upon the device
●Features: plan breakfasts, lunches and snacks in addition to dinners; interactive shopping lists; recipes with embedded times to facilitate cooking; recipe-sharing feature; tool to scale recipes