Friday, February 4, 2011

Once-a-Month Meal Planning, Part Two: Plan to Eat!

In Once-A-Month Meal Planning, Part One, I reviewed the tried-and-true Bootcamp for Lousy Housekeepers method of planning for once-a-month shopping using paper and pencil. This type of planning works wonderfully for lots of homemakers for many reasons: Simplicity, frugality, luddicity… (I'm not sure if luddicity was a word before, but it is now!)
Meal Planning WebsiteBut if you are on friendly terms with your computer - that is to say, if you're a drag-and-drop kind of gal - and you want to cut your menu planning time in half (at least!), you should definitely check out Plan to Eat!

Plan to Eat is an online-based, three-part solution to easy recipe-searching and storing, menu-planning, and shopping list creating. In other words, it follows the basic Bootcamp method of meal planning, but is faster, easier, and more streamlined!

How does it work?

Enter Your Recipes

After you sign up for an account (which is free for 30 days - and NO credit card information required to begin), you'll want to click on the Recipes tab at the top. Then you can start filling up your Plan to Eat Recipe Book your own recipes. Have an online cookbook on Simply copy the url and paste it in the box. Plan to Eat will automatically import the recipe for you. Want to serve something with chicken and rice? No more digging through 26 cookbooks piled on the kitchen table. Simply type "chicken and rice" in the search box, and Plan to Eat will search over one hundred of the top recipe sites online, like Epicurious,,  for your key words. If you find one that sounds yummy, simply click the "import" button, and Plan to Eat adds it to your recipes. There's even a little bookmarklet you can add to your bookmark toolbar that will find the recipe on whatever page you happen across, and automatically import it to your Plan to Eat Recipe Book. What about Mom's Secret Meatloaf recipe - the one that no one else has? It's easy to enter manually through the bulk input form. Bulk Input is also great for copying and pasting recipes you may have stored on your computer, or that you find on a site they don't import from (like a message board.)

Make sure when you're entering your recipes that you designate the course (main, sides, dessert, etc.) so they will be easy for you to use in the Meal Planner section. Also note that you can make your recipes public or private by clicking a box at the bottom of the Recipe form. Another great feature is the cost-per-serving estimate - you can make it even easier on yourself to simply add up the cost of the meal and enter "1" serving. (We'll use this info more in just a moment in the Meal Planner section.)

I know, I know. You have a LOT of recipes. Don't panic. Just as you would create your 3x5 cards in traditional Bootcamp paper menu planning only once, you only have to input your recipes one time, and only as you need them. In other words, don't feel compelled to enter every single recipe in every cookbook you own right now. As you think of meals to eat this week (or month), enter those meals in. In a few weeks (or months) time, you'll have entered pretty much every meal that you regularly plan. You can always add your special Thanksgiving turkey recipe next November.

Plan Your Menu

Now that you have a few recipes in your Plan to Eat Recipe Book, give the Meal Planner section a whirl. This is where the magic happens! You'll see your entered recipes on the left sidebar, and a calendar with simple "breakfast", "lunch", "supper", and "other" rows on the right. Go to the first day you'd like to plan, and drag a recipe from the left to the calendar on the right. Voila! That's it!

What about side dishes? There are a few ways to add them. First, you can simply add a side into your Recipe Book. Recipes don't have to be fancy - you can have a recipe that consists of one bag of salad! Label it something like "Bag of Salad", and drag it under the appropriate column. The same goes with breads, desserts, or dry cereal. Another option would be to add your side to the recipe of the actual meal itself, but this is only useful if you always eat mashed potatoes with your roast beef. Third, you can add in sides or other necessary items under "other" . When you click "other", a pop-up box appears which allows you to "add another ingredient " (which can be dragged to any meal that day, or no meal at all) or add an event or note. This is a great place to note that company is coming, there's a potluck at church, or you're going out to dinner.

If you'll be eating the same meal multiple times in your meal plan (like oatmeal for breakfast or leftovers for lunch), you can hover over that item that's been dragged to the calendar, and you will see a little plus sign appear. Clicking on it copies the item. You can then drag that item anywhere on the calendar. This saves you from searching for identical items in your recipe book over and over.

Remember when you entered the average cost per meal in your recipes? Look at the top right hand corner of your meal calendar for the button labeled "options". When you click on it, you can choose to show serving sizes, calories, nutritional score or cost. Click "cost", and as long as you have entered the cost of a meal in its recipe, it will show up next to each meal you've dragged to the calendar, and the approximate total will show up at the bottom of each date box. It's a great way to keep yourself on budget!

How on earth do I figure out the average cost of my meals? This is another somewhat time-consuming task, but one that needs to be done whether you're using paper or a computer. Like meal cards, you only have to enter the approximate cost of the meal once. I've found it easier to sit down for 5 minutes in the evening, after just having made that meal, and figure out the cost. I also have a text document on which I've calculated the cost of very basic items, such as 1 egg, 1/4 cup of sugar, etc. Then I simply have to do a little multiplication, rather than re-analyzing each meal from scratch. On paper or in the computer, it's a pain to average your per-meal cost, no doubt. But for me, it's a critical step in setting up a meal plan which will be within my budget.

Let's Go Shopping!

I'm sure you remember that in the paper-and-pencil method the final step was creating your shopping lists? The same applies here, but Plan to Eat has already done MUCH of the work for you! When you click on the Shopping List tab on the top (your dashboard), you will see every item from every recipe you dragged onto your planner under a Main List tab. The first few times you use Plan to Eat, you will want to spend a bit of time in your Shopping List to organize it better. The program saves your personal changes, though, and soon you will move from dropping recipes to shopping QUICKLY!

Since you're new to the program, first you'll want to add a store (or stores). The +Add Store button is at the top left of the screen. Type in the name of the store or stores where you usually shop. The ingredients dropped into your Shopping List will automatically go in to Any Store. All you have to do is click and drag an ingredient in the main area to the appropriate store. This is such an easy way to shop the sales ads! Let's say you have "butter" in your ingredient list in the middle. You look at your weekly ads and see that it's on sale at Kroger. Drag the "butter" to the Kroger tab on the top left, and now you'll be able to print a Kroger-specific shopping list!

Want to be even MORE organized? Let's look a moment at the listed categories on the Main List tab of Shopping List. The program assigns very generic categories for ingredients, such as Baking for flour and sugar, Dried Goods for pasta, etc. If you tend to do most of your shopping at one main store, it would benefit you GREATLY to edit those items to the specific aisle on which you'll find them in YOUR store. Doing this is EASY. When you click the item, an "Edit" button will appear to the left. Click it, and scroll to the appropriate category. If you are just starting, click Add Category, and label it "Aisle 2" (or whatever aisle you need!) It will save this aisle assignment for that ingredient in every currently imported recipe in which that ingredient appears, and from here on out, will automatically assign any ingredient by that name to that aisle.

See an item on your Shopping List and don't know why it's there? Simply check the Recipe Key on the sidebar to see what recipe it belongs to! This key can be de-activated when you print your list to make it less cluttered, if you'd like.

A note: This program does differentiate between subtle changes in ingredients, which can clutter up your shopping list at first. For instance, if you've imported once recipe that calls for 3 large eggs, and another that calls for 2 eggs, it will create two separate entries on your shopping list: one for large eggs, one for eggs. It's easy to fix, and as I mentioned above, once you fix it on your shopping list, it will make the change permanent in all your recipes. Simply click on the item, hit "edit", change the entries until they match exactly, and save. Now Plan to Eat knows that you need 5 eggs, and it will consolidate it into one entry. For more specific edits, you can go into your Recipe Book and make sure that you have chosen the same name (or abbreviation) every time for every ingredient. (Use the recipe key in the Shopping List if you need more guidance in this task). Little edits early on will greatly streamline your shopping list later.

Now your Main Shopping list is complete! (This was the same as the Working Shopping List in the paper-and-pencil method). Remember what was next in the Bootcamp method? Go to the pantry and see what you already have! This is SO EASY in Plan to Eat - it's simply the sidebar to the right of your Main List. Looking in your pantry you see that you have plenty of spaghetti and green beans. Grab these items from your Main List and drag them over to Pantry Inventory. It's just that easy! Beware, however: Each time you go shopping, consider clicking the "Clear Pantry" button at the top of the sidebar. If you don't, and a recipe calls for an item in your virtual pantry, it will NOT add it to your shopping list. If you actually did eat that item since the last time you shopped, you'll be disappointed when it comes time to cook that meal and you don't have all your ingredients! Clear your pantry, and you'll start fresh every time.

What about the Kitchen Day Preparation Worksheet? It is still helpful to have a copy of what you want to bake each Kitchen Day, but it's not necessary for meal planning. That's because when you drag in Italian Bread (aisle: Bakery) to a meal, you know you are buying an already baked loaf. But when you drag in "Kiersten's Famous Italian Bread" from your Recipe Book, Plan to Eat automatically adds in the ingredients you need to bake it. No more confusion!

Next to the "Main List" tab is a "Staples" tab. This is the same as your Bootcamp "Master List" - simply a list of items you buy every shopping trip, but which don't pertain to any specific recipe (like bananas, laundry soap, tissues, or diapers). Again, Plan to Eat makes this so simple! Just add items on the Staples page. They will always be there. Edit these items by aisle just as you did on the Main List tab. Then click on the little box to the left of every item you need this trip and click the +Add to Main List button at the top of the page. Make sure to separate these items into the correct store. You're done!

Another fun feature is the "What Can I Cook from My Pantry" button on the bottom left sidebar. Clicking on this button will sift through your recipes and figure out what you can make with what you already have.

The Big Question

Why can't I just download the software? I don't know if it's worth paying a monthly/yearly subscription fee for this!
First, there are some download-able software programs out there that are similar to this one. If you absolutely cannot pay a yearly fee, you might want to do a search for some of those. However, I don't know of any that have web-importability. (If yours does, please share it with us!) In other words, if you need to find a new chicken parmesan recipe, you'll have to look through your cookbooks or find one through a web-search, copy and paste it into a text document, and then copy it into your software program item by item through a bulk uploader. But with Plan to Eat, searching the best food sites is easy, and importing is just one-click away!

Another great feature of a web-based program is that you can take it with you anywhere you can get a smart phone signal. Plan to Eat has a special "mobile" page that makes viewing your Shopping List easy. We live in a fairly rural area and I don't get pass a grocery store every day, but my husband's work takes him all over the place. He often blesses me by calling me and asking me if he can pick something up at a nearby store. With Plan to Eat, I don't have to read him a long list of things I might need…he can log in to our account on his phone and see if I have anything on my list.
You can also upload your meal plan to an iCal calendar (which is accessible through Google Calendar and others.) No matter where you go, you will know what's for dinner tonight! That includes the kitchen: I know I have tried to store my recipes on my computer, but I still have to print out a copy for the kitchen (or run back and forth to the computer while I cook!) Now, I can bring up any recipe on my phone and have it with me while I cook. That's important to this homeschooling mom, who already uses enough printer ink each day to float a boat!

Web-based programs also eliminate the discouragement that comes from being the "wrong" kind of computer. I'm Heidi, and I'm a Mac, and unfortunately, many of the great programs out there aren't configured for my computer. But with a web-based program, it doesn't matter what system you use!

Finally, the program has wonderful support from Clint, its creator, who answers any and all questions and suggestions quickly. When I once mentioned that I didn't like the set-up of the per-serving setting, he changed it the next day You won't find that kind of speedy service in most software packages. Plan to Eat is constantly evolving based on the clever suggestions of its dedicated users. It just keeps getting better and better!

Thanks for sticking with me! I generally don't write long bloglets that sound like an infomercial, but I am just thrilled with Plan to Eat. I use it every week, and have not been disappointed yet. Planning menus and creating shopping lists is right at the bottom of my list of most-dreaded chores, but Plan to Eat has taken all the pain out of it. I hope some of you will enjoy it, too!

Want a tour? Check this out!
Decided you'd like to give it a try? Tell 'em I sent you!

Now get to menu planning, Bootcampers!



QueenB said...

Thanks for joining Mailbox Monday- I'm a confirmed email subscriber (way late )

Santa Clarita housekeeper said...

Wow this is an electronic way of planning your household meals. This Plan to Eat is great.