Realistically, the best way to be efficient at something like weekly meal planning is to program it into your subconscious.
You shouldn’t have to constantly be making decisions about how to plan meals – what new recipes to try, what ingredients to buy, etc.
I very rarely make a real shopping list because we have a simple system of easy recipes we make regularly. Then sometimes we just throw an extra item in if there’s something new we want to try or a sale we want to take advantage of.
My goal isn’t to tryalltherecipes – it’s to have a simple, healthy (nutrient-dense and weight-loss-encouraging), but tasty rotating menu we love. We can totally eat the same thing twice a month!
While our budget-based easy meal plans have worked great for many years, we’ve always aspired to take it up a notch and do a great job of incorporating the best foods into our diet.
In order to kick butt at it, I knew it would be most efficient to utilize a recipe organizer and possibly a weekly meal planning service, so I set out to compare the best parts of both. Information is compiled to the best of my understanding.
I envision creating a menu similarly to the concept of a capsule wardrobe – change it up about once a quarter based on what’s in season.
(Fun fact: 2 of these tools were created by friends of ours!)
Who wants to sign up for a bunch of weekly meal planning services to figure out which one works best?!
But I did it anyway in the name of research and putting together this resource for you. It took me forever. You’re welcome.
Seriously, though, I did want to find the best solution for how to meal plan for our family, and that won’t be the same for everyone because we all have different goals. Here are my findings so you can hopefully easily identify what will best help you streamline mealtime!
Recipe Manager + Meal Planning Features I Look For
- Nutrition: If my goal is to create a healthy menu, I need to have quick and easy access to this information.
- Custom Foods: Ideally, I should be able to enter foods I want to include in our meals, as well as those I want to avoid, so that intelligent menu suggestions are generated.
- Custom Recipes: Being able to add my own recipes is really important because I always either totally wing it, or combine a bunch of recipe ideas to create my own version of something.
- Filters: The faster I can drill down to what I’m looking for the better!
- App: Having an app is totally not imperative to me since I’m not going to be planning frequent menus or need shopping lists, but obviously it’s still a nice option to have.
- Deals/Prices: We’ve been in a great routine with what we buy every month for years, so it doesn’t really take much to stay in our budget. (Some might call it a rut, but I call it convenient and efficient, haha.) However, when you’re trying new things it gets more complicated. Some of these services estimate ingredient prices and calculate menu costs, and some suggest recipes based on current deals, both of which are a huge plus in my book!
- Lists: Shopping lists should just be a given.
- Easy Add: Clipping recipes from various sites is the fastest way to build up a virtual recipe box, but not all services offer this functionality. Some do make it easier to create recipes from scratch than others.
- Style/Design: As a designer, the way something looks is very important to me. (Which is why this site is always a work in progress and drives me batty half the time.) When I’m looking for a service, the aesthetic is easily in my top 2 for importance because I know I won’t actually be able to bring myself to use something if it’s too ugly.
- Functionality: There are many factors to consider about the functionality of a site or service, so I just assigned each one a score based on my overall feeling about what they offered.
- Pantry: Being able to quickly see what you have on hand and build meals accordingly is pretty smart and efficient.
- Cost: Because I’m ultimately looking for a nice place to organize my recipes, as opposed to creating weekly menu plans, I don’t really want to pay for a service long-term.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the services:
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These tools will help you plan your menus, but won’t work to compile and manage all your recipes.
They’re most useful if you want a more done-for-you (DFY) approach to meal planning, but still want lots of variety in your menu.
Best for: pretty pictures?
It turns out I’m a Flexitarian.
I previously had no idea there was a label for people who aren’t quite vegetarian but aim to eat little meat. I love that this meal planner offers that option, though to be fair, it’s not that difficult in other services to filter out recipes with meat.
Cons: The functionality is very limited.
My Takeaway: I want to like mealime a lot more than I do.
Local Thyme ($2.50-$3.33/month, free trial)
Best for: local in-season produce
This service is designed to help people with CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) memberships make the most of the produce they get.
Cons: The recipe browsing system isn’t as beautiful to use as many of the other tools.
My Takeaway: Even if you aren’t part of one of the few supported CSAs, Local Thyme could be useful for a seasonally-focused menu. There’s a bunch of great information and tips about each vegetable.
No More To-Go ($5.33-$7/month, free trial)
Best for: picky eater tips
Cons: I couldn’t seem to get it to show me any menus.
My Takeaway: No More To-Go might be a great service, but I couldn’t figure it out.
She Plans Dinner ($5/month, free trial with code “newbie”)
Best for: 2-week plans
I don’t know about you, but a week is a really short time period in our house. I much prefer to shop and prep 2 weeks’ worth of meals at a time rather than weekly. It’s just more efficient and better for your budget than other services which only do a week at a time.
Cons: You don’t see actual sample menus before signing up, just a list of recipes. [Update: You can now download a PDF of sample recipes and shopping list…]
My Takeaway: She Plans Dinner menu plans are created with a lot of love by a homeschooling mom who understands busy and budgeting, which seems like a winning combination.
Best for: freezer meals
I’m a little confused with this service because it utilizes yumprint (see below) for a digital recipe box.
Supposedly people really like using this for freezer cooking.
Cons: You have to sign up for at least 3 months at a time, but I don’t feel like there’s a very good understanding of how it works to feel excited about doing that. The site feels a bit difficult to navigate.
My Takeaway: I’d be interested to know if Relish! is indeed helpful for freezer cooking.
Best for: easy prep ahead
Once you decide on the versions of the recipes you want to make for the week, it gives you a breakdown of ingredients you can prep ahead of time so you can speed up the cooking process later.
There’s a button to log meals directly to MyFitnessPal, which is cool, and Weight Watcher points are listed as well.
The recipes are beautiful and some even include video tutorials.
Cons: It doesn’t seem like you can really customize too much other than serving size and the version of the meal – vegetarian vs meat, etc.
My Takeaway: If I was just experimenting with trying new recipes and used Weight Watchers or MyFitnessPal, CookSmarts would be pretty handy.
Six O’Clock Scramble ($5.76-$12/month, free trial)
Best for: slow cooker variations
Right off the bat I’m suspicious this isn’t for me because it estimates people save almost $500/month using their service. I mean, we average maybe $300/month on food, so this thing should be paying me to use it I guess.
Each recipe has a slow cooker variation.
Cons: This does actually give you a good bit of functionality for a meal planning service, however, it feels stuck in a weird place between the DFY and DIY approaches so that it maybe doesn’t do either the best.
My Takeaway: Even if I was looking for a menu planning service to help me use my slow cooker more and wanted a bit of flexibility with it, I don’t think I’d pay this much for less flexibility like the Six O’Clock Scramble offers.
eMeals ($5-$10/month, free trial)
Best for: meal plan variety
This service seems to offer the widest selection of meal plan types by far (I counted 18)! You can change your meal plan type whenever you want to.
Like Build a Menu (below), you can choose the stores you like to shop at, but it doesn’t offer the same flexibility.
Cons: Recipes are delivered as PDFs, no pictures, though the app seems to be a lot nicer.
My Takeaway: If you want to easily try different eating styles, it seems like eMeals would be a good way to do it.
Build A Menu ($3-10/month, free trial)
Best for: budgeting!
There are loads of other meal planning services, some of which also create menus based on that week’s sales, but they’re very limiting. I love that Build A Menu lets you pick and choose from all the plan types to make the most of your budget!
It’s one thing to start planning healthier menus, but keeping it realistic with your budget is another thing entirely. I know I don’t want to have to go to the trouble of pricing everything myself…
It’s also great that you can choose the stores you like to shop at – Aldi, holla!
A bonus is that by using this service you’re helping support orphans around the world. Can’t beat that.
Cons: The design style is quite old, so it does hurt my eyes a bit 😉 Just freshening up the colors would go a long way to feeling more modern.
My Takeaway: I would be inclined to use Build a Menu if I liked trying new recipes and my goal was to easily have more variety in our menus without screwing up our budget.
the fresh 20 ($5.42-$14/month, free trial)
Best for: eating healthy with the least effort!
I’m all about the simplicity of this service! The premise is to create the whole week’s meals from just 20 fresh (healthy/unprocessed) ingredients, and prep everything at once. I call genius.
Cons: It does cost more.
My Takeaway: If you need a really simple way to transform your mealtime, the fresh 20 could totally be worth the money. I’m truly tempted to utilize this service because it’s kind of a no-brainer way to eat healthy. I’m definitely going through their sample menus to add recipes to my collection at the very least.
Recipe Browser/Managers & Menu Planning + Recipe Organization
These recipe browser/manager tools don’t have a menu planning feature, but they will help you create and organize beautiful recipe collections like your own virtual recipe box you can access anywhere.
(Best if you want a recipe organizer without continuing to pay for a menu planning service.)
These are good solutions for recipe organization if you use a physical or digital calendar (like Google calendar) for your menus.
Best for: sales
You can pick stores you shop at so that you’ll be able to easily see when stuff is on sale for your favorite recipes.
Cons: I’m not as happy with these filtering options as with some of the others.
My Takeaway: Food.com might be worth using as a recipe manager to take advantage of the sales feature.
Best for: beautiful meals
Epicuious takes a different approach to menu planning – it’s more about curating your recipes and creating beautiful meals from them, as opposed to a week or month’s schedule.
Cons: There’s no calendar to plan a full menu on, and the filtering could be better.
My Takeaway: Epicurious gives me the feeling of being some sort of rich coastal hipster mom who plans allthedinnerparties. I’m currently not that person, though it would be swell.
Best for: style
Yummly learns the kinds of recipes you like and makes suggestions based on that.
Cons: There doesn’t seem to be a way to search within your own recipes.
My Takeaway: Yummly is definitely my favorite recipe manager from an aesthetic standpoint.
The following tools can be used to compile all your favorite recipes as well as plan your menus, however they don’t have integrated recipe browsing.
You’ll add some of your own recipes no matter what, so it’s not that big of a deal that you have to add all of them for these tools – some of them do integrate easily with other recipe sites.
Pepper Plate (free)
Best for: simplicity
If you like to stick to basics and appreciate really minimalist design, you might like this tool.
Cons: Very limited functionality compared to others, plus recipes aren’t built into the site – you have to add them manually or from supported sites.
My Takeaway: I can do basically the same thing with Google calendar, though Pepper Plate looks nicer and creates shopping lists.
Best for: cooking tools
This seems to work essentially like a glorified cookbook – you can check off ingredients as you add them, switch between different recipes, and the app includes timers.
Cons: Only includes nutrition information if the site you clip the recipe from has it. There isn’t a browser version, and that’s a dealbreaker for me – I strongly prefer not to have to install something just to see if it works or if I even like it.
My Takeaway: I always avoid installing more programs and apps on my devices if at all possible, but Paprika might be a good gift for your mom or grandma.
Recipe Browser/Manager/Menu Planners
These tools offer the greatest functionality for a broader range of use cases.
Best for: blog integration
I actually started on this site back in the day, and the functionality was better than most other options.
Cons: It’s pretty old-school design.
My Takeaway: There are many other tools that have evolved beyond KitchenMonki, both in functionality and design.
Plan to Eat ($3.35-$5/month, free trial)
Best for: organization
If you don’t care as much about hitting specific goals, the functionality of this system rivals Eat This Much (below). They don’t do all the same things, but they each do quite a lot. Something I do prefer this tool over Eat This Much for is the calendar view for menu planning.
They do technically start you off with a few recipes to browse through, but most you have to import yourself.
Cons: You have to add recipes from other sites, so nutrition might not be concluded.
My Takeaway: It’s worth signing up for the Plan to Eat free trial to see if you like using it.
All Recipes (freemium)
Best for: Dinner Spinner™
The Dinner Spinner™ is basically just a fun recipe filter.
All Recipes will show you local sales similar to Food.com, but you can search your saved recipes, unlike at Food.com.
Cons: You don’t seem to be able to access the Dinner Spinner™ on a computer. I can’t find how to upgrade an account to create menus.
My Takeaway: The way AllRecipes is laid out is sort of like a cross between Food.com and Yummly, except that you can supposedly pay to use it as a menu planner as well.
Best for: interesting design
I really like the simple beauty of how you browse and drag recipes to your menu, as well as the way recipes are collected into your “cookbooks”.
Cons: It doesn’t have a full month calendar view for planning, and it doesn’t support nutrition info.
My Takeaway: If it wasn’t for those two cons, I think I’d be sold on using yumprint because I really like the design.
Big Oven (freemium)
Best for: adding recipes from URLs
“Menus: They’re like playlists for food.“
How great is this philosophy? Love it!
Quickly adding recipes from other sites works really well!
The options it has for managing your own recipes are nice.
I like the way the planner is laid out – you can easily drop recipes into the calendar and it’s displayed nicely.
Cons: the nutrition doesn’t seem to work and there doesn’t seem to be a good way to customize recipe searches
My Takeaway: To be honest, the functionality in BigOven doesn’t seem to be worth the money to me – aspects of it aren’t as intuitive as they could be.
land of nosh ($8-$10/month, free trial)
Best for: meal plan collections
Paprika is the only other system I’ve seen that lets you check off ingredients and steps while you’re cooking like this tool does.
Additionally, you can create various meal planning templates, which is another cool feature I haven’t seen anywhere else. This fits very well into my meal planning philosophy 🙂
There is a limited selection of curated recipes to browse through, but you’ll mostly need to add your own from other sites.
Cons: I might be spoiled, but I like to be able to see pictures of my recipes and drag them into my menu planning calendar instead of via text. This tool also doesn’t include nutrition information or allow you to sort with filters.
My Takeaway: If you want an Instagram-worthy experience in menu planning, land of nosh might be it.
gatheredtable ($7/month, free trial)
Best for: best of both worlds
Done-for-you menu planning services don’t generally provide a way to organize and manage your recipe collections.
Recipe managers don’t generally plan your menus for you.
gatheredtable combines these features into one service.
Each week they populate your calendar with recipes based on your preferences, but you can also organize all your recipes and drag them onto your calendar to edit and fill out your menu. The way this planner works is definitely my favorite.
Cons: It doesn’t have an estimated cost feature like Eat This Much and Build a Menu do.
My Takeaway: You can get the same functionality for free with other tools, but if you don’t mind the added expense, gatheredtable does it better and prettier. I daresay you might even enjoy planning your menus.
Eat This Much (freemium)
Best for: nutrition/dieting!
“In effect, the intrinsically uncertain power of freedom has turned the human being into an animal destined not to contemplate eternal truths, but rather to grapple in ever-changing ways with ever-changing circumstances.” -Rousseau
If this quote on their site is any indication, Eat This Much seems to have much the same goal we do – streamline the basics so we can focus on developing the stuff that really matters.
I like to call what their service does “track without tracking”.
Not only does Eat This Much automatically create plans for you based on your macro and calorie goals, but it lets you easily adjust the ingredients and see how that affects things. You can even set different target preferences for different days of the week, like intense workout days vs a lazy weekend, or carb cycling, for example.
I also love that it includes cost estimates, and it has pretty good food filters, not to mention helps you manage your pantry inventory.
I appreciate the functionality of this meal & nutrition planner/recipe manager/food tracker/budget menu maker so much that I had to make a video so you could easily see for yourself.
Adding recipes from scratch is so much easier and more fun than other services I’ve tried – you can search foods and drag them into the recipe and the nutrition will automatically be calculated.
Cons: It’s not quite as long-term planning friendly because it doesn’t seem to have a calendar month view to drag recipes in like some of the others. It also generates some pretty weird combinations sometimes, and may even leave meals empty if you’re trying to hit certain goals. You can manually adjust your meals, though, so it’s not that big of a deal.
My Takeaway: Eat This Much is where I want to enter my recipes to create meal combinations that fit our goals, both nutritionally and for our budget. If you sign up for the free 2 week trial using our code “ticoandtina” you’ll get 25% when you decide to join.
I think it’s probably clear that Eat This Much is the overall winner for us. There just isn’t any other tool that combines so many different features, and that’s hard to ignore.
I’m also torn between Yummly, yumprint, and Food.com for free recipe collection services, so I’ll be using a combination of Eat This Much and one of these.
Do you have a favorite menu planner/recipe organizer that’s not listed here?
Let us know so we can check it out!
A Smarter Healthy™ Series
Call us crazy, but we think...
- Foods should be: accessible, economical, optimized
- Cooking & Prep should be: simple, convenient, efficient
- Eating should be: fun, delicious, satiating
- Exercise should be: practical, adaptable, potent