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Healthy, affordable, convenient: pick two. That’s how many people — myself included — feel when it comes to food. It just takes too much energy to get all three, and for most people, the one that gets sacrificed is health.
But there is a way that you can eat healthy food that doesn’t cost much and do so in a way that doesn’t require too much effort on your part.
That secret is weekly meal plans.
Once you’ve learned how to cook and picked up on how to spend less on groceries, weekly meal plans are easy. It’s all about finding cheap recipes and doing all of your shopping at once to minimize wasted time.
Fortunately, there are services on the web that will handle all of this for you. Some are freely available while others charge a tiny fee — but don’t worry, it’s well worth it when you realize how much money these meal plans will save you.
The website isn’t the prettiest, but don’t let that turn you away from Monthly Meal Planner. This is definitely one case where “don’t judge a website by its design” holds true because it’s one of the best free meal planners available.
Your first stop should be the Calendar, where you’ll find this entire month complete with nightly recipes. It only covers dinner, so you’ll have to figure out breakfasts and lunches on your own, but even so, it’s incredibly helpful.
Don’t expect five-star cuisine out of this tool. The main focus is on convenience and price, but a lot of the options are healthy too. If you want to change out a day, just browse through the hundreds of choices in the Recipe Box.
But if you stick with the actual calendar meal plans, you can use the Grocery List feature which tells you exactly what ingredients you’ll need over a given time period. Without a doubt, this is the most useful aspect of the website.
eMeals is one of the more powerful meal planning services out there. It’s not free — an ongoing meal plan costs $5 per month if you purchase a 12-month subscription — but they do have a two-week free trial for those who are interested.
There are 20 different meal plans that you can subscribe to, starting with something basic like Classic Meals or Budget Friendly, but also going out of the box with categories like Paleo and Gluten Free. There’s even a plan for diabetic-friendly recipes.
eMeals also provides Breakfast, Lunch, Dessert, and Occasions plans that you can tack onto any dinner-based meal plan. Meal plans arrive directly by email.
Once you’ve picked a meal plan, you can focus it further between “family size” meals (4-6 servings) or “eating style” meals (1-2 servings). You can also designate your favorite grocery store and eMeals will try to coordinate with sales and promotions.
Like eMeals, CookSmarts is a subscription-based meal planning service with a lot to offer. It’s $8 per month, but you can get discounted down to $6 per month if you purchase a one-year subscription.
For the price of one Starbucks, you can have CookSmarts plan most of the month’s meals for you. Is it worth it? You bet. But if you aren’t convinced, try the free trial of three sample meal plans without handing over any payment info.
Every Friday, CookSmarts delivers four balanced dinner recipes. Each recipe comes with three alternatives for gluten-free, paleo, or vegetarian diets. You pick the recipes you want and CookSmarts generates a grocery list for you.
And that’s it! Could it be any simpler? The only way CookSmarts could be better is if it expanded to include seven meals (one for every night) and also covered breakfast and lunch. But for $6 per month, CookSmarts is excellent.
Maybe you don’t want to pay somebody else to build your meal plan for you. Maybe you don’t want to follow a pre-built meal plan at all. If you want to explore all kinds of cuisines, then doing it yourself is the only way to go.
But researching recipes takes a lot of time. It can take hours to find a recipe that fits the kind of cuisine you want, and having to rinse-and-repeat for an entire week’s worth of meals can become a huge time sink.
So head on over to the Recipe Roulette and give the wheel a spin. You’ll shave hours off of your recipe-gathering time.
All you have to do is select the type of Cuisine, what you want as the Main Ingredient, and which Course you want to eat it as. Spin the wheel and Recipe Roulette will spit out a recipe for you. Seven spins is all it takes to build a weekly meal plan.
What if you already have a library of recipes that you love and want to keep using? Instead of relying on a third-party service to provide you with recipes, wouldn’t it be great if there was a tool to help you organize and combine what you already have into meal plans?
That’s Plan to Eat in a nutshell. Once you have an account, you can collect recipes from all around the web (or manually input some of your own) in your Recipe Book, then use the online menu planner to drag-and-drop those recipes into meal plans.
Plan to Eat is accessible on the web and on mobile through the official app. The planner can also analyze your meal plan and build a grocery list for you to ease your shopping woes.
Of all the paid services on this list, Plan to Eat is the cheapest at $5 per month, though you can reduce that price even further with a one-year subscription for $39. Skeptical folks can take advantage of the 30-day free trial to see if Plan to Eat will work well for you.
Life Is Better When You Cook
Cooking is a life skill that everyone should learn, especially for those who are looking to save money every month. Start with these free online cooking classes to pick up a handful of fundamentals in just a few hours.
Do you plan your meals ahead of time? Got any tips of your own to help make cooking less of a chore? Share your secrets with us in the comments below!