I never used to be a fan of using an online menu planner. I've tried them all, people. And invariably I would cancel my subscription after just a few weeks, because the menu planner was not flexible enough to meet my needs. Well, that is no longer true.
I have found an online menu planner that is the MOST FLEXIBLE one out there — it does what I tell it to do, lol — AND it's inexpensive. It way-more-than pays for itself, month after month. (Update: this meal planner is even BETTER than it used to be when I first wrote this — more about that later!)
BTW, welcome back to week 2 of Meal Planning Month! During the entire month of February, I will be discussing menu planning in all its glory. If you missed last week, you can find it right here: Meal Planning Do's and Don'ts. Next week will be about actually Working Your Meal Plan — making the plan happen in day-to-day life. And the following week I'll reveal my 7 Secrets for Meal Planning over the Long Haul, because sometimes meal planning week after week can become a huge drag.
I am really becoming a convert to consistent meal planning. It helps my life in so many ways. The best part may just be that I don't have to figure out each day what to make for dinner that night; the decision has already been made, and all I have to do is carry it out!
But the actual meal planning itself can be hard work. I have found a menu planner that makes it much easier, though — it's called Build A Menu. :-)
What I look for in an online menu planner:
1) I want a menu planner that lets me choose my own recipes. The ones that have done that for me, based on some general guideline that I've chosen (like low carb or gluten free), are not necessarily very friendly to my wallet when I go to the store to buy the specified groceries. And what if one of the recipes they've chosen for me doesn't sound good? Then I'm stuck.
2) I want a menu planner that lets me schedule the recipes myself. I have activities and appointments to work around, hello. And I prefer to work with an entire month, rather than just a week, which is what most of them are set up for.
3) I want a menu planner that lets me see how much the cost will be before I commit to the meal. There's nothing worse than going to the store and finding out that one ingredient is going to cost an arm and a leg, and you will probably never use it again!
4) I want a menu planner that lets me look at ingredients in a recipe to see if this will be something my family will enjoy or not. And to make sure there are none of the aforementioned weird ones that I will use 2 teaspoons of and then they will just take up space on my shelf until the expiration date.
Did I find one that meets all the criteria? YES, I DID! After much trial and error with online menu planner services, I have landed on Build A Menu as the most flexible one out there. It is easy to use, lets me do what I want, and by using it I definitely save more than the cost of the service every month. That's my kind of investment!
Here's what I like about Build A Menu menu planner:
1) They don't shoehorn me into one category. I can see the recipes in all the categories at any time and choose whichever ones I want.
2) They have an online calendar to schedule my meals with. This is very handy for drag, drop, and move purposes, until I get the plan to my liking. I only plan out my dinners, so I don't print the calendar out from here, because it includes spaces for breakfast, lunch, sides, snacks, and dessert — and the printout includes all those spaces, whether you've put something in there or not. But if you plan with this kind of detail, the printed calendar would be very handy, rather than having to write it out by hand.
3) They show me approximately how much each recipe costs to make. This is VITAL to me. I have a pretty slim grocery budget to meet; I can't afford expensive cuts of meat or unusual produce.
4) The recipes are very easy to read, with a table of ingredients first and then the directions to assemble the meal.
5) The recipes themselves are very easy to make. I have not found a complicated one yet. Since I hate cooking, this is a huge plus for me. But if I ever do find a complicated one, guess what? I don't have to choose it. Same goes for anything with weird ingredients.
6) They offer recipes for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and sides. I can consult these even if I am only planning dinner — who says you can't have breakfast for dinner? Or what if I want snack ideas to take to a party?
7) Though I don't personally use it, they do also have a plan where they pick the meals for you. It's nice to have this option in case I might ever want it. See what I mean about FLEXIBLE? (And you can try this plan FOR FREE if you take advantage of the September sale! Woot!!)
8) It saves all the meals I've chosen. If I add one to my Favorites list, then I can use it in future menus. I wish there was an option to delete those that didn't work for us — the Tuna Quiche did not go over very well, although my husband bravely ate it for lunch for a few days — but that is a small complaint.
9) In short, Build a Menu is flexibility itself. I am in control! I can make it do everything I need. Gotta love that!
Here's how I use Build A Menu menu planner:
I click “START HERE” at the top of the page and then choose “Any Grocery Store.” I do this because it gives me more flexibility in choosing meals — there are more options. I know that prices vary by store, but all I'm looking for is an approximate. What I really want is lotsa meals to choose from.
I usually will click “Gluten Free (serving 4-6)” first. Then, for the recipes that sound interesting and are under $10 (my personal budget goal), I click on “show ingredients.” (It should really say “show recipe” there, because that's what it does.) This is great because it helps me decide what I really want to add to my menu. For me, the ingredients must be easily available and the procedure needs to be doable without a lot of fuss. If it meets those criteria (and sounds yummy, duh), I click the box to add it to my menu.
The recipes do change out on a weekly basis, so there are usually only 5-7 recipes under any given category. I, however, am doing my planning for an entire month at a time, so after deciding on recipes from one category, I move to another. The Dining on a Dime category is always good fodder, as are the Slow Cooker and Clean Eating sections. But there is also THM friendly, Weight Watcher friendly (even showing how many points the recipe is), vegetarian, low carb, family friendly… and more. Lotsa recipes, and a new selection each week. I call that flexibility.
AND THIS IS THE PART WHERE IT GETS BETTER!! Build a Menu has just launched their PREMIUM Plan — which gives you access to ALL the recipes in their ENTIRE DATABASE! That makes planning for longer periods of time just that much easier! (Although you can still go with their selections for the week, if you're in a hurry that day.) –And it's ON SALE NOW for an introductory price that is SO LOW you could save that much your first month on the plan! I'm pretty excited about all of this, can you tell? :-)
OK, back to what I was talking about, lol: I don't even try to find 30 recipes, since I do have some family favorites of our own that I want to include in my month's plan. So I generally pick anywhere from 12-20 meals. (I don't plan meals for Sundays… that's cook's night off in our house!) The ones I pick show up in the sidebar on the right, with a combined total cost that updates as I add or remove recipes. When I'm satisfied with my selection, I click on “Build this Menu now.” This takes me to a page where I can click to view and print out the recipes (which I do right away) and plan them on the calendar. I can also view and/or print the shopping list (which I also do right away).
I use my own blackline calendar to write the recipes on in pencil after I have planned them on the online calendar. On the shopping list, I cross out items that I already have on hand. Then I add the remaining items to my overall shopping list. Then the calendar, shopping list, and recipes all get clipped to a clipboard which is stored in my home management center. This clipboard also goes with me to the grocery store. It's nice to have the recipes and plan with me in case I need to make a substitution due to the store being out of stock.
Using Build a Menu is so quick that it has cut my meal planning time considerably! Gone are the days of rooting through recipe
Since I am all about uncomplicated and inexpensive, Build a Menu is a great fit for me. I think every mom, whether you like to cook or not, will enjoy its convenience and flexibility. Try it by clicking any of the links on this page. Let me know what you think!
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