Online Resources Help You Plan & Prepare Meals
Sitting down to a relaxed meal with family members is nourishing in every way. Of course behind that image of serenity, there's often a frantic parent scrambling to plan, prepare and provide the food. Now an avalanche of apps and websites promises to simplify these tasks.
Zeroing in on the one that works best for your family is almost as challenging as finding a recipe everyone likes, so the following list is organized around different needs. Most of these websites and apps are free and offer recipes, menu planning and grocery lists. Subscription plans often offer free samples. Before making a commitment to any particular program, however, try a few meals to make sure they match your family's tastes, lifestyle and budget.
Give me a plan!
Howdoesshedoit.com, a website designed by a husband/wife team, allows users to make a collection of recipes from the team's suggestions or by importing your own ideas. Drag meals into the menu plan, hit a button and get a grocery list. The website is free with sign-up. The site's app is PlanShopEat and costs $2.99. Available for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, version 3.0 or later.
Thefresh20.com emails a weekly plan for five dinners that use only 20 fresh, in-season ingredients. Choose from classic, gluten-free, lunch or vegetarian/vegan plans. Cost is $5 per month.
Supercook.com generates a list of recipes that use ingredients and leftovers you already have, based on what you enter into a search engine. You can also filter recipes to eliminate those that include nuts, gluten, meat, dairy, fish or shellfish.
Thescramble.com is firmly grounded in the realities of family life. Subscribers get recipes for five dinners a week with an emphasis on seasonal produce. A newsletter includes tips about problems ranging from picky eaters to tight food budgets. After a two-week free trial, subscriptions cost $7/month for three months or $3/month for three years.
Relishrelish.com sends subscribers 15 tasty, upscale dinner recipes. You pick what looks appealing and create an instant grocery list. For $7 per month or $60 a year, you also get a mobile app that generates grocery lists, scales recipes and nutritional information.
Foodonthetable.com creates a meal plan that takes advantage of specials at local supermarkets where you shop and the foods your family likes to eat.
Ziplist.com doesn't plan your menu, but it provides one-stop access to thousands of recipes from other websites. Once you make your meal plan, a single click adds the ingredients to your shopping list. Ziplist.com also offers a free app for iPhone (version 4.3 or later) and Android devices (versions vary).
BigOven.com draws its 170,000 recipes from the social network of the same name. Joining the community is free and allows you to build a "Try It Soon" list and comment on recipes. For $20/year or $2/month, you get access to an ad-free version with a grocery-list generator, nutrition information and the "Leftover Wizard." The app is free and available for iPhone, iPad, Android, Android Tablet, Kindle Fire, NOOK Windows Phone and Windows (versions vary).
PepperPlate.com helps you create a collection of recipes by uploading favorites from other websites and tagging them with your own search terms. A planner encourages you to schedule three meals a day for an entire month. The grocery list can be organized to follow your path around your favorite market. Free for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad (version 3.2 or later) and Android devices (versions vary).
AlltheCooks.com is a social bulletin board where passionate cooks post their favorite recipes ala Pinterest. Their app connects you to forums on the website where you can post questions about a recipe or preparation technique and get friendly advice - usually within minutes. Free for iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and Android devices (versions vary).
Myrecipes.com features tested recipes from popular cookbooks and magazines. Use the "My Pantry" feature to identify recipes made with ingredients you have on hand. Sign up to receive weekly or daily menu ideas as well as special features that help you save money, organize and review recipes, create shopping lists and get alerts about deals at the local supermarket.
Dinnerspinner is an addictive game-like app from Allrecipes.com. Fill in a different variable - what you have in the fridge, how long you have before dinner - then shake your phone to find recipes recommended by other home cooks. Free for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad (version 4.3 or later), Android and Windows Phone. Dinnerspinner Pro ($2.99) allows you to you share recipes and generate grocery lists.
Cookingplanit.com is ideal for parents who need a cooking refresher course. Each recipe uses simple steps and coordinates with other dishes so your recipes are ready at the same time. The site also suggests well-balanced meals and creates shopping lists based on your choices. $2.99. Available for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad (versions vary).
eMeals.com offers menu plans and shopping lists built around dietary preferences ranging from gluten-free and clean eating to low-carb and Paleo. Plans start at $58 for a year of dinners. Pay extra for lunch and breakfast menus.
Superhealthykids.com is run by two moms with an infectious enthusiasm for getting more fruits and vegetables into their kids. In addition to menus, recipes and shopping lists, the subscription pays for nutrition information and bonus items like a list of best grocery prices and a food and veggie intake tracker. $10/month or $100/year.
100daysofrealfood.com encourages parents to feed their families more natural foods. Calculated for a family of four, the meal plans include breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner menus for less than $170 a week. Grocery lists don't include any food that has more than five ingredients on the label. Get four free weeks when you "like" the site on Facebook.
Onceamonthmom.com offers guidance to cooks who are willing to invest 8-12 hours to create meals for an entire month. For $72/year or $8/month subscribers get menus, instructions, grocery lists and labels so you won't lose track of what's in the freezer.
Fooducate.com rates foods based on ingredients, calories and allergens. An "alternatives" tab suggests better options when your first choice gets a low grade. Free apps for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad (version 5.0 or later) and Android devices (versions vary) allow you to scan bar codes in the store.
Chemical Cuisine, created by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, makes sense of unpronounceable ingredients. The app instantly tells you whether an ingredient is benign or should be avoided. Available for 99 cents for iPod, iPhone and iPad (version 4.0 or later) and Android devices (versions vary).
If there's an app that peels vegetables, we couldn't find it. Still, the apps and websites listed here definitely make it easier to give healthy and delicious answers to the age-old question: What's for dinner?
Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids, including one with special needs. She has been writing a column about growing up with technology for 10 years.