Friday, February 1, 2008

Grocery Shopping, is there a better way?

So, following my usual round-about route, I ended up reading an article on the Real Simple website describing 6 menu-planning services. It's a good article, and naturally, I spent some time last night trying the free previews of each. Some are more focused on kid-friendly meals, a few have options for vegetarians, and low-carb meals; but none quite meet my needs.

Thinking that I might be too picky, I asked a few friends if (a) they'd be willing to pay a service to send them meal ideas and (b) how much. The answers were surprisingly mixed. What follows is a completely un-scientific survey and was only based on a few conversations.

Friends with kids said they would be willing to pay between 10-20 CDN$ a month for the service on three conditions: i) that the recipes can be either removed or repeated upon the user's request, ii) that there are a large number of dinner ideas to choose from, and iii) that special dietary requirements (allergies, intolerances, or medical problems) are always taken into account before a menu is offered.

Made sense to me.

Some friends without kids said they'd be willing to pay, but only 5-10$ a month. They had no conditions other than that they could be assured certain ("icky") foods would not be part of the menu.

Good limitations all, but my problem with the services is something else entirely. At least once a week I serve 5+ people dinner. Most nights I only serve 2-3 people (myself included). So I need to be able to scale each recipe depending on the night that I serve it. For the group meal I prefer to use the crockpot; but it's not mandatory.

Every week I make my own menu and shopping list using an Excel spreadsheet. It takes a few hours of browsing various websites to get a handful of recipes, from which I dutifully scale and copy down the amount of required ingredients. I try to plan 7 nights of food, and I usually cook about 5, sometimes 6 nights. The seventh night is typically either restaurant fair, a meal with another family, or something I can pull from the freezer and cook in minutes (soups, stews, and the occasional 2nd batch I made of something tasty, etc.).

I keep trying to find cost-saving and time-saving measures to make this task easier. Some weeks I don't make a menu and we do just fine. The sky doesn't fall, the world doesn't end ... but it does make the hour before dinner a bit more hectic, and I do end up going to the store more, and often eating out more and paying more overall.

Some weeks I make a menu and can't stick to it. Friends come over (they're very welcome, but dinner gets modified so I can feed everyone), or we go out, or we just order out (or pull something from the freezer) because I don't feel like cooking (gasp!). Hey, it happens.

So, if I do this so regularly and I'm comfortable with what I do - why am I looking to change it? I guess I'm just looking. I like to see how other people do things, and hopefully improve my own methods. In my house almost *everyone* I cook for always stands before the fridge and reads my menu for the week. Sometimes they comment and sometimes they take notes!

Other sites of interest:

  • The Ultimate Grocery List. Contains a six-column, 1 page list of anything you might casually step out to buy on one sheet. The site itself collects grocery lists.
  • SuperCook. The Intelligent Recipe Search. I noticed it was querying Recipe*Zaar as I entered ingredients into its interface. SuperCook lets you save the list of what's in your pantry to help you find recipes for what you already have. That's something the Recipe*Zaar search sifter doesn't do--but SuperCook also doesn't let you pick your recipes based on 'Zaar's categories.

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