I used to hate cooking. I’d avoid it at all costs, sustaining myself on frozen pizzas, simple burritos, and, when I wanted to get fancy, a Caesar salad. Fed up with myself, I finally tried a subscription meal planning service — where I pay an app to send me handpicked recipes every week — and over the past five years, I’ve learned to cook hundreds of meals, using countless novel ingredients. The experience has cultivated my appreciation and enjoyment of cooking in a way nothing else has.
Claire Lower, food and beverage editor at Lifehacker, explained the central advantage of meal plans: “The benefits of meal planning all boil down to feeling some amount of control over your life. If you are very busy during the week, knowing what you’re going to feed yourself ahead of time, and having it already prepared, is one less thing to worry about.”
Here’s how to know if a meal planner is right for you, too.
What you can (and can’t) expect from meal planning services
Meal planning services helped solve my two main roadblocks with cooking: having no idea how to cook, and having no idea what to cook.
A meal planning service like eMeals or PlateJoy is different from a meal kit service like Blue Apron. (Wirecutter recommends Blue Apron and others in our guide to the best meal kit delivery services.) Meal kits send you ingredients and recipes in a box. Meal planning services send only recipes through a smartphone app, so you still have to go shopping, but when we tested meal kit services, most testers wished they could pick out their own ingredients anyway. With a planning service, the ingredients for the meals overlap, helping to eliminate waste and save money.
Each week, recipes and shopping lists magically appear on my phone based on a plan of my choosing. Some plans, like “30-minute meals,” “kid friendly,” or “budget friendly,” are meant to solve a logistical problem. Others, like “vegetarian,” “diabetic,” or “low carb,” are meant to redefine your diet.
My inability to answer the question “What’s for dinner?” was the biggest roadblock between me and cooking. With a meal plan, I receive seven or so recipes a week, and I pick the ones I want based on my schedule. It requires no mental effort from me, and it means I cook meals that I wouldn’t pick myself. In one week I might make Tuscan beef pot roast, tuna Niçoise salad, braised pork, and huevos rancheros. Each meal is balanced with vegetables, grains, and a protein. Cooking something wildly new and different each meal is exciting, and grocery store runs are dead simple now (though I have run into some regional limitations, where certain ingredients aren’t available locally.) As with any cooking experiment, some meals are duds. Over a month, I’d estimate that I love 25 percent of the recipes, like 65 percent, and dislike 10 percent.
Because meal planning provides training wheels to teach me basic cooking concepts, I couldn’t cop-out and decide that a recipe was too difficult for me or lazily fall back on a simpler meal. When I started, my cooking skillset was limited to a vague understanding that chopping was thicker than dicing and boiling took more heat than simmering. As recipes trickled in, I learned skills such as making a roux, mixing my own dressings, and cooking delicate sauces.
Meal plans are also helpful for planning a balanced dinner, especially if you’re reliant on prepackaged foods as I once was. Before I started using a meal planning service, I rarely cooked with many fresh vegetables or fruits. As Ms. Lower noted, “Having a plan also helps curb impulse, which means you are more likely to eat things that make you feel good, rather than things that make you feel bad.”
How to pick a meal planning service
You have lots of options for meal planning services. No single service works for everyone, and finding the right one for your needs takes some trial and error.
I’ve primarily used eMeals ($60 per year), which has a good variety of recipes and plans. I rarely run into repeat recipes, so every week feels fresh. But eMeals doesn’t cater to specific preferences, so if you hate an ingredient, you have to eliminate recipes manually. You must call to cancel your subscription, which is annoying, but eMeals makes it easy to swap between different plans, so you can try out, say, vegetarian recipes for a week and then go over to “clean eating” before moving to a “slow cooker” plan. This service is best for anyone who wants to experiment with a variety of recipes and doesn’t mind substituting ingredients or skipping meals entirely sometimes.
PlateJoy ($100 per year) is the most customizable service I’ve tried. PlateJoy personalizes the plan to cut down on recipes with ingredients you don’t want, but that personalization means it isn’t as easy to swap between the more generic plans as with eMeals. I found that PlateJoy repeated recipes more often than eMeals, but the customization is worth it for some people. This service is best if you want a meal plan that integrates your specific preferences and if you don’t mind repeat recipes.
Other options include The Fresh 20 ($80 per year), a good choice for cooking for one. Cook Smarts (about $70 per year) focuses on helping you learn to cook, $5 Meal Plan ($60 per year) is designed to save money, and Once A Month Meals (about $160 per year) is a collection of freeze-ahead recipes. You’ll also find Real Plans, Prep Dish, Frugal Real Food, and countless others.
Every service has a free trial period. I recommend taking advantage of that before making a choice, and be sure to cancel the subscription before it charges you. If you don’t like the recipes, another service may work better for you.
Meal planning services aren’t for everyone. The biggest restriction is the price. These aren’t top-secret specialty recipes — they’re mostly available online. All you’re really paying for is someone to organize the meals for you. If you have the time and will, you can do this yourself for free, or if we may, with the help of our friends at NYT Cooking. If you have picky eaters in the house, prefer staples, or have multiple dietary restrictions, it takes more effort to alter a meal plan to work for you than it’s worth. If you’re already a good cook with a collection of recipes, you’re likely better off creating plans using an app like Paprika.
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A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.