Have you ever posted a totally clever question on social media to only hear crickets? Yeah, me neither 😉
But there are also some posts whose response blows me away. Last Summer, on a whim, I asked the question:
In a matter of days, I had over 30 responses which ranged from “time”, “planning”, and “cooking skills” to “shitty food tastes good”, “I know know what’s healthy”, “I crave salty things” and more.
Over the past 9 months or so, I’ve thought a lot about this discussion and the candid, clearly frustrated responses that ensued. This sparked a journey into developing a prototype of a cook-ahead meal plan designed to address so many of the frustrations and barriers that my friends were facing.
Fast forward to today and I’ve learned so much about the meal planning market and world. The good news for you? There are tons of great options out there that make cooking more efficient, personalized, easy, and healthy than ever, all without demanding your precious brainpower to come up with ideas or willpower to make healthy decisions at the end of a long day.
The problem? There are so many options that it can be bewildering to understand which one might work best for you and where to invest your money (though many of them are quite reasonably priced). So, I decided to start trying some for you! Today I’ll be highlighting PlateJoy and reviewing their services, but depending on your interest, I’m happy to do some in depth looks at others in the coming months.
My PlateJoy Review
The overview: PlateJoy is a meal planning service that is unique in that it customizes the menu to you based on your answers to questions including – who you’re cooking for, how you like to eat (think vegan, paleo, gluten-free, etc.), food preferences, where you shop, and how much you want to cook on any given week.
All of this is done through a short and easy 3 minute quiz which results in a meal queue that you approve followed by a menu for the week (shopping list and recipes) that you can also further customize by deleting or replacing meals.
My experience: At the beginning of March I bought a 6 month membership (which will run you about $59) and set up my PlateJoy profile. I’ve been getting menus – which include shopping lists and recipes – for the last 4 weeks and quite enjoyed it (with more details on my thoughts below).
HOW PLATEJOY WORKS
- Take a quiz to personalize your Meal Queue. You really only need to do this your first time, but you can update it at any time. For example, I did a Whole30 menu one week and then switched to a Vegan one the next week. This is all included in the membership.
- Review your Meal Queue. These aren’t all meals that you’ll get this week, but rather ones you may get in the future. At this point you’re reviewing them to remove anything you know that you wouldn’t want (for example, I don’t love making soups as a meal, so I usually remove those).
- Now PlateJoy will generate this week’s menu based on how many meals you said you wanted. They can provide recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Snacks/Desserts, but wisely suggest that you start small (aka not all of your meals for the week) so that you can avoid overwhelm. You can always generate a new menu later in the week if you’ve worked your way through all of your recipes!
At this point, you have another chance to remove or replace any items you don’t want to eat that week. This will update both your recipe and shopping lists, but they do warn that modifications at this point will affect the “waste reduction” aspect of menu planning that they strive for.
- Once you finalize your menu, you can access both your recipes and shopping list online or on your phone via a text they link you.
- I then use Amazon Fresh to buy the bulk of my products (hey – I’m working on efficiency over here, might as well cut out the shopping step as well!), but the great thing about the shopping lists is you can check items off as you go and they’re organized for easy use in the store, so they’re also great at making your in store shopping easier.
Extra bonus is that they ask you what “pantry” items you already have so that they won’t show up on your shopping list if you don’t need them. You can also add any other items you do need to your shopping list, though I haven’t tried this functionality yet.
WHAT I LOVED
- Healthy food without all the planning: PlateJoy is really great at focusing on minimally processed, real food that’s easy to make. Most of the meals take less than 30 minutes, don’t require a lot of exotic ingredients, and are fairly easy to put together.
- Easy customization and scaling: I love the flexibility that PlateJoy offers by allowing you to update your personalization profile at any time and create a new menu whenever you like. This means that if your plans for the week change, you have a guest in town, or you feel like eating Paleo instead of Vegan you can make those updates and get a new menu any time with only a few clicks.As someone who’s used to planning my own menus by searching online and in cookbooks, then modifying for my food preferences and number of servings, this is a huge help. It certainly adds to the value for the money you pay (about $10/month) as I don’t think you could get this level of flexibility and customization in many other services.
- Great “filler” meals: I, like many of you, get stuck in ruts with what I make when I don’t have new recipes or inspiration. PlateJoy has helped me break out of those ruts by providing easy to make meals on the weeknights that I don’t feel inspired to do the leg work of searching, planning, and shopping for a recipe.The bonus is that since I do all of the shopping for that week’s meals at the beginning of the week, thanks to their trusty shopping list, the ingredients I need are already in my fridge, making it truly easier to make a meal than it would be to go out or order in take-out.
- Waste reduction: One of the frustrations I’ve heard from many home cooks is that they buy a special sauce or even a bunch of cilantro that goes bad before they have occasion to use it all, especially when it’s for that one specific recipe they’re following.PlateJoy does a great job of using up the ingredients they ask you to buy on any given week. In addition, most of the spices and seasonings are easily bought in small quantities in the bulk department or are things you’re likely to have on hand (think: cinnamon), though I have had to buy garam masala and maple syrup (how did I not have this on hand already?) I found that my recipes used them a couple of times during the week and again since, so it feels like a worthwhile investment of money and shelf space.
- Inspiration to step out of your “cooking rut”: Ever since my 2 year old son has taken to loving “bars” as he calls Larabars, we’ve been buying them religiously for those afternoon snack needs. I’m sort of embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t even considered making our own dried fruit and nut “balls” even though they’re so easy, cheaper, and more fun to make. When they showed up on my PlateJoy menu a few weeks ago as a snack recipe I had one of those “duh” moments and have even whipped up a few other batches since.Same goes for the breakfast cookies we made this morning courtesy of this week’s menu. It was just oats, banana, cinnamon, salt, ground flax, and a dollop of raspberry jam, but they came together in such a different and interesting way that it got both my son and I excited about eating them. As of this writing, he’s eaten handfuls of leftover dough and at least 3 cookies. So much for the 25% leftovers PlateJoy suggested we save for later!
- Clean design: The PlateJoy system is the type of technology that I use and think “I wish I had designed that”. It’s almost stupidly simple as a user, which is exactly what I want from something that I know must be so complex behind the scenes. I love that they text you when you have a new menu so the links are right on your phone and the site (and menus and shopping lists) are all optimized for computer and phone use. They also seem to be working constantly make it even easier to navigate and provide more links so that you can go back to old menus, find things in fewer clicks, etc.
- Other things you might like that I haven’t experimented with as much:
- Nutrition information is provided for the recipes, along with portioning instructions by person
- You get a chance to rate each of the recipes and give feedback as well as put ones you’ve loved back into rotation
- Printer friendly recipe links at the top of each page so that you could feasibly create a hard copy collection if that were your thing
SOME LIMITATIONS TO CONSIDER
- Some advanced cooking techniques without clear instruction: I can appreciate that creating delicious, interesting recipes with minimal ingredients and prep time is really challenging, but I did find that some of the PlateJoy recipes I received were what I would consider a little “complex” and/or “advanced” for the average home cook.Examples of this include the Shaved Zucchini and Fennel salad which included both working with fennel and really thinly slicing things and the roasted beets that went into a “10 minute salad” that simply said “11 oz beets, roasted in oven for 30 minutes” as part of the ingredients list (this also happens to be a personal pet peeve of mine, so it may not bother other people as much).
- A few pretty basic recipes: On the flip side of the overly advanced techniques is that fact that if you are a particularly advanced cook or adventurous eater, you may find that there are some “boring” or “basic” recipes. I completely understand why they are here and don’t actually mind them, plus it’s easy to opt out of them when they show up in your queue or menu, but you have to keep an eye out. One example would be the “California Sandwich with Avocado and Sprouts” that I had last week. Honestly, it was super basic and I probably didn’t need a recipe for it – think tomato, cucumber, avocado, sprouts, etc. – but that said having it on my menu did mean that I had all the items on hand and it was a super easy, nutritious, and tasty lunch one day.
- Not a ton of pictures of the meals or the steps: When I was working on my meal planning prototype, a lot of the feedback I received was from folks who didn’t necessarily know how to cube a butternut squash or cut cauliflower into florets. These steps, if you don’t effectively know how to do them, can take a lot of time and create unnecessary confusion. I wish, for the sake of these types of cooks, that PlateJoy had more pictures of finished dishes (see screenshot below of my menu this week) and even potentially step-by-step photos, especially for the trickier items so that the service could be easily accessible to more people.
If these things are important to you when making a recipe, then PlateJoy might not be the right option for you (right now).
- Same ingredient “overload”: I love quinoa and chickpeas as much as the next person and while I certainly appreciate that it’s most efficient to eat similar things over and over (for your time and pocketbook), it can get a bit repetitive after a while. This week my Lunch and Dinner meals were what you see below:
If I follow this menu to a T I’ll be eating quinoa for 4 of my meals and chickpeas for 2. Now I can obviously easily change the quinoa to brown rice with my kung pao cauliflower, but it is a small annoyance in an otherwise delicious sounding menu.
- Errors in recipes and not always the most efficiently written: For two weeks now I’ve gotten a recipe in my “Vegan” menu that contains eggs. Since I’m not actually vegan (just trying to eat more plant-based) and I know how to easily replace eggs in baking recipes, which is where they’ve shown up, this isn’t actually a big deal but there are people who it would really matter to!Likewise, a few times I’ve gotten recipes that are meant to make 2 servings from my family that could easily be done in one batch but instead it says to “make it twice”. When the whole point of the service is to make my life in the kitchen easier and more efficient this seems like a silly recommendation and one that I shouldn’t really have to think about as a user.Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
They’re obviously working on this problem because here’s a recipe where they have you make it all at once and instruct you to eat leftovers (definitely my preference – you better believe if I’m going to eat the same thing twice in one week I’m not going to cook it twice!): Also, as with any recipe, there have been a few with blatant errors or ones that just didn’t work. If you have enough experience this is no big deal as they’re usually easily adjusted, but again, I think this service is aimed much more at those who don’t have that level of experience so it’s imperative that the recipes are spot on. For example, this Chocolate Quinoa Breakfast porridge, while delicious, cooked up more like “regular” quinoa than a porridge. When you look at the liquid to dry proportions (2:1) you can see immediately why and while the instructions say you can add more liquid to make it “porridgey”, the picture clearly indicates a porridge is what you should expect. This makes my “recipe writer” brain want to explode. (Hi – welcome to all the kitchen, food, and recipe neuroses in my brain. It’s nice to meet you! Now that that’s out in the open…)
COST OF FOOD FOR PLATEJOY MENU PLANS
Obviously food costs will vary heavily depending on how many people you’re cooking for, what you’re making, and how many meals you’re making at home. That said, I have spent between $55 and $100 / week on the groceries to make my PlateJoy menus.
Please keep in mind that I was having PlateJoy plan between 6 and 9 meals (plus 2-3 snacks/desserts) for 3 of us. The total cost also greatly varied depending on what pantry items I needed any given week (think spices or maple syrup) and sometimes I’d just substitute what I did have on-hand (honey for agave or cooking dried chickpeas instead of buying canned) instead of buying something new. Predictably, my vegan menus have also been much more cost effective than the Whole30 one thanks to the absence of the expensive meat items.
All told, I’d estimate that based on the numbers above:
$100 in groceries / (9 meals * 3 servings per meal) = about $3.75 per serving (*note that this is on the highest end)
Note that most of my shopping was done on Amazon Fresh or at Whole Foods Market and the majority of the produce and meat products were organic, so your actual costs may vary significantly depending on where/ how you shop. This also obviously doesn’t cover every single meal we eat during the week, so there is other money that we’ll be spending on food or eating out as well.
WHO PLATEJOY IS GOOD FOR
- Are you a busy person who wants to eat healthy without all the planning?
- Have you been looking for an easy way to have healthy food on hand so that you can will more easily make good choices at the end of the day?
- Do you want your grocery shopping to be more efficient and easier?
If any of these apply to you and you like what I had to say above then I think that PlateJoy is a great option! I especially love that they’re able to accommodate so many special diets and preferences, so it’s adjustable for so many different scenarios.
For me, it’s certainly been worth the $10 per month to have someone else come up with my menus and shopping lists. In many ways, it’s made me even more creative with what I make on “unplanned nights”, meaning that since I don’t have PlateJoy plan every meal for me (which would be my recommended approach) on the nights when I’m picking what to make it’s a little more elaborate, indulgent, and adventurous because I haven’t spent all week picking out recipes and exhausting that food planning muscle.
WHO SHOULD CONSIDER ANOTHER OPTION
If you’re new in the kitchen or cooking takes you a long time (hello 15 minute recipes that take an hour), I could see how PlateJoy might be a little bit ambitious or involved, even with it’s aim for simplicity and accessibility. There are ways that you could combat this – for example by saying that you want to purchase pre-chopped veggies or pre-cooked protein in your personalization menu – but either way it can be a lot of cooking.
If you or your family are super picky I actually think that PlateJoy would be great because you can always veto meals either in your Meal Queue or when they show up on your Menu. Essentially I think of it as PlateJoy narrowing down the options so that you can suffer from less overwhelm and decision making in the ocean of internet recipes. That said, from what I’ve seen, PlateJoy does try to skew healthy so it might not be for everyone from that perspective.
In addition, one of the things I think PlateJoy is currently lacking is a way to address the needs of people who prefer to eat more and cook less. A lot of this is popping up under the guise of “meal prep” where you cook a bunch at the beginning of the week and then just heat up or put together pre-cooked things as you’re ready to eat them. This is an approach I recommend to especially busy people or just those who don’t want to cook and clean every night and PlateJoy, in it’s current state, just doesn’t address that in the way the Menu Plans are built. Despite that, most of the recipes are quite quick and easy to put together, so I think that inherently combats this potential problem for those who can dedicate 30-ish minutes to put dinner together.