Menu Planning for the Time Challenged

I don’t know how anyone else’s household runs, but mine is on equal parts planning and chaos. P and I are time challenged at the best of times and down right run off our feet at the worst. The one chore that has caused the most difficulties over fifteen years of marriage is meal planning/cooking. P tends to be the one to cook dinner. I know, I’m home all day and it should be me, but for whatever reasons we fell into this pattern years ago and have never shifted out of it. At any rate, menu planning has always meant hours sitting with cookbooks, the weekly grocery circulars, and pounds of attitude to figure out what we might want to eat, what we can afford to eat, and what we have recipes for that won’t take all day.

We’ve tried menu planning services before and have not been happy with them. Most have a set five day menu that you can’t customize or make adjustments to. But the “new kid” on the block has changed that and we are converts. This amazing “new kid” is Relish!. They can also be found on Twitter: @relishrelish.

People who know P know that he is a skeptic’s skeptic. To convince him to give this a try took every ounce of persuasive muscle I have plus Babytoolkit’s review (one of the only bloggers he trusts) to convince him to try a three month subscription.

Obviously, we started this experiment with low expectations and it took me a bit to sort out how the system works and how to make it work best for us, but we did and we love it. To the point that, P asked for a year’s subscription to the service for his birthday, which he received.

What do we like?

The weekly menu comes out on Thursday, the same day as the grocery circulars for our preferred grocery store. P likes to do the shopping on Friday, so this coordinates well with his schedule.

The menu has fifteen options on it. There are usually a few chicken, a few beef, a couple of pork and seafood, as well as several vegetarian options. They also have a dessert of the week. So far, we’ve been able to find menu options that appeal to us every week.

The recipes are easy to follow. This is a huge thing with P. He gets very irritated with certain cookbook authors who call for ingredients and then forget to include them in the actual recipe. The instructions are logical and he can follow them without requiring interpretation.

The cooking times are mostly accurate. I’ve found them to be completely accurate. Phil is a slower cook, so he needs to add time to the prep time estimates, but otherwise he finds them to be accurate, which is another big thing with him.

The recipes do not require every pot in the kitchen or hours of our time. A lot of the time, we can do it all in one to two pots with one or two knives and a cutting board. Most recipes cook and serve in a reasonable amount of time for a busy family trying to eat by the dinner hour (30 to 45 minutes; some do have additional marinating times, but this is noted in the cook times).

The recipes are scalable and we can choose how many recipes we want to use in a week. We’re a leftover type family, so we like having meals we can serve twice during the week. This works out really well with Relish! because we can choose two or three recipes for the week, get a shopping list based on those recipes, and with additions for breakfast and lunch, go shopping.

The shopping list is well organized. The shopping list is organized in two ways: 1) by category and 2) by recipe. So, for example, you will find all the meats for the week together and all the baking goods required together. There is also a list for the items that you might already have, so you can run through that and circle what you need. The genius bit, though, is that each item on the buy list has a letter by it that is keyed to a recipe. So, if you want to make the main item but the side doesn’t work for your family, you can quickly find the items that are for the side and eliminate them.

Many recipes include sides. This has always been one of our biggest problems. We’re great with figuring out the entree, but sides stump us every time. Relish! Solves that problem by providing sides with many of their recipes. Admittedly, we don’t use all of the sides, or even many of them, but they help jump start us when we get stuck, so it ends up working out regardless.

While your subscription is running, you have access to the backlist of recipes from every week since you became a member. This is invaluable when you hit that one week where you just don’t find any of the recipes appealing, or there’s an amazing special on roast, but there isn’t a roast on this week’s menu list.

They also include myriad extras that are just great. Right now there are picnic menus, camping menus, and so forth. They also have dinner and a movie menus that are intriguing, though I think the representation of real kid movies is a bit thin right now.

Also included in the monthly subscription rate are “freezer meals.” These are five recipes that you can make and store in the freezer for times when cooking from start to finish seems like a really bad idea (say, like when your daughter is having major surgery, for example). These recipes vary from marinating foods that then need cooking to breakfasts to completely cooked meals that simply need cooking to be eaten.

What don’t we like?

There are a few things that could stand some improvement or that we’d love to see that relish can’t do, though I understand some of these are in the works.

We can’t add in family favorites that aren’t part of Relish!’s recipe. However, this is an application that’s coming. We’re very much looking forward to this.

The dessert recipes are sometimes a little strange and sometimes rely a bit too much on convenience foods. Now, anyone who knows me and reads this is going, this is hardly fair, and it’s true my baking standards are super, super high, so it would have been really surprising to find them able to meet that part. That said, this is the one thing we don’t experiment with as much, relying instead on tried and true adjunctmom favorites instead. Though, I will say the Chocolate Valencia Pie was out of this world good.

It doesn’t really offer the option of telling them food issues or preferences. So, for example, someone keeping Kosher might find this website more challenging to deal with. My personal dislike of olives has to be worked around. For some this would be a deal breaker, but for me it’s something I can work with. It’s not a true negative, but it means there are friends I cannot recommend them to because I know their dietary issues are far more challenging than mine.

And really? That’s it. Basically, we’re super happy with the service and strongly recommend it to anyone who is looking for ways to simplify their lives and free up time for things other than grocery shopping and cooking.

They’re coming out with an iPhone app for this service that I’m eager to see, but so far it hasn’t appeared yet.

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