Avoid Dinner Stress: Pay Someone to Plan Your Meals


Running a household is busy enough with laundry and dishes to clean, bills to be paid, kids to be delivered and picked up, and meals to shop for and cook.

If you've got enough money, you can hire a personal assistant or a few people to run all of these life errands for you. For those who can't afford a personal valet, there are options to at least getting a few chores done by someone else. (See also: 4 Things to Consider Before Hiring Household Help)

Take meal planning. I didn't give it much thought until I read a New York Times story this summer about websites that provide a week of recipes for a minimal amount — about $5 a month.

As a stay-at-home dad, planning family dinners wasn't a major stress in my life, but the time it took added up each week. It took a few hours as I looked up recipes, checked the pantry and freezer for what we already have, made a shopping list, went to the grocery store one day and the farmers market the next, and invariably had to return to the store because I forgot an ingredient.

It was always a little difficult coming up with meals everyone liked, especially with a picky child and a no-fish rule in the house. Meal planning, it turned out, was a stress that I didn't realize I had until I saw a solution for it.

So after finding a Groupon for half off a year's worth of recipe planning at The Fresh 20 —  named after the 20 ingredients essential to a pantry and the fact that there are no more than 20 fresh ingredients to shop for each week, I decided to hand my family's meal planning to someone else.

The site promises meals that won't have processed, frozen, or packaged foods with preservatives — most of the stuff in the middle aisles of supermarkets — and instead uses fresh meat, vegetables, fruits, and brown rice and pastas. Options are available for gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarian meals, along with a classic menu each week. There's also a lunch menu.

With the 20 ingredients to buy each week (some are used in two or more recipes, such as chicken or rice), and a pantry of 20 items the site recommends having (olive oil, certain spices, etc), grocery shopping is a lot easier than it used to be. I'll go over the pantry items in a future post and will include details on just why certain things should always be in a pantry.

Instead of wandering down each aisle, a shopping list provided with each weekly meal plan helps you avoid aisles where you don't need anything. You do still need to shop for lunch and breakfast items.

The meal plans should save you money while shopping since you're buying less. Once the pantry is stocked, weekly groceries should be cheaper because you're buying fewer items. While only five meals are planned for the week, The Fresh 20 goes off of the idea that you'll either go out for a meal or two during the week, or you'll have leftovers for a night. I estimate we're saving about 20% on grocery bills.

I've used the meal plans for the past month or so and have so far found it to be a godsend in helping me worry less about what I'm going to cook on any given night. I usually don't cook one of the prescribed meals every few weeks because it's something that most of my family won't eat. Or I find a substitute ingredient — such as chicken for fish — and the dinner still tastes great.

In an average week, I'd say that one meal isn't a hit with everyone, so the recipe gets thrown out. Not that the meal was bad, but that it wasn't great enough to make us want to eat it again if given the choice. For the meals we do like, I keep the recipes in a file for future use.

The meals are all easy to make, taking about 30 minutes or so. Food prep can add a little more time, only a few minutes, and the weekly instructions recommend doing some prep work on the first day of the week for the rest of the week's meals. I've skipped the advance prep work and have found that most recipes can still be completed within 30 minutes.

I get an email every Friday from The Fresh 20, giving me a link to that week's recipes along with a shopping list and nutritional analysis of each meal. I print it out on Friday and either my wife or I go grocery shopping before Monday night, when we start the five planned meals. For the two days without provided recipes, so far we've either cobbled something together in the kitchen with whatever we have, have leftovers, or go out for dinner. Who wants to eat at home every night?

With that one chore out of the way for such a low price, I'm now looking into paying someone to deliver produce to my door from the farmers market. I'll let you know how that turns out in a month or so after I've tried it out for awhile.

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Guest's picture

I think meal planning is ridiculous. It's just another unnecessary expense. If I'm going to cook, I might as well plan the meals. It's not that hard to come up with 5 dishes before you go grocery shopping. I'd rather buy new cook books than paying for meal planning. Different strokes for different folks. :)

Guest's picture

Ummm... Maybe it's just me, but personally I don't think it's very frugal to pay a web site to plan your meals and then pay someone else to deliver produce? Strange article to have on a personal finance site.

Is there any chance you can join the Fresh 20, get two months worth of recipes, then quit the site? Or take that $10 and go to a used bookstore and buy one of thousands of used "simple recipe" cookbooks for $5?

Taken as a whole, the "life is busy enough" argument is what's making a lot people broke--they pay for house cleaners, car washes, restaurants, etc., instead of doing it themselves.

Julie Rains's picture

I've thought about using a meal planner b/c as you mention it saves time and can save money. And planning meals at first is great but after a couple of decades, it gets tiresome.

But the meals I've seen (they showed mean examples) didn't appeal to me so I have opted not to try them. Still, it's something I may try in the future and like the idea of buying just 20 items and keeping 20 items in the pantry.

Julie Rains's picture

ha -- I meant "menu" examples, not mean examples.