Real Plans

I’ve been saying I would write about Real Plans. Here it is! Real Plans is a web app/online service that provides a meal plan for the week and a corresponding timeline and shopping list. It’s pretty user friendly and very customizable.

When starting (and at any point after starting), you set diet and meal preferences. For diet, you can choose from things like traditional (I think that’s just everything), paleo, vegetarian, gluten-free, etc. From there, you can further customize to include or exclude certain food groups or ingredients. For meal preferences, you can select which meals each week you want it to plan for you, how many servings you want those meals to default to, and what kinds of meals they’ll be (soup/salad, quick, make ahead, etc.). After adjusting all your settings, you click a button, and voila, it spits out a meal plan for the week according to all the settings you entered. It pulls from it’s own database of thousands of recipes, and you can also import your own into the Recipe Box. You can then further customize it by modifying or replacing the meals, adding notes, deleting meals, etc. It creates a shopping list for the meals for that week; you can check off what you already have or add additional things to it. And it creates a timeline, so (as long as you think to look at it), you are reminded to take meat out of the freezer to thaw on time and what not. Pretty snazzy.

So let’s break this down into some pros, cons, and things I’ve learned to maximize my experience.

Cost

I started with the one-month plan ($14, plus $1 to add on a subscription to Paleomg recipes, because that’s where I heard about Real Plans, so wanted to support Juli Bauer). After a couple of weeks, I liked it enough that I decided to go all in and change my subscription to annual, which is $6/month ($7 with the Paleomg subscription). I figured if I got tired of it before the year was out, that’s fine, the net difference in cost of doing a few more months versus a whole year wasn’t too different. Real Plans credited my initial one-month subscription to my year-long subscription, which seemed like good Customer Service to me, and they were really easy to deal with (all over email – quick and painless).

The argument could be made that Real Plans saves costs by preventing one from buying more than they need and letting things go to waste. I never really had that problem, so that wasn’t an issue for me. And actually, I started to have a little bit of that problem when I first started Real Plans because I was having it plan too many meals for me (more than I could actually make, ending up with too many leftovers). I faithfully followed the shopping list so ended up with all this food (especially produce) that I had to use, but was having trouble keeping up. I think I’ve now found a good balance, though.

All in all, I think the cost is totally worth it. I kind of see it as in between something like totally going off the cuff or doing your own thing and something like Blue Apron. It takes some of the guesswork out, but still allows some creativity or changes – and doing my own shopping.

Recipes and Variety

I’ve generally liked all the recipes. They’re all very manageable (reasonable number of ingredients, relatively low complexity, don’t take too much time). I have felt like there hasn’t been quite enough variety this month since I’ve chosen a strictly paleo diet (while doing a #Whole30), but that’s partly also a factor of the types of meals I’ve chosen. For example, for Sundays, I have my settings for a big make-ahead meal. That means that Sunday is typically slow-cooker-meat day, although it’s been a different slow-cooker-meat recipe most weeks. Wednesday night is set for soup/salad, so there has been a homemade mayo chicken salad often on those nights, though the actual recipe has been different most weeks with different flavors.

This feeling that there hasn’t been enough variety has led me in the past few weeks to add some recipes from other places that I’m interested in making or making again. It’s fairly easy to import recipes from other places on the Internet (although there usually ends up being some manual entry or correction of ingredients). You can also just enter a recipe, although that of course requires manual entry. But it’s been nice to have that option. I’ve gone back through various recipes that I’ve grabbed on Pinterest or in Evernote that I want to make and imported them and replaced some of the Meal Planner meals with those.

As I mentioned in a previous post, since I’ve chosen strictly paleo, the majority of my recipes have been from Paleomg, which, as I noted, is fine, but I’d like more variety. I’m thinking of subscribing to another paleo blogger source (options include WellFed, nom nom paleo, Wellness Mama, and others including some sources for other diets), but I don’t want to have to subscribe to multiple different subscriptions just for more variety. I definitely see a value in supporting these bloggers and their recipes. I think I’d be willing to pay $2-3 more per month and have access to all of them (with Real Plans spreading the wealth among them) and would prefer that to having to choose which specific ones I want to subscribe to. Dunno. Or maybe I’ll ask Real Plans if I can change which one I subscribe to for a few months.

But overall, I find the recipes pretty good. Easy to follow. Nothing too crazy, but not boring either. Definitely solid.

User Interface/ Usability

Overall, the user interface is good. Not amazing, but pretty good. It looks pretty nice and clean, there are pictures for all the recipes, it’s fairly intuitive. The negatives are sort of minor nitpicky things, but they are there nonetheless. A good example: on the Meal Planner page, you are able to move things around (drag and drop like)… but only after you click on Actions, then Modify. It would be more user friendly to just be able to click on something and move it. I often want to be able to look at something’s ingredients/directions and immediately after move it… but to look at the ingredients, you need to be in the not-modify mode and to move it, you have to be in the modify mode. So it’s just a lot of clicking. That’s probably the issue that affects me the most, but there are just little usability things like that.

Also, the phone app feels pretty limited. You can see your meal plan schedule, the recipes, and the shopping list (and interact with the shopping list), but you can’t edit your settings, move things around as easily, or see the nutrition information. They recently updated it, and parts of it are better – such as the shopping list, which used to have a time lag when you checked something off which was super annoying. That’s fixed. But there’s still something about it that’s not super intuitive.

Oh, and speaking of the nutrition information… it’s nice to have that, but it’s not always the most helpful. It’s not always totally clear the amount that the nutrition information is referring to, how it corresponds to the number of servings made. But still, a useful bit of information sometimes.

Other Thoughts

First, I’ve come to rely on Real Plans a lot, which is mostly great… but I also feel like sort of a slave to it sometimes. I don’t want to waste the groceries that I bought at the beginning of the week, so I feel tied to whatever the ‘plan’ was, and then I feel constrained from choosing not to cook one night, or just eating leftovers, or just making something easy. This is partly why I’ve really cut down on the number of meals I have it plan for me. Some weeks I’ll just do 2-3 dinners, and the rest are flexible. If I end up not being able to do something one of the nights, there are still plenty of other nights that I could make it up. But I definitely have come to enjoy sitting down on Saturdays and looking at what the next week’s plan is and making adjustments as I like, then preparing to grocery shop on Sundays.

Second, I don’t know how long Real Plans has been around, but it seems to be taking off a bit right now, so I think there will be more improvements to come. As I mentioned, they recently updated the app, and it’s definitely improvement. They also recently added a #Whole30 package (of course, now that I’m almost finished with this Whole30… but it costs more anyway and I’m doing just fine). But the point is, it’s a dynamic thing and I think will keep getting better.

My Setup

Currently, I have my diet set to paleo, no dairy, and I’ve also excluded non-Whole30 compliant things like alcohol and any type of added sugar or sweeteners. I’ve also excluded shrimp in any form (Real Plans has 14 forms of shrimp as an ingredient) because I really, really hate shrimp.

I have it set to do breakfasts on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. I often don’t end up making the Thursday one, and one of the other ones often ends up being a casserole, quiche, or something with a lot of leftovers that I end up eating throughout the following week for breakfast. No lunches. And five dinners, but I often edit it at the beginning of the week down to 3 or 4 for the flexibility I mentioned. These are a mix of make-ahead, quick, soup/salad. I’ve been able to mostly bring leftovers for lunch the next day (or two).

I have my default number of settings set to two. Most recipes are not actually written for two, so this has not always translated. I’ll often have to review a recipe beforehand to make sure that it’s translating right. For things that it’s hard to make half of (quiche in a pie pan, for instance), I’ll bump the servings back up and freeze the leftovers. Same with things like slow cooker meat. That freezes easily, so if I’m going to the effort to slow cook something all day, I’ll do the full amount and just have leftovers.

So that’s that! Overall, I’m really liking it and will stick with it for a while. At some point I might want to throw off the crutch, but at other points I’m sure I’ll want to come back. I’m really glad I’ve discovered it! Below are some photos of meals I’ve made (many of which are also Paleomg recipes, so credit there!).

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Breakfast Frittata

Sunday is shopping and cooking day! (Since joining RealPlans, Saturday has become meal planning day, deleting meals from my RealPlans plan that I don’t plan to make in the upcoming week and sometimes swapping in some recipes for others, then culling the shopping list to reflect only the things I don’t already have on hand.) Dan and I went to the Baltimore Farmers Market and Bazaar at the reasonable time of 7:45 am (in terms of crowds, not necessarily in terms of sleeping in if that’s important to you, as it is to Dan). It is super hot this weekend, and it was therefore still a sweaty experience, even early. I brought my RealPlans shopping list and was able to check most things off. We’d brought a cooler in the trunk to put the eggs, milk, and sausage that we bought. Then Dan and I went to a hot yoga class and I sweated some more (like, gross), and then he left to go to work, and I went to Harris Teeter for the remainder of my shopping list.

As soon as I got home, I started making this frittata for lunch and a slow-cooker BBQ pork recipe for dinner, both from RealPlans. I’ve subscribed to Paleomg recipes through RealPlans, and I’d say probably 50-75% of my recipes are Juli Bauer’s since I selected an exclusively paleo diet (which I’m only doing for this month while I’m doing the #Whole30). Which is okay, but not ideal. She’s sassy and funny, but I’d like a little more recipe-maker variety.

This frittata was actually a guest post from Inspiralized on Paleomg called Pesto Zucchini Noodle Bacon Frittata with Mushrooms and Kale. I don’t have an Inspiralizer, so I used my mandoline to make the zucchini noodles.

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I followed the recipe with only a few deviations. First, I didn’t have a full cup of mushrooms left. I did, earlier in the week, but both Dan and I have used a couple here and there for other recipes. I added a small amount of onion in with the mushrooms while they were cooking, just because. And the recipe actually isn’t clear about what to do with the bacon after you’ve cooked it, so I chopped it up and put it in with the veggies after they’ve wilted a bit and before I put in the eggs. (PS, I amazingly found bacon without sugar at Whole Foods last weekend. Amazing!)

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After I put it in the oven, I started the aforementioned BBQ pork in the slow cooker, then got to making the pesto. I generally like pesto, but I am really not a fan of pine nuts. When I was shopping last weekend, I could only find a bag with maybe 1-1.5 cups of pine nuts, and I only needed 3 tbsp for this recipe. And it was like $9. So I decided to make my pesto with walnuts instead, which I had on  hand at home. I didn’t measure them, I just grabbed a handful and threw them in the food processor. It was  3tbsp ish? After processing a bit, I tasted it, and some of the basil was a little… bitter. So I added the juice from about half a lemon and a little more olive oil. And voila. Really yummy.

I thought the flavor of the pesto would be a little strange with the frittata, but it all went together really, really well. I had a piece for lunch.

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And then I sat a bit. Did a little blog reading. Glanced over. (Did some mental calorie calculations, let’s be honest.) And had another piece. One of the others is now in the fridge for breakfast this week and the other three are individually packaged in the freezer for later this week (or beyond – I actually have a couple servings of a breakfast casserole from last week or the week before that I forgot were in the freezer that I’m going to eat first…).

Tri Tri a Duathlon

Exactly a year ago, I saw my new neighbor, hot and sweaty, carrying her bike into her house. She had just finished the Iron Girl triathlon in Columbia, MD. I’ve always been interested in doing a triathlon, and she was very supportive (in a motherly I’ll-take-care-of-you-and-make-it-not-scary sort of way), so I pretty much decided on the spot to do it with her the following year. She stayed on me throughout the fall to make sure I signed up. It’s 1,000 m swim, 16 mile bike, and 5 k run.

The event was today. I joined a gym from mid-June through July and have been swimming there at least once a week for the past six or so weeks. Dan’s been able to go with me. I started doing ‘brick’ (new term for me) workouts on the weekends maybe five weeks ago, mostly with my supportive neighbor and/or my husband. For the past three,  I’ve done almost the whole distance, swimming 1,000 m at Hammerman Beach, biking 12 miles, and then running 3 miles around the park. For the first several weeks, I kept up my regular schedule of running 3 miles every Tuesday and Thursday morning, but toward the end that fell off a bit. I kept it pretty light this past week. I started CrossFit Foundations classes on Monday, did that again on Tuesday, and ran 3 miles Thursday morning. I felt really good going into the weekend and really excited to complete my first triathlon.

And then we all found out Friday morning that the swim was cancelled!! For good reasons. We had a pretty bad storm last weekend (which caused major flooding and damage in nearby historic Ellicott City), and the lake water is still too toxic for swimming. So, you know, I’m glad they cancelled it. BUT I WAS REALLY DISAPPOINTED! Part of this whole thing for me was just trying to figure it all out. The things that have kept me from signing up for a triathlon ever before, honestly, were: 1) I don’t understand what you wear (even after I figured out that things like tri suits existed, I was still unclear about what to do about a sports bra for extra support) and 2) Transitions?! What? And like… swimming without lanes? So, I just wanted to figure all that out. But alas – no swim, so this morning, I completed my first duathlon! Run 0.25 miles, bike 16 miles, run 3.1 miles (but guys… that last ‘0.1’ mile was way longer than that).

Anyway, it was a lot of fun! And I still feel pretty prepared for whatever future triathlon I do.

Transition area yesterday and this morning pre-race:

Post-race!

For breakfast, right before I left home at 5am, I drank a smoothie I’d made a couple days ago with almond milk, almond butter, a banana, and spinach. At about 6:30 (an hour before the race), I ate another banana. Post-race, before the hunger set in, I had another banana! It was the only post-race food that was #Whole30-compliant! They also had chicken salad (weird, right), maple water (? never knew that existed), and bagels. Oh, and snow cones.

And then we sat around for an hour to wait for the awards ceremony because my supportive neighbor and another neighbor both placed in their respective Athena categories (!!!). And that’s when hunger started to set in. So I had… another banana. Four bananas before 11 am! Eeek. All day sugar high. We finally went back to the transition area around 11:30 where I had some nuts, and I shoved those in my face.

At home, after putting everything away and showering, I finally got to really eat. I heated up leftover roasted vegetables from last night’s dinner and a half of a leftover chicken breast from a couple days ago and then added two eggs and some chopped green onion. Since it was mostly from leftovers, it was super quick and easy (thank god!). Plus more coffee. (I’ve been trying to limit my coffee consumption to 1-2 cups per day this month, and so far have been successful. But… treating myself today. Sugar-and-caffeine-high-all-day-all-day!)

Overall, pretty good experience. I think I’ll do it again.

Ekiben

I’ve been storing up a few blog posts. In my head, that is. For future writing.

Starting with this one. YUM. About a month ago, Dan and I ate at Ekiben, a new sort-of-hole-in-the-wall-y Asian place near Fells Point. We met another couple there for dinner. Dan had heard that it was great from other friends. The rest of us had never heard of it.

The restaurant is small with maybe one two-top table on the right as you walk in and then an L-shaped bar with stools along the front window and left wall for sitting and eating. There was nothing else inside except for a shelf with sauces and the counter you order at. There were also a couple tables outside.

The menu was simple and straightforward. Four different options for a meal, served either on a steamed bun or as a rice bowl, plus a couple of sides. I had The Original as a rice bowl: Thai chicken meatballs, coconut black pepper corn sauce, papaya mango slaw, fresh herbs, roasted aromatics. I think everyone else got buns, which I think were good and probably better than rice, but flavor-wise, I think my dish won. The sauce had a sweetness to it, but the dish was still perfectly savory. So much good flavor. Between the four of us, I think we got all or most of the options (Taiwanese curry fried chicken, fried tofu, and braised pork shoulder), but mine was the best. Dan and I also got a side of the fried broccoli with Chinese sausage. Don’t let the word broccoli fool you. Nothing healthy about it. Crunch, salty, herby. YUM. (They were out of the roasted broccoli…).

Definitely going back.

But not this month, because I’m doing another #Whole30! So soon? Yes, so soon. Today is the end of Day 3, and so far, it hasn’t seemed like much of a burden, because it’s not that different from how I normally eat (Ekiben-type adventures aside). So why? Well, I become less mindful about what I’m eating sometimes, and I think the structure of the Whole30 is helpful for getting back into certain habits – like making healthier choices (or not making unhealthy choices) just out of convenience or lack of mindfulness. Other differences – yogurt and legumes and cream in my coffee. I eat those, but so far am not missing them too much. I expect to go back to eating them after the Whole30, although I also think I’ll try to do a better reintroduction than I did last time. We’ll see.

Something that’s helping me along? Real Plans! I’ve been using Real Plans to help plan my meals for the week for about a month and a half now. Blog post on it coming soon! But it’s great that I can enter certain parameters into my preferred diet and it spits out a schedule and recipes (for specified meals/days – not every one) that adheres to that diet, with shopping lists and a timeline. I’m shopping and cooking a ton each week anyway, might as well take some of the thinking/guesswork out of it.