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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New Year, New Eats – Mahi-mahi and Lamb

So, I’ve been busy cooking and prepping and cooking some more. The BA Food Lovers Cleanse seems to be a little easier this year. I mean, I’m not doing the whole thing by any stretch, so that makes it much easier. But the recipes (mostly dinners) that I am doing seem easier. Fewer ingredients, less chopping. Some of them still take a long time, but there’s less active time.

The first BACleanse meal I made was mahi-mahi without the beans (#Whole30 and all that), which I’d never cooked before, and a side of rainbow chard with mushrooms. The mahi was good. I’ve never loved chard, and I’m afraid I didn’t wash mine enough, so it tasted sort of grainy. But the mushrooms were delicious. It doesn’t look very appetizing in pictures, unfortunately :-(.

Next up was the Moroccon lamb with pomegranates. The recipe called for lamb shanks, but I could only find lamb shoulder. Google told me that they are both tougher meats that do best with long cooking, so I figured they were similar enough. I bought the shoulder.

Side note 1: I have only somewhat-recently begun eating significant amounts of meat, and apparently it hasn’t been long enough to learn the different types of meat and cuts and what’s good for what. But now, thanks to the Food Lovers Cleanse, I know this about lamb at least.

Side note 2: I learned several years ago that, according to the Environmental Working Group, lamb has the highest environmental impact of the meats Americans typically eat. So my husband and I generally avoid it. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve only had lamb a few other times in my life. I remember trying a ‘lamburger’ at… I think the state fair?… in second grade. And maybe one or two other times. However, the whole reason I like doing the BACleanse is  to try new things… and let’s be honest, I like having a schedule and sticking to it. To a fault.

So back to making the lamb. Shoulder instead of shanks. I really wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do to the meat. I trimmed off most the fat and cut the meat from the bone (which I don’t think would have been necessary for shanks, but seemed to be necessary for what I had), and saved the bones in the freezer for making bone broth sometime soon. And, instead of braising it in the oven, I used my brand new slow cooker that my sister gave me for Christmas. And then left the house to go to yoga.

The pomegranate juice and seeds in this made it really fruity and sweet – in a good way. I’m not sure if this is what was supposed to happen, but my dish resulted in more of a stew than anything else, and that’s how I’ve been eating it. I still have one serving frozen in the freezer. Yum.

I made both these dishes on a weekend (Saturday and Sunday nights). That was especially important for the lamb, which required several hours at least to braise/slow cook. I think I slow cooked it for about 3 or so.

I’ll write about the other dishes I’ve been making in a later post, which will probably be less exciting because I have been forgetting to photographically document my process for most of them.