Plan to Eat
A review of the excellent Plan to Eat product and how it’s simplified my food shopping experience
If you’re someone like myself; responsible for the planning of weekly household meals, you’ll most likely agree that list planning and collation of ingredients in order to serve those meals can be extremely stressful and is never easy. Therefore, the majority of us don’t plan ahead. We live busy lives and often we buy when we need.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation claims that our food system is responsible for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions while approximately one-third of edible food parts produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally. This waste totals 1.3 billion ton per year.
It’s always efficient to plan meals ahead in order to reduce food waste and with stats like those put forward by the UN, now is the best time to start. However, forming a new habit or finding the best suited app to make meal planning easy and part of our weekly routine can be quite difficult.
Meal planning apps
There are many upon many of meal planning apps available on the market ranging from simple web applications to complex iOS apps. I know this as over the course of several months I tested a large portion myself. Some put their eggs in the user interface design basket but are let down by their reduced feature set, while others have a series of strong features but are operationally unintuitive. Others are simply overpriced or do not offer a trial period which reduces any chance of significant user adoption. I attempted to create my own meal planning application due to the disappointment of not discovering an app that would suit my needs, however midway through my design generation stage I discovered Plan to Eat.
Plan to Eat
Plan to Eat is a web application meaning it can be accessed from a web browser on any device with access to the internet opening itself up to the home PC and mobile environment, while now offering a standalone App on both the iOS and Android stores. Plan to Eat has three key features allowing you to:
- Create recipes
- Plan weekly meals
- Automatically generate shopping lists
Meals can be created either manually by hand or imported elsewhere from the web. Personally, I prefer to manually enter my own meals as more often than not I’ve altered one or two ingredients to suit our palette. However, importing meals from the web is extremely easy and accurate; many of the BBC Good Food recipes import all aspects of the recipe including nutritional information, prep time, cook time and cooking method. The functionality Plan to Eat offers when creating recipes is extensive. In addition to basic recipe detail such as title, photo, description, ingredients and both prep and cook time, it allows additional detail such as nutritional information, tags (custom and pre-defined), cuisine, course, prep notes and personal comments to be provided. The power, however, lies behind the ingredients section. By choosing your serving size in addition to individual ingredient quantity, this data will power your generated shopping list which I’ll discuss later in the ‘shopping list’ section.
Plan weekly meals
Once your list of meals has been created, you can easily plan your meals for the following day, week, month or year. The meal plan calendar view organised into categories: Breakfast, Lunch, Supper, Snack and Notes, contains a simple drag and drop user interface allowing you to decide which foods you’d like to eat on any given day and time. The calendar also allows multiple meals per category to be entered, which is ideal for households where people eat different meals at different times throughout the day.
The meal calendar can also be completed with meals other than those from your own list. Plan to Eat allows you to select from a ‘friend list’ (you don’t have to have friends or participate in the social aspect of the app to see these) or it allows you to select from a ‘challenge’ list. The ‘challenge’ list allows you to view each meal before adding it to your calendar while also showing the category that meal belongs to. This is a handy feature if you’re ever feeling a little bored or uninspired from meals within your own list, or simply if you’re looking to try something different without going to the effort of adding a meal into your own list.
Automatically generate shopping lists
Once you have a list of meals and your weekly meal view is decided, creating a shopping list is completely effortless. In fact, this is the most powerful feature of Plan to Eat. You simply decide your planner date range (next 7 days, next 14 days or custom) and boom, your shopping list for your chosen timeframe is automatically generated. I mentioned earlier that the power lies behind the ingredient section when creating meals. Plan to Eat stores ingredients, quantities and units for each individual recipe and uses these to generate your shopping list. It combines and totals ingredients so let’s say you have three meals all containing 1 red onion, the generated shopping list will amalgamate these into Red Onion (3). The shopping list also provides a key to show which meal each ingredient belongs to which is a good feature if you’re ever unsure about one or two ingredients within your shopping list.
Plan to Eat offers a 30-day trial, which compared to other meal planning apps is very generous. The yearly subscription costs $38.99 which I fully recommend.
Initial overhead is worth the gain
There is a time and effort overhead if you plan to create your own meal list manually, however, the time required to do this is immediately paid back with the weekly convenience and time savings that Plant to Eat will offer you long term. The overhead of creating your own recipes also allows you to learn the application and uncover many of its subtle features so this education must also be offset from the initial time outlay.
I’ve been an active user of Plant to Eat for several months now so I want to list below some of the key features it has to offer.
Both the web application and the iOS & Android app version seamlessly sync your account. The weekly meal plan drag and drop interface naturally lends itself to desktop devices or those that are mouse operated. However, the shopping list interface and the act of shopping for ingredients itself is suited to mobile devices. As Plan to Eat seamlessly works across all platforms, it’s extremely easy to plan your meals from one device and mark completed purchased ingredients from another.
The ability to filter meals by tags (plus the ability to tag meals) is a powerful feature when planning weekly meals. I myself have created two specific tags; Gym and Makes Lunch. I use the ‘gym’ tag to filter meals that require 15min or less to prepare while the ‘makes lunch’ tag filters meals that follow the cook once, eat twice motto. The ability to filter by tags on the calendar view removes content switching between views, therefore requiring no impact on user working memory while also stripping away content that is unnecessary to the task in hand ensuring optimal focus is maintained.
In place serving adjustments
This is quite a hidden feature yet it is a gem of a feature. When initially creating a meal, the number of servings value is required. In my case, this value is more often than not, 2. However, occasions do arise when only one of us (my wife or I) require dinner on one evening. In this instance, Plan to Eat allows the serving size to be adjusted on the weekly meal plan view which has no impact on the original meal itself. By adjusting the serving size on the fly, all ingredient quantities will automatically adjust accordingly to suit this one-off alteration. This feature prevents meals from having to be duplicated in order to manually adjust ingredient quantities as some other apps require.
Individual ingredients and/or notes
Another meal planner feature is the ability to add single ingredients and/or notes to the calendar view. The calendar view enables you to add any number of single ingredients via a free text format in addition to existing meals. These single ingredients will also be included within the shopping list and will also be accumulated alongside other ingredients of the same name.
Lastly, another favourite feature of mine is the ability to import recipes from the web. This is an extremely simple process, simply copy the recipe URL into Plan to Eat and almost all recipe information is copied into the app. BBC Good Food recipes have proven to be the most successful. Recipe name, description, ingredients (incl. quantities and measure), recipe image and all nutritional information are also copied from the source meaning there are only three user tasks; import > copy > save.
Although Plan to Eat completely surpasses my needs and expectations of a food planner app, there are still small improvements that can be made which I believe will enhance the user interface and user experience of Plan to Eat.
Content density overload
The weight of content and features that are exposed on the user interface increase cognitive overload and add strain in understanding your current location and position within the app. This is apparent on the meal modal window. Content volume is high within a frame that is of a fixed width. The content itself is slightly heavy in weight reducing the immediacy of a visual hierarchy.
Proposal: To reduce the overall content density to screen ratio and to adopt an interface closer to progressive disclosure principles, only exposing content at the user’s request. Content to be grouped and group headings to be added to create a sense of order and structure. In the example below I’ve increased the weight of each group heading and hidden away group contents until requested by the user. The groups that maintain permanent visibility and exclude the ability to be collapsed are those I’ve found the most used when creating meals; Title, Image and Ingredients.
I’ve also grouped ‘cuisine, tags, course and main ingredient’ into a new ‘Additional Information’ group.
A visual calendar is one that includes meal photos. It’s proven that recall and recognition rates are easier when a user is presented with an image over a title or short piece of content. With an extensive meal list, recalling a meal based only on a title requires a large amount of user effort and mental work. By including the meal photo within the meal plan view reduces cognitive overload and will help to improve recall rate. It also removes any requirement of content switching between the meal list and the meal plan calendar view.
Proposal: I’ve included the meal image alongside the meal title and meal category within the weekly meal view to improve meal recall rate and reduce cognitive effort.
Remove meals by drag out
Currently the act of adding meals to the weekly calendar is via the drag and drop method. Meals are added to the calendar via dragging them from their source (meal list) to their destination (calendar). This interaction method creates an expectation that the reverse interaction is true; the removal of meals by dragging meals from the calendar (destination) and dropping them back into their source (meal list). Unfortunately, the calendar view is a fixed environment and once a meal has been added, it cannot be dragged away in order to be removed.
Proposal: To enable meals to be removed from the meal plan calendar via the drag and drop method.
Improve multiple interaction affordance
Meals within the calendar view have two interaction methods:
- They can be dragged from one location to another. This interaction method is immediately embedded into the user mental model as it’s the interaction method used to place the meal into the calendar view.
- Meals can also be selected to display a contextual menu which allows for further information or interaction to be made. This ‘select/click’ interaction method is far less discoverable as it is neither indicated nor expected. It’s often discovered mistakenly when falsely attempting to drag the meal to a new location. This interaction is also not memorable so is often forgotten until accidentally discovered once again.
Proposal: To increase design affordance via the inclusion of an icon that suggests an alternative interaction method to the drag. Here I have included what is increasingly becoming a recognised icon that depicts a contextual menu that will reveal additional operation possibilities with user interaction. The generous whitespace between the meal name and icon, plus the intentional misalignment draws the eye to this interaction point.
Ingredient units are incredibly powerful as alongside ingredient names, they too are combined and totalled when your shopping list is automatically generated. However, there is a greater risk with units as they can be entered in many different ways. For instance, teaspoon can be entered as ‘teaspoon’ or abbreviated to ‘tsp’, purely based on user preference. The teaspoon abbreviation could easily be miss-typed or misplaced for the tablespoon abbreviation ‘tbsp’, or even accidentally entered incorrectly as ‘tps’. This places great importance on ensuring units are entered correctly and consistently to ensure the auto generated shopping list combines units accurately. This is a burden which is unfortunately placed at the user’s door.
Proposal: Allow units to be selected from a predefined pick list that also includes type to filter. By offering a predefined set of units, users are not faced with the overhead of ensuring consistent measures are selected and entered across all meals. Below demonstrates how a predefined list of units may appear within the ingredients group.
Although I’ve listed some small improvements above, these are simply proposed enhancements to what is a powerful and incredibly useful application. Plan to Eat provides a simplified shopping experience that completely removes weekly stress from the meal planning process. Few applications have the ability to assist weekly chores in a way that provide genuine lifestyle benefits. Plant to Eat certainly does this and I will continue to renew my subscription year on year.