Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Aug 9, 2007

Online Tools for Working Women part 3: Meal planning and Nutrition

Those of us fortunate enough to have cushy desk jobs and a laptop often find the line between home and work gets blurred. In this online culture, web-based tools can help us maintain a work-life balance so we can keep our life on track between conference calls. Eating well requires a bit of planning and for those of us with partners and/or children, meal-planning and preparation still usually falls into our domain. If I left it up to Brad, we'd be eating frozen entrees, hot pockets, or fast food for dinner every night. Thankfully, there are lots of great online resources to help keep you organized, healthy and within your budget.

Sparkpeople.com: (free) Though this site is geared toward people seeking to lose weight, you can still choose a healthy "maintenence" mode. Manually track what you eat or follow the suggested automatic meal plan. Track fitness goals, and make sure you drink enough water. Has a large recipe database, community message boards, and a massive amount of healthy lifestyle content.

Cool features: See how much of the daily recommended amount of vitamins and minerals you're getting, stay in your recommended calorie range and get "spark points" (gold stars). The spark points are surprisingly motivational.

Drawbacks: too many pop-up windows (not ads), the colorful site is pretty, but makes it difficult to do at work. **See their sister site for expecting moms: babyfit.com.

--Weightwatchers.com has much of the same functionality, with a great interface, but has a relatively large fee. Diet.com is similar and now free, but has an annoying interface with intrusive and distracting advertising.

--Unfortunately, there is no site that I've found which helps you manage family nutrition. Understandably they are geared toward individual diet plans.

Living cookbook: Intense software which acts as an electronic recipe library, meal & nutrition planner, inventory manager, and even tracks cost per serving. You can track the prices of your groceries across various stores to see where you get the best deal. (It's based on software used by restaurants and cafeterias).

Cool feature: It can suggest recipes based on the pantry items (inventory) you have on hand. YOu can also pull in online recipes with some amount of manual work to properly parse the fields to enable accurate nutrition analysis.

Drawback: Way too much manual maintenence needed to take advantage of the cool features. [When every item has an rfi tag and we can download our grocery receipts this will be really cool]. Also, this is software you download onto your desktop. If you work full-time, employ household servants, and have a penchant for stretching a penny, you will want to buy this for your housekeeper.

Meal Planning Services
There are also several sources of fee-based Email subscription or online menu suggestion services out there, but most of them fall short in my view. They usually offer a week or month's worth of meal ideas with recipes and shopping lists.

Most services are far too generic for me to make it worth the fee. I am a bit particular when it comes to my meal-planning needs, I need them to be:
-designed for maximum efficiency (e.g. include ingredients that can be cooked in batches and re-used later in the week - like hard-boiled eggs)
-flexible for "mixed" families: vegetarian/meat-eating, allergies, small kids and adults
-fresh, seasonal and healthy
-a realistic mix of recipes by effort/time required: I want a mid-week break, and would like to put in more effort on Sunday.
-real diversity in types of food, not just American but also Indian, Thai, Spanish, etc.

One of the services, Meal Mixer, is promising. It allows you to tailor the menu suggestions to your personal taste by ranking certain ingredients, and you can eliminate ingredients due to allergies or dislike. It also allows you to easily swap suggested meals for other similar suggestions or for your own dish. Another cool feature is the ability to select preparation time for each day of the week, allowing you to plan more elaborate meals on weekends and easier meals during the week. Additionally, you can choose to display nutrition information, avoid certain foods according to particular diets (low carb, low fat), and request selections based on your body size and activity level. The recipes they suggested sounded appealing and simple enough. Unfortunately the user interface is kind of awful. The blue-on-yellow background design and clunky page style makes it a site I don't want to spend a lot of time in.

In the end, I have found that the only meal plan that will work for me is one I design based on my own needs, recipe repertiore and aptitude. I plan to follow the suggestion by the organizers at The Clutter Diet (more on them later) to write down a month (or more) of meals I regularly make that the family likes, and then rotate through the list. As soon as I get the time....

Those of you who eat anything and can pick up any recipe with ease will probably disagree with me. Please try these services out and let us know what you think. Most have sample menus online and/or free trial periods.

Dinner select
The 6 o'clock scramble
Meal mixer

Recipe sources:
There are tons of websites offering recipe databases, a few of my favorites:
Epicurious - compiles recipes from several publications including Gourmet magazine and Bon Apetit. You can save favorite recipes to your online recipe box, but many of the recipes require confidence and skill in the kitchen, and multiple ingredients that may be harder to find. Worth the effort once in a while.
Real simple - Has working-mom-friendly recipes with lots of shortcuts.
Cooking Light - Has heath-conscious recipes and lots of vegetarian alternatives.

Aug 7, 2007

Online tools for working women part two: Online calendars

Every working woman needs a way to stay on top of things. The working mom and wife is likely to be managing the entire household so accessing her family's schedules from anywhere can help her feel connected and in control. In my search for the Enterprise household management software suite, Ms. Minchin has tested some of the leading online calendar/scheduling products. Unfortunately, none of these meet all of my requirements, but there is hope that they will evolve into more useful tools for family management.


Cozi central: (free) Provides family calendar and shopping list creation. Each family member has their own tab/color and you can view an overall rollup calendar. You can easily assign tasks to others, like when I need Brad to drop off the kids at school. It also tracks shopping lists and makes it easy to type messages to send to Brad's cell phone. There is a downloadable version as well as a web-only version (the web-only version does not have all the features though). You can personalize it with family pictures, and for some reason it will create a screen saver for you of family pictures if you choose to let it.
Cozi also has a helpful blog that covers topics of interest to household managers/moms.

I wish this tool did a lot more such as including a to-do list, automatically sending reminders via email or text message, and of course all the other items in the Enterprise family management suite. It doesn't let you change the calendar view from monthly to weekly to daily, but a recent survey they sent out to users indicates this is one of the areas they are considering for future updates.

UX: It has a nice clean user interface, with warm colors, easy to navigate.
Cool feature: can send shopping list as a text message to Brad's cell phone, or request it via your own phone when you are in the store and realize you have forgotten your list.
Drawbacks: the Outlook synchronizing tool is in beta and froze during the installation.

Google calendar: (free) Provides an online calendar you can share. It has a nice natural entry of appointments/events. Just click on the calendar and type the information into a box (e.g. "Dinner with Brad at Anaconda @ 8pm). You can also overlay public calendars such as local events or Netflix releases. Why it doesn't work for me: I first create a calendar and then invite my hubby Brad to view it. Brad then has to create a Google account to participate, create his own calendar and then grant me access to view his. That's like asking him to go clothes shopping with me and then paint my toenails while I tell him about the way I'm going to organize the pantry.

Another cool thing about Google calendar is that it can be used as a widget in other tools such as a wiki site or Google desktop. (I haven't yet figured out how to keep it logged in to my account however, so I constantly see a blank calendar in my google desktop sidebar.)

UX: It has the simple, spare UI that Google is known for. Nothing offensive.
Cool features: Can send reminders to your cell phone.
Drawbacks: Not designed for my purposes, therefore unwieldy for family scheduling. Also, doesn't synchronize with Outlook - you have to manually import a calendar file.

30 boxes: (free) A shared calendar tool that was designed with social networking in mind. Allows you to share your whole calendar with buddies, or pick and choose which aspects to share with which buddies by using tags. When you invite a buddy to share your calendar, 30 boxes retrieves web information about your buddy for you such as Flickr photos and MySpace updates. It also has to-do list functionality, and incorporates the weather forecast into the upcoming week.

UX: Simple but grey UI. There are some options for changing the color.
Cool features: addresses entered into the calendar will generate a google map.
Drawbacks: Not designed for my purposes.

Scrybe: I wish I could try this!! Still in invitation-only beta. This product puts all online calendar and collaboration products to shame. It has an amazing user interface, productivity features such as side-by-side time zone support and to-do lists and an innovative "thought stream" feature. The thoughtstream feature creates a nicely formatted brainstorm/planning stream with photos, hyperlinks, document links, and text. I can't do justice to this, you just have to watch the video. It will rock your world.

Reminder service:
Ping me (free) is worth a mention here. It's a new online tool that allows you to set up reminders to send to your email or via text message to your phone. Interesting idea and could be useful for remembering future occurrences such as renewing your car registration or anniversary shopping. You can also send reminders to others.

What tools do you use to keep your family organized? Please share!

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