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.

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