This post is not sponsored in any way by Cook Smarts, I’m just an exhausted new mama who needed someone else to take over the meal planning for our little family.
Before Baby K was born, I used to spend hours meal-planning. I’d perch on a kitchen stool, poring through recipes I’d pinned, anxious to make the BEST MEAL EVER and always anxious to try new things. And then D and I would spend our Sunday afternoons gathering groceries for the week ahead. By Friday, much of the produce would be wilting, untouched after a busy week of happy hours and social events. There is almost nothing that gives me worse guilt than the act of throwing away food – fresh, healthy food that we were just too busy to eat.
It drove D crazy as well when we’d be driving around Houston and pass our favorite grocery store, and he’d propose running inside to pick up groceries for the week – but NOPE, we couldn’t possibly set foot in the grocery store without the official Meal Plan and corresponding Grocery List. And so we’d return home, where I’d spend a minimum of an hour going through my meal-planning routine, trying to choose meals with overlapping ingredients or with sides that could be enjoyed again later in the week.
This was obviously unsustainable.
So when Baby K was around 2 months old, I said a quick prayer and signed up for the meal-planning service Cook Smarts.
For those of you who are uninitiated, Cook Smarts offers weekly meal plans, cooking guides (including video tutorials), and online cooking classes for a small monthly fee (~$8/month, depending on the subscription you choose). The weekly meal plan is emailed to you each Thursday, and you have the option to choose the number of servings for each meal; modifying the recipe to be GF, paleo, or vegetarian; and replacing a meal with one from the archives.
Then, if you pull up the meal plan on your phone’s browser, you can click on the Grocery List for a complete checklist of ingredients; as soon as you change your meal plan, the Grocery List automatically updates. This is genius for our problems that I outlined above – now, instead of spending 1+ hours at home glued to my computer, attempting to meal plan, I can select our meals and generate a grocery list in the 2 minutes it takes us to walk from our car into the grocery store. I can also “favorite” the best recipes so I can quickly retrieve them later.
- Huge time-saver. Queuing up a meal plan and grocery list on the Cook Smarts website is super efficient; even in the most difficult days when Noah was a fussy infant and I was running on 3 hours of sleep, I managed to cook a few fresh meals a week.
- Great variety. We’ve tried a lot of new things in the last 6 months, and I can’t say we’ve ever fallen into a funk of same-old recipes – among our favorites that I’ve cooked repeatedly are turkey kofta (Turkish meatballs), beef and broccoli soba, dukkah-spice salmon with pickled shallot and chickpea salad, beer simmered brats on pretzel buns, and tilapia with herb and olive gremolata. I’ve learned how to roll my own spring rolls, and I’ve made my first frittata.
- Nutritious. While there are some comfort foods that I wouldn’t categorize as “healthy,” most meals include a side, often roasted veggies or a salad with a homemade dressing. I love the paleo option to steer clear of buns and starchy noodles.
- User reviews. At the bottom of each recipe is a reviews section, with a space for a star rating (out of 4 stars) and comments. I find other users’ reviews helpful and usually do a quick scan of the reviews before I begin cooking in case there are any modifications others recommend.
- Easy to follow. No one is going to set you up with a timer and expect you to create a flawless souffle. If you’re unsure of how to cut into an unusual vegetable (Japanese eggplant, I’m looking at you) or could use a refresher on the art of poaching eggs, there are awesome little videos linked in each recipe.
- Efficient use of ingredients. Often you will make extra portions of one ingredient (cauli rice, farro, and vinaigrette, to name a few) that are incorporated into another meal later in the week – who doesn’t like to kill two birds with one stone? Each meal plan also includes ideas for leftovers (e.g.: “add stock to leftover burrito fixings for an easy Southwestern soup”) and a link to a freezer guide in case you end up with any excess ingredients.
- Weekend prep tips. I rarely get around to meal prepping on the weekend, but when I do, this is a sweet feature – for each meal plan, Cook Smarts provides a list of steps to prep everything for the week ahead. If I do follow the weekend prep routine, each meal takes under an hour – often under 30 minutes – to prepare. That, my friends, is the key to the universe of Busy Parenthood. On Day 1, God created take-out, and on Day 2, God created easy weeknight meals.
- View recipes by photo. One option in Cook Smarts is to scan the archives in photo view – so I can hand my phone over to D and let him pick a few meals from the photos. This is actually much simpler than scrolling through pages and pages of a food blog, and then scrolling through walls of rambling text to dig up a photo of the meal just to say, “Hey, this is what we’re having tonight!”
- Seasonal ingredients. I’ve seen a progression in the meal plans over the last 6 months, as spring turned to summer which is slowly turning into fall (at least, in the rest of the country) – the ingredients will shift to fresh food that’s in-season, and the Cook Smarts team will offer up a fun meal plan for each holiday (the 4th of July caprese burgers were a big hit in our household). This is much harder to accomplish when you’re doing your own meal-planning.
- Under-seasoned. I suppose that’s the pitfall of meal planning for the masses, but I find many of the recipes too bland and usually add additional seasonings.
- Uninspired vegetarian recipes. We like to include meatless meals in our weekly routine, but I haven’t been too impressed with the vegetarian Cook Smarts recipes.
- No “average rating.” In this world of Rotten Tomatoes scores and Amazon reviews, I need all the data! As I mentioned above, the reviews from other users are often helpful – but there is no way to know the average star rating of a particular recipe, which would be useful in choosing an old recipe from the archives to sub in for a new one when creating a weekly meal plan.
- Simplified ethnic recipes. While I appreciate the attempts by the Cook Smarts team to offer a myriad of international cuisines, many recipes fall a bit short. For example, a recent recipe for Banh mi sandwiches called for a “spicy mayo” blend of mayonnaise and hot sauce. I really missed the pâté that’s typically stuffed in Banh mis at Vietnamese restaurants.
I’m at a crossroads where I’m not sure whether we’ll continue along the Cook Smarts road or try something new. A couple weeks ago, the default meal plan included Italian sub sandwiches with chips, which was… a bit disappointing. On the other hand, we’ve developed a nice, quick and easy work week routine and our food waste has declined to almost zero.
Whew. Who knew I could have so many feelings about a meal-planning service? If you have any questions or recommendations for another meal-planning service to check out, leave a note in the comments below!