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Meal planning tech: what's missing?

'Sure, you can plan my meals, but do you understand me?' or the utility hack vs. changing behaviors.

Photo of Cory Brown
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There's no shortage of recipe-to-shopping-list apps on the market, but their approach generally does little to educate users or change behavior.  I do think the web-based meal planning service Cook Smarts has a much more proactive approach through cooking tutorials, online community building, and an inexpensive meal planning service that delivers 4 dinners a week for $6-8/month. Their recipes are all tested and available in original, gluten-free, paleo, and vegetarian variants.  While I think they've built a compelling offering and they're clearly focused on their targeted audience, it does not address many concerns posed by the OpenIDEO challenge.  

The Cook Smarts plans often include complimentary recipes with ingredients in common between them while the service lets you customize how many servings you usually make, so less food and money are wasted, an absolutely crucial component if such tech is to be sticky among lower income users.   Love Food Hate Waste, a UK-based company, also addresses the problem of food waste.

Here are some concerns not currently addressed by meal planning tech:

  • Prioritizing a healthy lifestyle for family eating/addressing cooking healthy food for children and picky eaters (i.e. certain ingredients could be cut larger so they're easier to pick out, substitutions can be explained so any negative responses can at least be addressed).\
  • Presenting healthy iterations of culturally traditional recipes.
  • Explaining the nutritional impact of recipes on your body
  • Distinguishing between eating healthy and eating to induce rapid weight loss and being adaptive to cooking for different goals.
  • Understanding and allowing for meal prep that is cheap and simple for cooking on the fly.
  • Any reference to local and/or seasonal, as well as general shopping tips
  • lack of availability in multiple languages
  • Emphasis on portion size (for adults and children) and proper hydration (If you're hungry, you're probably thirsty.)
  • Data analysis of your nutritional picture over the course of a day, week or month, broken down for both adults and children of differing ages and body types, possibly with weight monitoring to indicate a needed shift in dietary focus or portions.
  • Regular empowerment for the sake of endurance: the will to stay healthy in the kitchen for the sake of your family's health - utilizing the feeling of protection parents have over their children to motivate them to continue to cook healthy. 
  • Community eating: multiple families or unrelated individuals eating together, something that was mentioned by another OpenIDEO user in reference to their community dining club.  

Planning community meals or potlucks based around a balanced, healthy nutritional meal could go a long way to promoting adoption at scale.  Rather than have the barriers to healthy diet adoption exist at a single user level, you can pool the energy around making change in multiple households.  Each household's commitment could be a single dish (or two when only two households are involved) per night with a 3-4 meals menu for the week, with proteins rotated to insure balanced expense or an estimated cost per plate. Depending on proximity, it could be an actual pot luck or dinner club, but could also be a sort of dinner crawl for close proximity neighbors (because I know I don't want to burden anyone with my 3 children in their home just so we all can eat dinner). Keeping nutrition and portion control in clear focus is important.  Understanding that people are cooking catering-sized quantities of food in their homes is also important.

These might be two different pieces of tech, but it would make sense if one was a module for the other as a common foundation of features focused on family health.


Join the conversation:

Photo of André Fernandes

I've been seen through my parents and relatives the interest to prepare meals/dishes usually made in a healthier version, using organic and natural ingredients, for example.
Maybe this aspect can be thought about meals hispanics usually prepare at home and how could be healthier.

Photo of David Min

One of the major issues I find with food planning/delivery services is that it's still very limited choice and not customizable. It also leaves very little room for me to experiement. I like cooking as an activity, and I like the feel of preparing food, slicing open ingredients and feeling their texture, and after a while, I want to use new ingredients, to explore new receipes, to find inspiration. I have written about how I dealt with it in more detail here:

Photo of Open Difference

Hi Cory,
You have made a lot of good points. I would like to add that meal planning technology does not deal with the psychology behind why people struggle to eat healthy and how they can change this. It's not just about trying to convince people of the reasons to eat healthier like 'you'll have heart disease etc,' as they already know this. They are bombarded with this information everyday from every medium, and if this strategy was successful, it still would be a problem today.

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

You bring up a great point! The emotional component to eating is very important. Recording how one was feeling after one eats in a food journal is a good tool to discover and learn about one's behaviors and nudge one towards change. Maybe including a journal in the meal planning app so one has everything in one place - planning and reflecting?

Photo of Shane Zhao

Great share Cory! It'd be helpful to format the "concerns not currently addressed by meal planning tech" section of your post into bullet points. This way, the format of your post will be more clear to people who are reading it for the first time. To reformat your post, hit the Edit Contribution button at the top of your post . Scroll down to your Full Description field. The use the Bullet List feature in the Rich Text Editor at the top of this field.

Photo of Cory Brown

Thanks Shane! All good?

Photo of Shane Zhao

Yes, thanks for the edit Cory!

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congrats on this post being today's Featured Contribution!

Photo of Guillaume