Monday, January 23, 2006

Better Meal Planning?

Let me preface this by explaining that I am a product manager by trade, a vocation that requires I spend a fair amount of time getting my hands dirty trying to find out what's driving people nuts, considering creative ways to address their needs, and then weighing the business case for bringing a solution to the market. It’s a discipline that is so fully ingrained I can’t help but consider the "business requirements" for a weekend outing, or do a quick business case (in my head, honest) when considering a furniture purchase.

I bring this up because I have to admit – though I have been religiously planning meals for at least the last 5 or 6 years – that I do find the process um, a wee tedious from time to time. Don’t get me wrong, I think meal-planning is overwhelmingly beneficial for a number of reasons:

* It ensures, on a weekly basis, that all your nutritional requirements are met,
* It takes the puzzling mystery out of nightly meal prep after a long day’s work,
* It spares you from the defeat of buying whatever is on sale only to discover you can’t make a single meal out of all the ‘deals’ you just purchased, and
* Anecdotally, you almost always save money shopping from a list.

That being said, I do share a certain sympathy with all the friends whom I have pleaded to start doing this, as the process can be a bit challenging. Does the following sound familiar:

1. Select meals (usually dinners for the week), drawing on reliable cookbooks or old favorites.
2. From these, distill a grocery list of ingredients and weekly staples.
3. Check inventory and see if anything can be crossed off.
4. Shop.
5. Repeat 1-4, every week. Forever.

So the product manager in me has wondered for some time how this can be made easier. From a business problem perspective, I find meal planning an apt subject for consideration as it is so pervasive and yet so unaddressed. Nothing has changed to improve this process pretty much since it was conceived.

So for what it's worth, here’s my vision for a meal-planning solution roadmap, in three phases:

EasyMeals v1.0: Enter about a dozen of your favorite meals in a simple database application, along with the ingredients for each. Whenever a meal list is needed/its time to buy groceries, select the meals you like and print off the grocery list.

EasyMeals v2.0: An expansion of v1.0, this update puts the whole thing online as a free hosted service, allowing users to add, modify, remove, ‘favourite’ and share meals with other online users. This quickly allows users a much broader meal inventory, with the same ‘select meals and print grocery list’ standard feature. Also, here we can add new categories for meals – like using fresh herbs and imported cheeses? Give the meal a 9/10 for ‘cost’. Categorize by core type – red meat, poultry, fish, vegetarian, etc. Needless to say, v2.0 offers a lot of possibilities.

EasyMeals v3.0: The business case finally ripens with v3.0. Same as v2.0, but now you can automatically send your grocery list to Grocery Gateway, Loblaws eGrocer, etc. once selecting your meals. This version effectively automates the entire end-to-end process, from selecting meals, to making a list, and even the shopping (how much fun are those insert-aquarter-carts anyway?) – all from the comfort of your home PC. While still a free service for users, company founders extort negotiate with online grocers for a nice cut small percentage of each order.

Update: The equivalent of versions 1 and 2 already exist in a great site, Meals Matter.

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Disclaimer: These articles are for information only, and are not to be construed as financial advice, legal advice, or a solicitation to buy or sell securities.