Systematizing Dinner

“What’s for dinner?” is the refrain heard around the world at around 5 PM. What if you knew the answer to that and had a healthy meal halfway cooked every night of the week?


There are clear benefits to coming up with a system for dinner. You can decrease the time, money, and effort you spend on fulfilling basic food needs. You can also consider what kind of meals you would like to eat and make sure they are healthy.

To accomplish systematizing dinner, we ended up going with a subscription meal planning service. I’ll give the overview that they have on their website, as it does a good job of explaining what the service is:

The Fresh 20 is a meal planning service, created for busy families and singles who want to eat fresh, healthy meals, and save time and money. Our meal plans rely on simple, healthy, homemade lunches and dinners using just 20 fresh, seasonal ingredients per week. No more grocery lists with 80 items that will eventually go to waste. Our meal plans are carefully created to utilize everything on the list so you can stop throwing money down the drain. The Fresh 20 mixes and matches a small list of ingredients to create 5 balanced meals that play off each other. We include detailed guides to meal prep, original recipes everyone will enjoy (even picky eaters) and motivation to help you stay the course on busy weeknights. Because we are committed to our customers, and to health and happiness for all, we now offer Vegetarian, Gluten Free, Kosher, Meals for One and Lunch, in addition to our Classic Meal Plan.

How It Works In Practice

Getting stuff and prep

We go to the store one day on the weekend, and don’t need to run to the store during the week since we have a complete list. We can grab milk and eggs and such as well. Making this a habit on the weekends helps us make better choices during the week. So this takes an hour or two after you consider driving and parking and such.

Each week, you get a list of things to prepare on the weekend that will speed up your meal creation during the week. This is known as “prep”. You might do things like marinading meat or cutting veggies. It doesn’t take that long, about an hour a week for two people. The benefits during the week are massive. Typically we can just throw a few things into a pot or stove in certain orders, and the end result is delicious.

The meals themselves take between half an hour and an hour to make. Most of this time is waiting for things to cook, not active engagement. One positive is that you will have the ingredients you need on hand, so there are typically no last-minute trips to the store. I consider the time to be about equivalent to going out to eat after including cleanup.

About half of the time the meals are simple enough that one person can handle them. It just kind of depends on our schedule whether we cook together or not. Catching up during the meal preparation process is nice though.

Financial considerations

The service itself is about a dollar a week. When you consider how much time and effort it would take to come up with a similar recipe guide, it’s a pretty good deal.

I’d say we typically spend between $100 and $125 a week on groceries. That includes the ingredients for dinners for the week and our typical other staples (breakfast, fruit, milk, yogurt, etc.) We typically get at least a few lunches per week off of the leftovers from dinner, so that is a benefit as well.

Other benefits

One of the biggest benefits is knowing what is for dinner on any given day. We don’t need to come up with a recipe or run out to the store. This saves a lot of time and thinking, especially when hungry after work (see ego depletion.) No more being hangry and trying to figure out what to eat.

We like the variety of the meals and are typically impressed with how many variations of foods they use. We have cooked mussels, dumplings, soups, fish, and meats, and prepared delicious salads, salsas, and pestos. It is much better than cooking the same eight meals that we typically cooked.

Cooking many different types of meals has increased our confidence in cooking. When you cook five new meals a week, you get a better sense of what elements you can fudge and what recipes need to be followed closely. There has only been one meal that I think we messed up badly enough that we needed to scrap it entirely. :)

I think the meal choices are pretty healthy. They try to use seasonal fruits and vegetables to decrease the cost and increase the freshness and variety. I wouldn’t mind fewer carbohydrates and more vegetables, although it seems like we tend toward that in our meal preparation so it works out.

We appreciate that there is less waste, as generally by the end of the week we have used most of the ingredients. Extra things like mint or onions can be used for other recipes. We use the leftovers for an easy an inexpensive lunch.

Possible cons

It’s hard to know how much food you will get from each recipe before making it. Sometimes cooking one meal gives us enough for dinner and leftovers for days, and other times we don’t have any leftovers. The meals are supposedly for four, but it could range from two to four it seems.

I think if you were a picky eater or really didn’t like certain things like onions that you might have a hard time. I think we generally eat most anything, so it has not been an issue.

There are meal choices for one, but it seems like it would work best if you are cooking for multiple people from a time and variety perspective.

Anticipating criticism

Someone could argue that with the time and money spent that we are not really saving all that much. Why take hours to make food when I could be working instead? I would have a few arguments against this:

I enjoy cooking, so for me, it is a fun activity to do with Monica and reconnect after our day apart.

I don’t think there is much time savings versus going out to eat by the time you get there, order, wait for food, eat, wait to pay, pay, and go back home.

I think that the opportunity cost is a bit overrated. Typically I would not be working during this time anyway. I think there are diminishing returns to working more in the evenings and it is nice to have recreation (re-creation) with cooking to balance things out.

Other solutions?

While I’m pretty happy with this solution for now, it would be interesting to see what other options there may be. How do you address needing to eat? :)

Addendum: Wes Winham pointed out that “ looks like it might combine well with your dinner system”. Good point!

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