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What’s Cooking? (Part 4) – Pre Built Meal Plans

May 12, 2011

In my last post, I talked about revamping the meal planner and making it much easier to understand, using an iterative UI to provide instant results with zero work, allowing users to fine tune and craft the perfect meal plan.  This is a great segue into today’s topic.

So, KitchenPC in theory is a great tool.  It can help you save money by using up everything in your fridge, it can help you manage your inventory online, it can help you build that perfect meal plan so you can buy 14 ingredients at the store and make a diverse selection of meals for your family for the entire week.  It can make sure that chicken you buy for tacos on Monday can be used in a salad on Wednesday, along with the walnuts you’ll use for a dessert topping on Friday.  No other site can do this.  However, does it matter to the common user?  Does using up every last thing really warrant online meal planning?  Does the average person care if they throw away 30 cents of lettuce because they never got around to using it?  Perhaps not.

The meal planner is targeted at the user who has ingredients now, but doesn’t know what to make with them.  I.e., the ingredients are a constant in the equation and the recipes are the variable to be solved for.  Another category of user might be the one who doesn’t know what to eat in the first place, let alone what to buy at the grocery store.  For this type of user, a database of pre-built meal plans might be a better approach.  This is the user who doesn’t really like to cook, they just want to be told what to do.  Perhaps they just moved out of their parents house or graduated from college.  They don’t really know how to eat, or how to maintain a balanced diet.  They don’t know about having a vegetable and a starch and a protein and all that stuff.  They just want a set of easy to cook meals that will be healthy and nutritious, but diverse enough to not get bored of the same thing, not call for any weird things, and only require $20 worth of groceries for the entire week.  I’d have loved to see a website with those sorts of meal plans online when I first moved out on my own!  Instead, I just ordered a lot of pizza.

These pre-built meal plans could also cater to other restrictions.  Perhaps vegetarian or vegan meal plans.  Gluton-free meal plans.  Low-carb or low-fat plans.  Recipes that are freezable.  Recipes for beginners.  Kid-friendly.  Holiday or Thanksgiving meal plans.  I’m sure you could come up with a dozen categories without much effort.  Users would be able to just browse through these plans, find what they want, and immediately generate a shopping list to take to the store on Sunday, and have all the ingredients they need for the entire week.  Stay at home moms, just imagine how much time that would save!

Pre-built meal plans are something I’ve been thinking about for months now, so I’ve put quite a bit of thought into it so far.  I’ve actually spent a lot of time searching the Internet for “meal plans” and there are surprisingly very few websites that just have any sort pre-built meal plans ready to download.  Most of the ones I found are centered around diets, where they want you to sign up for their service.  A lot wanted you to call in for a free consultation!  I really couldn’t find a single resource out on the Internet that will just help out the guy who has no idea how to eat and wants a simple, easy to follow meal plan for the week.

A few months ago, I got an email from AllRecipes.com advertising their implementation of this exact feature!  You may be thinking it was a disappointment or setback for me that AllRecipes developed this feature before I could; absolutely not!  First, it proves that AllRecipes, in all their wisdom, believes there’s a market for such a feature.  It means their 8 million users were asking for this!  Second, it allows me to check out how they did it so I can see what’s great about it and what I think I could improve on.

So AllRecipes charges money for this feature, which already gives me an advantage.  I plan on giving this away for free (I’m just a nice guy like that.)  Albeit they charge like twenty bucks a year or something, there’s still a lot of friction between free and cheap on the Internet.  I also noticed they literally have thousands of these pre-built menus.  There’s about 30 different categories, and each one has pages and pages of these menus.  It’s information overload and tough to sort through.

Another major problem with their implementation is it appears to be completely random.  I see no relationship between the ingredients used in these meal plans.  On one example plan, I looked at the shopping list to see what I’d have to buy at the grocery store to make these meals, and it was over 90 items!  Who has that kind of time?  Even more infuriating, most of the ingredients on this list (for example, parsley) was used in only a single recipe out of ten!  So now I have a whole bunch of parsley left over.  This is not efficient at all, this is just random recipes that someone thought sounded good.

The KitchenPC experience will be far superior.  First, I will be keeping this incredibly simple.  There will be only a few key categories, which the user can see all on one page, and click into the category they’re interested in.  I plan to only have a small handful of meal plans in each category (maybe 4 or 5 to start out with,) so I won’t even need any sort of search feature.  Each of these plans will be highly tested, only contain proven, highly rated recipes, and each recipe will be proof read for errors.  Data quality, not quantity will be the main goal here.  I honestly don’t think anyone needs thousands of pre-built meal plans.

Next, this feature provides some excellent advertising opportunities.  Since I’ll have various meal plan categories, I can target individual demographics through ad keywords.  I plan to advertise each recipe plan individually online.  Imagine a Facebook ad campaign, targeted at vegetarians, that just said “Click here for a free vegetarian meal plan.”  The user would click there and go immediately to the meal plan, no sign up, no extra junk – nothing.  This would be a fantastic way of getting new users into the site and exploring for other content.  I would also learn a lot about what types of ads work, where to spend my advertising budget, and how to word ads to attract certain types of users.

Unlike the menu feature on AllRecipes, the KitchenPC pre-built meal plans will not live in a vacuum.  I actually plan on using the same exact interface to display pre-built meal plans as the interface used to present a custom generated meal plan.  It will simply be that the end result happened to be loaded directly from the database, and not generated through calculations.  Therefore, when you look at a meal plan, you’ll see the total ingredients used, be able to check and uncheck individual recipes you want to make, and even “Thumbs Down” a recipe to have it replaced on the fly using the modeling engine, exactly as if it were a custom generated meal plan.  These are features simply not possible with AllRecipes architecture.

I do plan on getting some help to build these meal plans.  A meal plan will be able to contain various metadata, such as a title and description, nutritional information, etc.  I also plan on supporting the concept of meal plan sponsoring.  I’d like to work with dietitians, nutritionists, and personal trainers to help build these plans.  In exchange, they’d be able to link to their website or promote their own product within that meal plan.  I’ve already talked to some people in these fields and they’re more than willing to help.  One of the nice things about targeting a bunch of niche markets (such as gluton-free meal plans) is you can fairly easily find and talk to someone  in that market who’s eager to help you out.

The custom meal plan generator and pre-built meal plan database can eventually be married even further.  There would of course be opportunities for a user to generate a meal plan themselves, and then “save it” in the pre-built plan database and share it with their friends, post in on their blog, or link to it on Facebook.  The intention here is to push KitchenPC in the direction of dealing with intelligent sets of recipes rather than the individual recipe.  It’s what will set KitchenPC apart from all the other recipe sites out there.  I can honestly say out of all the upcoming features I have planned for the site, pre-built meal plans is the one I’m most excited about.

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