Family / Food / Home Life

An Assessment of Family Meal Planning Options

Ah, meal planning and associated grocery shopping.  My favorite exercise in insanity and the constant refrain of homes with both parents working.  Just mentioning weekend grocery shopping to my husband and he cringes.  It’s like telling a child he has to practice piano and violin before he can go outside and play.  The image below from the Princess Bride captures the general consensus regarding weekend grocery shopping for our family.

Princess-Bride

“I’ve just sucked one year of your life away. I might one day go as high as five, but I really don’t know what that would do to you. So, let’s just start with what we have. What did this do to you? Tell me. And remember, this is for posterity so be honest. How do you feel?”

In my attempt to eat healthy and save money, I’ve had a great deal of experiences across the “how to get food on your table efficiently and effectively” spectrum.  The simple answer: there isn’t a golden ticket.  It has to be healthy and meet your family’s dietary requirements.  It has to be fast and convenient.  It has to make good lunch leftovers.  It has to be inexpensive (at least less expensive than eating out every night).  Oh, and it has to taste good!  The list of criteria to make the cut as a desirable weeknight meal is extensive.  If I have to chop more than three types of vegetables, the recipe is blacklisted to weekend fare.  If I have to mince more than a few cloves of garlic, it makes me cringe, because all I can think of is the annoying task of cleaning the mincer later.  And, no, the dishwasher never gets a mincer clean.  I typically assume “minced garlic” is a typo and the recipe author really meant “chopped garlic”.  And I love how recipes purport to be fast and quick, but the assumption in these recipes is that the majority of the preparation (e.g., chopping) is complete prior to the recipe timer starting.  I’m sorry, but in what fucking universe do I have three types of bell pepper chopped in advance and ready to go?  And if the recipe requires me to use my food processor, my husband again cringes because of the cleanup required.  One week I used the food processor for three different dinner recipes.  Each day my husband grew more irritated and finally said to the dirty processor, “Not. You. Again!” We have all these devices to make things easier, and they do, but then you have to clean those things.  Uggghh…first world problems.

My family and I typically eat dinner at home six nights a week.  One of those nights is usually simple delivery pizza or grilled cheese.  Meals are generally prepared by me.  We recently had a French Au Pair arrive, so she occasionally cooks a dinner for the family.  Before you prison-shank me for having an Au Pair, it is actually significantly less expensive than traditional or home daycare for two children in the Northern VA area and it gives us the flexibility we need – more on this in a later post.  However, the meal-planning-shopping-preparing-cooking-eating-storing-making-lunches-of-leftovers circus is a mommyfamilias duty and labor of love for my family.  In order to keep the meal-planning machine moving along efficiently and effectively, I plan meals on Saturday (when I have time to do so) and typically shop for groceries on the weekend.  If you want to eat at home as a family and both parents work a traditional nine to five gig, you need to plan meals and grocery shop weekly.  The days of winging it and making shit happen spontaneously and effortlessly are over.  Accept your fate because resistance is futile, Ms. Seven of Nine.

Once every four to six weeks, we face the crowds at Costco to purchase meat, grains, oils, and anything else that I can obtain cheaper at Costco that also won’t spoil quickly or can be frozen in our deep freezer.  Since we’re on the subject of Costco, WE HATE SHOPPING AT COSTCO, so I can’t bring myself to do this labor regularly.  If I see one more asshole parking in the cart return or returning shopping carts in the handicap spots, I’m going to Lose. My. Shit. and go Mama Bear on people.  And not cute and somewhat creepy uncanny valley Teddy Ruxpin Mama Bear.  More like The Revenant rip your arms out of your sockets and then beat you to death with them Mama Bear.  Shopping at Costco chips away at my faith in humanity and erodes at the foundation of my marriage, so we avoid it until we absolutely must go.  If your soul can handle it, shop at places like Costco.

I’ve tried several approaches to making things happen.  First I did in-store grocery shopping, then I tried a variety of grocery delivery options, then I went back to in-store grocery shopping, then I tried Blue Apron, then I fully went back to in-store grocery shopping.  I explain my experiences and formulated opinions on these options in the next few paragraphs.  I have yet to try store or location pick-up, which is offered by Harris Teeter, Relay Foods, and a few others.

In-Store Grocery Shopping on the Weekend with Children

The downside: You have to find a parking space strategically close to a cart return and you’ll likely have to fight someone for those cute “Kar Karts” that your kids so desperately want to ride in.  You have to deal with lots of people, congested store aisles, and long lines.  You have to deal with those people who get annoyed that they can’t easily maneuver around the produce section and are self-righteous enough to be surprised by crowds on a weekend.  Wakeup, asshat!  It’s the fucking weekend.  Your eye-rolls and sighs just make you look like the pompous asshole I’m sure you are.  Get in line with the rest of us peons and move along.  And remember, “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding.”  Impulse buys and “Mommy, please!” are other downsides.  And the final, biggest downside in my opinion, is your time.  It takes time to perform this task.  Time I’d rather use for another activity.

The upside:  Fresher produce, better selection, and better individual prices than compared to grocery delivery.  You shop and receive items on your schedule.

Tip(s):  If you’re a heathen like me, try and go early on Sunday and beat the church crowd.  Walmart, Aldi, and Wegmans are the least expensive traditional grocery stores.  Giant, Safeway, and Harris Teeter are more expensive.  Wegmans is my favorite as far as selection, prices, and shopping experience.

Grocery Delivery Options (in DC Area)

Options: Peapod, Safeway, Walmart, Relay Foods, Washington Grocer, and others I haven’t tried.

The downside: Dumpster produce, delivery costs, limited service areas, limited delivery dates and times, limited product availability, higher costs per product, and annoying counter-intuitive websites.

Of all the grocery delivery options I’ve tried, I continue to get dumpster produce.  By dumpster produce, I mean the produce that is right at its expiration date (think slimy salad mix).  All grocery delivery fails (with the exception of Walmart, who only delivers non-perishable goods to my area) with this criterion and this is the main reason why I’ve continued to grocery shop in-person weekly.

Delivery costs can be mitigated if you either order over a certain amount (typically around $85) or sign up for a weekly or monthly delivery subscription.  Otherwise you’ll get tagged with on or about a $15 delivery fee.  Relay Foods offers unlimited deliveries per month for $30, which I like.  Like it or not, Peapod and Safeway expect you to tip their drivers in the neighborhood of 10%-15%, or anywhere from $5 to $20 per delivery depending on your order.  They work a tough job, so I always tipped, but it does drive your costs up even more for the convenience.  Walmart, Relay, and Washington Grocer do not expect and some do not allow tips.  Peapod, Safeway, and Relay will bring your groceries into your home for you.

Peapod, Safeway, and Walmart have by far the largest delivery areas.  If you have an address, they can typically deliver to you.  Relay is still expanding, so service areas are limited.  Washington Grocer delivered to my area, but I still think their service areas were limited, too.

Peapod, Safeway, and Walmart have by far the most flexibility in delivery dates and times and the shortest purchase to delivery window.  You can choose a block of time (typically two hours) between about 6 am and 8 pm seven days a week and in some cases it can be delivered that day.  In the past, Peapod insisted someone be home to accept delivery.  That is annoying for me.  Others (e.g., Relay) deliver groceries with ice packs and do not require someone be at home.  Relay Foods and Washington Grocer only delivered in my area one or two days per week and you had to have orders finalized a few days in advance.  This is difficult, when my only time available to plan meals is on Saturday and I need the food delivered by Monday evening at the latest.  This is evidenced in the below rant I sent to Relay Customer Service and expanded upon in my post about food delivery date madness:

“…Thanks for the response.  Relay has the best customer service of any organization I’ve ever experienced and I recognize I can be a pain in the ass as a customer.

To answer your question, the whole issue for me is meal planning – it takes time to do (at least an hour if you include populating my shopping cart on Relay). I have two boys (two year old and five months), and I work full time in a job with rigid/inflexible hours that requires me to be onsite Monday through Friday.  In fact, the reason I have time to write you today is I’m home with a sick kiddo.  I’m generally exhausted Monday through Friday and the energy I have once at home goes toward playing with the kids, ensuring they don’t accidentally kill themselves, and making dinner before herding my tribe of weirdos to bed.  I have zero time during the week to make a meal plan.  I know it must sound silly to not have an hour to myself during week to do something as simple as make a meal plan, but what can I say, my kids have ensured I haven’t gone to the bathroom by myself in two and a half years – so, the struggle is real.  I only have time on the weekend to get my act together – which I generally do on Saturday morning. So the rub is I populate the cart on Saturday morning but need the groceries by Monday.

Sorry to give you all the minutiae of my life. I really don’t want to go back to the dreaded Peapod or Safeway dumpster produce or Washington Grocer’s lack of selection and most. annoying. website. ever. I also don’t want to step foot into a Wegmans on the weekend with children – that’s the stuff nightmares are made of…

So, if and when Relay changes its mind about Monday, please let me know as I will be eternally grateful.

Thanks for Listening,
Julie”

Peapod and Safeway will have just about everything you need.  Relay and Washington Grocer have more limited selections, but boast a wide availability of crunchy mom type products, if that’s your thing.  Also, the upside to the limited availability is you are introduced to brands and products you may not otherwise try or experience.

Per product costs are more expensive across the board for grocery delivery.  However, there is an upside to this described in a later section.

Washington Grocer has the most annoying website ever.  The other options are not as bad.  One of a few reasons I stopped Washington Grocer is the website.  Not intuitive, not easy, poorly architected (I used to manage software developers, so I’m not talking out of my ass), I could go on and on…the website drives business away.

The upside:  Convenience and your time saved, Relay has an intuitive amazing website, subscription and save services, Relay has phenomenal customer service, overall lower grocery bills.

You don’t have to step foot in a grocery store?  Boom, enough said.  This is the obvious advantage of grocery delivery.

Relay Foods has a phenomenal website.  It is so intuitive, it is easy to use, it introduces me to products I wouldn’t otherwise be aware of but that I WANT to be aware of, it has a wonderful selection of recipes, etc..  Because of Relay Foods, I was introduced to The Spice Diva.  The Spice Diva changed my outlook on seasonings.  Seriously.  I recognize how ridiculous that sounds, but just try the Sicilian Spice Blend, and you’ll be testifying too!  I was also introduced to the best Italian sausage I’ve ever tasted.

I absolutely love the recipe section on Relay.  They have recipes that you can select to easily auto-populate your shopping cart online and remove the items you already have in stock at home.  The recipes are easy to sort by dietary requirements, prep time, etc..  And, the recipes are damn good, too.  One of my husband’s favorites is the Crockpot Zuppa Toscana, which is how we were introduced to the most amazing Italian sausage ever and the Spice Diva’s Sicilian Spice Blend.

Another thing I love about Relay is it offers subscription savings services.  The benefits of this are two-fold.  First, you save money if you get the same things every week (think milk, yogurts, eggs, cheese sticks, etc.).  Second, you save time because your cart is auto-populated with your subscription items.  This means you don’t have to remember to put them in the cart each week, but rather you can curate the weekly selection as needed.  Relay also offers a CSA option, but I’ll talk more about CSAs later.

Another thing Relay has going for it?  Customer service.  Hands down, the best I’ve experienced, EVER…not just in grocery delivery, but EVER.  When I received dumpster produce, they refunded me and delivered replacement produce with a quick turn-around.  Their customer service team is easily accessible, friendly, and responsive.

I just now realize I’ve turned the upsides section into a “Why I like Relay Foods” section.  But, it is what it is.  Better website, better customer service, overall better experience.

The last benefit, lower overall grocery bills, is counter-intuitive because product costs are higher with grocery delivery.  However, this was consistently my experience.  When you aren’t strolling the aisles in a store, you stick to the shopping list without deviation.  Impulse purchases are reduced, which is how our overall bill with grocery delivery was less than in-store purchases.

Other Grocery Delivery Options (i.e., CSAs)

I like the idea of a CSA, but it’s easier for me to plan meals and shopping around recipes rather than spontaneously plan recipes around surprise vegetables being delivered.  I feel like Brad Pitt in Se7en when I think about how I’d work with the CSA concept:

Whats in the Box

How I feel about CSAs.

I know this is backwards with the whole eating what is local and in-season, but I’m in survival mode with small children and haven’t branched out into this space.

Blue Apron

I recently cancelled my Blue Apron subscription and cited the following explanation:

“I like the concept of Blue Apron.  However, I think each meal is missing a side to be a full meal (for my family at least, but maybe we’re just fatties).  I consider a typical meal a protein and two vegetables/sides.  It’s expensive for what you get ($70 for two family of four meals plus shipping), and I didn’t think it tasted good enough to warrant the price.  I currently make meal plans for my family weekly and shop weekly.  If I were Blue Apron, I would examine Relay Foods website.  They have recipes that you can select to easily auto-populate your shopping cart online and remove the items you already have in stock at home.  The recipes are easy to sort by dietary requirements, prep time, etc..  I like how their website is intuitive and easy to use.  The downside to Relay is their produce isn’t consistently fresh and it’s annoying reading a recipe off a computer – I love the recipe cards Blue Apron provides.    I think the ideal mixture is a tailored (i.e., not overwhelming) variety of recipes offered by Relay but the convenience and great produce of Blue Apron at a reasonable cost.  And if there was a way to get all those veggies chopped and prepped before they arrive on my doorstep, but still be fresh to use in a recipe, then you’d have the golden ticket for working mothers.  Chopping veggies takes time, and it’s active time (i.e., time I’m not spending with my children and husband).  My husband and I work full time with two small kiddos.  Find a way to reduce the active time required in a recipe, that is fresh, healthy, and tastes good.”

Bottom line:  Good over-priced concept that needs some work.  I do love the recipe cards and the produce is fresher than traditional grocery delivery.  I didn’t feel like I was really saving any time during actual cooking.  Of course you save the time by not having to shop.  You don’t get to pick your weekly recipes, but you can restrict recipes based upon dietary requirements.  In the end you’re back to Brad Pitt in Se7en.

Conclusions

We continue to shop in-store at Wegmans.  I need fresher produce than what is currently provided by grocery delivery options.  However, as far as grocery delivery goes, I love the Relay Foods experience.  Hands down, best grocery delivery.  Ideal hybrid is some combination of Blue Apron and Relay Foods.

Finally, I haven’t tried Amazon Fresh because it isn’t offered in our area, but I’ve heard good things.  If it does come to my neighborhood, I will surely update this post.

 

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