Eating for better health isn’t always a simple or straightforward proposition. It can take a lot of time and effort to plan meals, shop for food and cook that healthy food every day, three times a day.
But there are services and people who can help. For example, you can work with a registered dietitian to get your bearings around a new diet when you seek to upgrade your nutrition. Another option is to go high tech. One of those newer approaches to managing eating healthy is a service called PlateJoy.
Founded in 2012 by Christina Bognet, an MIT neuroscience graduate who lost 50 pounds by changing her diet and lifestyle, the Seattle-based company PlateJoy offers a sophisticated digital platform that helps take some of the guesswork, challenge and waste out of eating for better health.
At its core, “PlateJoy is a subscription-based, online meal planning resource that provides meal planning for an individual or entire household,” says Matthew Black, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
How Does PlateJoy Work?
You’ll start by filling out a detailed personal questionnaire that’s vaguely reminiscent of what you might reveal when signing up for a dating site. But here, understanding your health needs and goals is the primary aim, with preferences and lifestyles coming in a close second. It’s all part of letting the technology understand you and the meal plan you’ll match with best.
In building this profile you’ll provide information about yourself, including height, weight, age, gender and physical activity levels. This helps the system estimate your current caloric requirements, which is especially important if weight loss is a goal, Black says.
You’re also asked to provide “subjective information,” he says, including:
— Individual or household food preferences, dislikes and allergens.
— Kitchen equipment available.
— Time available for breakfast.
— Weight loss goal.
“All of this information is collected with the intent of creating a highly customized, user-friendly meal plan,” Black explains. It gives you the ability to customize your plan for specific dietary needs, such as controlling blood sugars or trying to reduce high cholesterol levels, but also mixes up the options so you don’t get bored.
Though this initial setup can take some time, it’s all part of how the algorithm learns your needs to select the right meals for you, says Abigail Kinnear, registered dietitian nutritionist and marketing manager with PlateJoy. The more specific you are in that setup period, the more tailored a meal plan the system can generate.
PlateJoy also lets you design a meal plan for each person in the home, and if you’re sharing recipes, it will show you how much of each finished recipe should be consumed by each individual to remain within calorie and nutrient targets. This is especially helpful if more than one person in the household is trying to lose weight.
“For example, I eat a normal amount of food, but my husband is a lot more active than I am, so he gets a larger portion” of the meal based on the information provided, Kinnear says. “We show you a breakdown of the actual meal and how much each person should get. Sometimes portion sizes can get tricky,” she adds, but PlateJoy makes that part of the equation easy.
PlateJoy also considers your skill level in the kitchen and what sort of equipment you have. If you have only a stovetop and microwave, it won’t offer up recipes that require elaborate utensils or appliances, making it a helpful option for those who have limited cooking skills or equipment.
The questionnaire “gets really granular,” Kinnear says, in accounting for things like milk preferences — do you prefer cow milk, soy milk, almond milk or another option, for example. How much time do you want to spend preparing breakfast? Do you like smoothies? And other specifics.
All of this information gets put into the algorithm to develop the right meal plan for you. “It’s very precise,” she says of how the program crunches all the data to come up with your custom meal plan.
Building Your Weekly Meal Plan
Once PlateJoy gathers all of the necessary information, it then begins to generate weekly meal plans. “Users have the ability to screen through the suggested meals and snacks, and edit or swap for other nutritive equivalent choices,” Black says, which gives users the option for complete customization.
For example, if you don’t like a specific food, you can exclude that. Or if a specific recipe doesn’t look appealing, you can toss it back and the service will offer another choice that still meets your nutritional needs. You can keep doing this until you land on a meal plan that looks good and meets all your diet needs, tastes and health goals.
Once you’ve settled on the meal plan, PlateJoy then provides a complete grocery list that you can take to the store. It also integrates with Instacart and Amazon Fresh services for home delivery, Kinnear says.
You can also update the online pantry with items you already have on hand, and the system will adjust the shopping list so you don’t buy too much or shop for a million ingredients each week.
This makes meal planning and shopping much simpler, and Kinnear says that you can also opt for recipes that use overlapping ingredients throughout the week, which reduces waste and streamlines the shopping list.
And when it comes time to prepare the meal, the system highlights which ingredients are involved in each stop. “That’s a piece of feedback we’ve received from a lot of users,” Kinnear says. When the recipe references a certain ingredient, that ingredient and its measurement is highlighted, making it easier to measure as you go.
PlateJoy is a web-based program and also a downloadable app. You can also print out the shopping list and recipes if you prefer working from a paper shopping list or menu. You can also view the entire recipe library if you’re looking for something special. You can access via a computer or any other web-enabled device for on-the-go access to your menus and shopping lists.
Is PlateJoy Right for You?
PlateJoy is well suited for those who have at least basic cooking skills and equipment and are trying to prepare more meals at home. It’s good for the budget shopper and those trying to simplify meal prep while still meeting food goals, such as conforming to a specific diet like the ketogenic or Paleo diet or tracking calories for weight loss. (Weight loss is one option, but you don’t have to chose it when creating your profile.)
The tools and features offered by PlateJoy make meal planning super easy and more likely to stick with. As such, the potential benefits are huge, Black says. “Sustainability is often the Achilles heel when it comes to meal plans, so a rotation of meal options and lots of variety are also critical components.”
Because it offers complete customization, PlateJoy is safe for virtually anyone, including kids, and can be used to meet just about any dietary or nutritional need. Kinnear adds that many staff members are registered dietitians. There’s also a staff chef who focuses on new recipe development and ensuring quality in all the recipes the company offers.
How Much Does PlateJoy Cost?
You can start with a 10-day free trial to see if you like the PlateJoy approach. After that, you’ll have to pay for the service, which costs $69 for 6 months or $99 for 12 months. This gives you access to unlimited meal plans and recipes. You can change your settings at any time to try out various different meal plans. Paleo curious? Easy — try it for a week or two. Thinking about going vegan? No problem. Want to cut sugar? Give it a whirl. You can always switch back to another option if you don’t like it.
PlateJoy is a cost-effective way to access a high level of fine-tuned meal planning and customization. Kinnear notes that when you consider that for less than the cost of a couple of coffees per week, it’s like having access to your own personal chef/dietitian to tell you how to eat for your health goals. “It’s a small investment for potentially many added health benefits.”
In terms of cost, PlateJoy may offer some advantages to going it alone, Black says. “Since all of your meals are being planned with specific details regarding quantities consumed, PlateJoy can potentially save on your grocery bill. Looking through multiple recipes and determining the right number of products to purchase is time consuming and can sometimes lead to waste,” but because “PlateJoy offers the ability to do batch cooking and plan for leftovers” that can help further stretch your budget.
You also have the option to dismiss recipes that don’t appeal and replace them with ones that are better suited to your tastes and preferences but that still conform to dietary needs. That eliminates potential waste and having to struggle through recipes you might not like so much, as can happen with some meal kit and prepared meal delivery services.
Black says this can result in a good value for many people. PlateJoy costs from $8 to $12 per month depending on the subscription option, which is “quite economical when compared to the cost of private consultations with a registered dietitian.”
Is It Easy to Follow?
In theory, yes. PlateJoy makes meal planning very easy to follow. However, the user has to be engaged and willing to put in some effort in order for it to work.
“Preparing meal plans with this level of customization can be labor intensive and requires a substantial amount of time” for the user in the kitchen, Black says. But “services such as PlateJoy contain a huge database of information and can use algorithms to create highly customized meal plans in seconds,” Black says, which saves the user time and money.
All told, PlateJoy is an excellent option for those looking to support better health through diet. Cost-effective and streamlined, it can reduce waste and simplify meal planning. It takes a lot of the angst out of meal planning and lets users who want to cook more at home explore tastes and recipes they might not have considered on their own, all while staying within the guidelines of whichever dietary program they’re following.
That said, the effort still comes down to the user, Black says. “The bulk of the work is being done for you, but dedicating time to shop and prepare all of your meals may require rethinking your daily schedule and traditional household duties.”
This can be a stumbling block for some people, especially those who are coming from the convenience of fast food and prepared food options. “I often find that patients start off with a high level of interest in these services, but then later provide feedback such as: ‘It was just too much effort overall, and I’m not ready for something this involved.’ Or, ‘it didn’t include all of the foods we prefer,’ or ‘with both of us working full time, we just couldn’t adhere to the time commitment.'”
It’s important to remember that “no system will be perfect,” he says, and making a lasting commitment to your health and better nutrition should require some initiative on your part. Online meal planning resources such as PlateJoy can be part of that journey and can “relieve most of the workload associated with meal planning and preparing meals at home.”
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