{insert meal here} Composite Recipes

I have a lot of cook books.  In fact, they have place of pride on the bookshelf next to my desk where I can easily grab them and plan out what I want to cook.  It is one of the things that inspired this entire project.  And, as I’ve been building the program, and running it on my local machine to test, and use, I’ve put in some of my favorite recipes, or new recipes that I wanted to make. Occasionally (or frequently depending on the book) I would come across a recipe that was presented as if it were two recipes, like this:


A composite recipe. That is, two or more recipes that are interdependent on each other to make a single dish. At first, I had no way to handle this other than to simply enter in all the ingredients and make sure that I made the instructions more explicit about what goes where and how much.  That can be rather painful when you’re entering a dozen recipes into a form, and slows the process down a lot.  So, instead of making the data entry more work, I made the database do more work instead!  As you can see from the above screen shot, {Insert Meal Here} does indeed support composite recipe. (incidentally you also get a peak at what the alpha version pages look like, not much yet, I know).


{insert meal here} A few of my favorite features.

Last time, I shared with you my general excitement and a very brief overview of what I’m planning for my program.  Today, I wanted to talk a little bit more about some of the features that I’m most excited about, and have garnered some of the most excitement from the people I’ve talked to about it so far. Meal Templates (or The Great Meal Wizard! ™).

Meal Templates:  One of the first things I thought of when I started writing notes for the program was Meal Templates.  In our house we frequently do things like Pizza Night, Taco Night, or Tea Party.  And that is exactly what we write on our current white board. The fun thing is, as everyone who enjoys a good pizza knows, that you can make so many different variations on these, and other sort of generic ideas. But how do you best represent that on a meal planning board?

Yes, I could easily add Pepperoni Pizza, Sausage Pizza, Meat Lovers Pizza, etc into the database until my eyes bleed.  But there’s a better way.  Computers have been walking users through complex configuration for the better part of thirty years.  Why not a wizard that takes a basic idea (Pizza Night) and walks you through the steps to put together your perfect pizza!

In the Pizza Night example, it would follow the steps similar to this:

1) Choose your dough! Sourdough? Whole wheat dough? The system would present you any recipes that are on your account tagged with Pizza Dough and allow you to choose.

2) Choose your sauce. Classic marinara or a spicy pesto? This would be the same as the previous step but for your sauces.

So far steps one and two would be exactly like the manual step of adding recipes to the database and selecting each of them individually. However on step 3

3) Toppings! This one would present you a list of dozens, or hundreds of possible toppings (including cheeses) that you might want to grace your pizza.

4) Sides, much like steps 1 and 2, here you would be given a selection of popular (or not so popular) sides to serve with your pizza. Of course, you can completely skip a side if all you want is pizza.

In each of the steps above, you would also be given the opportunity to add your own recipe to the database, where it would be safely stored for future Pizza Nights.  And when you are done with the process, the whole thing is combined into one Composite Recipe for easy reference and addition to future meals without having to go through the selection process again (if you want the same pizza again anyway).

Don’t know what a Composite Recipe is? Check back soon and I’ll talk about what they are, and why they are important.

The Plan

Even short term goals need a plan. Every week, we make a meal plan to map out our dinners for the week. Lunches are then put together with leftovers from previous evening meals. With a plan, we’re successful. We eat at home. We eat high quality, nourishing meals made of quality ingredients. And our grocery bill is rarely more than $150 for the food that makes up our meals.

How do we do this?

I’ll start with what we don’t do. We don’t buy packaged food. We don’t buy tons of detergents or other household goods. Drinks are seen as either things we can’t make or things we want one of on the way home (i.e. beer/wine and a refreshing fizzy drink). And we don’t use coupons.

What do we buy? Organic, locally sourced ingredients. Portland is lucky in that we’re even able to get our flour local, thanks to grain giant Bob’s Red Mill just a little ways south. Vegetables and fruits from the Pacific Northwest, and sometimes the exotic banana or mango to satisfy the small child. Pasture raised meats from farms an hour away or closer, from farmers that welcome their customers to the farm. Dairy and eggs from the same people.

Let me repeat myself. All the above and our grocery bills are $150 or less each week. No coupons. Very little, if anything, processed. And minimally so if it is. (Think pepperoni or ham, cheese, tortillas, and sometimes a jar of pickles)

And what is it that we do?

We make 90% or more of what we eat. And we start the process by making a plan of our meals for the whole week. Look up above, at our banner. That’s our plan for this week. It’s almost always centered around dinner. Right or wrong, it’s our big meal of the day. Lunches are leftovers from dinners. Sometimes they’re changed a bit by using chicken into a soup or by adding beans. Breakfast is regular and simple. Lately, we’ve been loving this baked oatmeal recipe from Nourished Kitchen. From our menu, we write a shopping list, hit the grocery store, and don’t come back for a week.

This whole process has improved significantly since Sam started writing the Meal Planning Board. This is a piece of software that does all of this, and more. Check out the Dev Log for progress, updates, and planned and implemented features.

For us, the plan is crucial. Stick to it, and we succeed. We eat high quality, homemade food based on things we find, things we know we like, and the odd bit of nostalgia. And even during tax season, when I work 50 – 60 hour weeks and have 20 hours or so of studying for school, and try to keep up with our young son, we still stick to the plan. Our budget, and our diet, stays under control, and we’re happier and healthier for it.

Do you plan your meals for the week? Are you as obsessive as we are? Less? More?

{insert meal here} Meal Planning Board

Somewhere around the end of May, beginning of June my wife and I got a small week planner white board. The kind that people write their schedules on so everyone knows what’s going when.  For us, it was so I would remember what I was cooking when.  It was amazing! Rather than struggling to remember where I left a sheet of paper with the plan on it, it was right there on the wall. I could change what day of the week I was doing my zucchini fritters with the faux croque madame.

And for a while that was good enough.  But I still had to generate a shopping list and schedule the meal plan before I put it onto the white board.  And I often found myself starting two or three shopping lists during the week with things that I know I’ll need when I go to the grocery store (only to lose them, or forget that I already made them). I wanted to be able to pull a standard recipe out at a moment’s notice and have it ready to go! (like my mom’s blank recipe book that she filled with family favorite recipes).

So, I turned to Google. I turned to forums. I turned to blogs. Nowhere could I find the tool that would do the things that I wanted, that I needed.  There are plenty of tools out there for aggregating recipes. More that make a shopping list for you. And even programs that help you with meal scheduling. But all three? No. While I looked into an abyss of searches for a program that didn’t exist, I kept thinking of more features that I wanted! Nowhere was the tool I was dreaming up to be found!

Fortunately, though I am an airhead, I’m also programmer, and I knew just what to do.  So one sleepless night, when there was no one to talk to and TV felt redundant and dull, I pulled up my IDE (that’ programmer talk for a very fancy text editor) and started writing code.  A lot of code.  I built a database, I wrote control logic, I built HTML templates.  And slowly a virtual white board started coming together.  And a shopping list.  And a recipe aggregator.

Right now, it’s still just a prototype. Right now, it’s running locally on my machine, and a few select testers to help me flesh out the feature set. I want to get this right. I want to share with you this wonderful tool that is in my mind, so that together we can explore new recipes.