Menu planning: The Fresh 20.

I’m a lot better about grocery shopping and menu planning than I used to be, but my typical “plan” is the most basic possible approach. I just end up buying all the same items all the time. Onions, red bell peppers, tinned tomatoes, rice, some kind of meat. Frozen veg, some cheese, tinned beans. Eggs, tortillas, pasta. We actually do all right with this (we keep a lot of spices in the pantry and my boyfriend is more inventive than I) but it gets boring. I mean I love chili and everything but after a while it’s less “Oh! Chili!” and more “Oh. Chili,” followed by *sad trombone*.

Someone that I follow on Twitter raved about Fresh 20 and I decided to check it out. For $5 per month you get an email every Friday with a shopping list, menu plan and recipes for five dinners. You buy 20 fresh ingredients and combine those with pantry staples (spices, oils, pasta, etc.) to create healthy, simple dinners. I chose the “classic” plan for us, which includes meat, but you can also select a vegetarian or gluten free plan. The recipes yield four servings, so I scale down for the two of us. The shopping list includes cost estimates, which can vary based on cost of living/what’s seasonal where you live, but the target spend for each week’s list is $75 (again, that’s for a family of four, so adjust accordingly).

On February 8 I got my first menu and we went shopping the following day. We bought a lot of other stuff for lunches and whatnot and naturally I got rid of the receipt already so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the pricing estimates, but everything we needed to buy was easy to find. The recipes are designed to be fairly kid-friendly so if you’re not cooking for kids or if your kids have more adventurous palates, you can certainly make small adjustments in what you buy.

Our menus for the week were BBQ braised brisket with colcannon, crunchy fish sticks with parmesan potato pea puree, brisket sliders with buttered carrots, chicken and rice soup with biscuits and vegetarian cabbage rolls with tomato sauce.

My adjustments: I didn’t buy fish because we already had some frozen, and I ended up not making this meal anyway because we went out for dinner on Valentine’s Day. We decided to do more traditional pot roast rather than BBQ, and we added kale to the colcannon rather than peas and cabbage because I live with an Irish person and he refused to consider colcannon any other way (it’s better with kale anyhow). We skipped the brisket sliders and just had leftover pot roast and colcannon instead, and we served nice crusty bread with our soup rather than the biscuits, because we already had the bread.

Colcannon with kale NOT PEAS.

I was a little skeptical about the cabbage rolls, mainly because cabbage rolls, along with stuffed peppers, fall squarely into the “eh” category for me. If you put either of these things on a menu I would never ever order them, let’s put it that way. But I made them and, guess what, they were really good. My boyfriend ate three of them so I guess we will file that recipe in the “do-again” pile.

My chief complaint about the recipes is that they can be a bit perfunctory. For instance, the chicken soup recipe doesn’t make a single mention of whether you should cook the chicken breast or throw it in the pot raw. Sure, I know how to make chicken soup so this wasn’t an issue for me, but for some people it might be. The point of time- and effort-saving recipes should be that you don’t have to consult Chef Google about whether or not to cook chicken before you add it to soup. I also didn’t do any of the prep work ahead of time (which the weekly plan details for you) so the recipes took a little longer than they might have otherwise. This was purely my choice, of course. Someone with a larger family to feed would probably want to do the prep work well ahead.

Aside from that, I am pretty into Fresh 20 thus far. I like that it is so inexpensive and that the shopping lists are kept to a minimum, with things that are easy to find at most grocery stores. I also like that the recipes are healthy, but that if you don’t want to use whole wheat flour or brown rice you can certainly sub in what you prefer or have in your kitchen already. Primarily I just appreciate the variety and the simplicity—I have some great cookbooks with 30-minute recipes, but even they require a special trip to the store most of the time.

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