Can Artificial Intelligence help with meal planning?

Sarah meal planning

For anyone wanting to take some stress away from mealtimes, save time and energy, eat better, reduce waste and feel more in control of their day, meal planning is most definitely a brilliant place to start.

But, despite knowing the benefits and being committed to doing some planning, getting going is most often the stumbling block my clients face. There are many reasons why they find this step the most challenging and why there is a resistance to putting pen to paper. Because I believe that meal planning can help everyone and there are many ways to approach it, I have supported each and every one of them to get over their own, personal hurdle and find a way that works for them.

I’m always keen to learn new tricks to add to my toolkit to help my clients so when Artificial Intelligence tools such as ChatGPT became all the rage, I began investigating ways in which AI might help my clients.

How AI works for meal planning

AI uses algorithms and machine learning techniques to analyse vast amounts of data to provide you with the information you seek, and it can do it incredibly rapidly. In order to provide you with this information, you first need to write a brief, telling the AI what it is you would like to know. This is a bit like doing a Google search but with AI, the more detailed the brief the better the output. You can also refine the brief further to improve the output once you have received a response to your request.

When it comes to meal planning, a brief might read:

Write me a budget meal plan for seven days of evening meals for a family of four. To include two vegetarian meals, one oily-fish based meal, one meal including white fish or prawns and three meat-based meals. To include a minimum of two vegetables with each meal, using a variety of vegetables across the week, and pulses twice in the week.

From this, the AI algorithms will generate a meal plan tailored to your brief.

The benefits of using AI for meal planning

By far the biggest benefit of using AI for meal planning is the time it could save you. Even as an experienced meal planner with all the tricks of the trade up my sleeve, meal planning for the whole month will still take me around one hour. The meal plans I requested were with me within a matter of seconds and, after spending some time honing the brief, the resulting plan wasn’t too bad.

Day 1: Meat-Based Main Dish: Spaghetti Bolognese (using ground beef or turkey) Side 1: Garlic Bread Side 2: Mixed Green Salad
Day 2: Vegetarian Main Dish: Vegetarian Chili (with beans and veggies) Side 1: Cornbread Side 2: Coleslaw
Day 3: Oily-Fish Based Main Dish: Baked Mackerel with Lemon and Herbs Side 1: Garlic Roasted Potatoes Side 2: Steamed Green Beans
Day 4: White Fish or Prawns Main Dish: Lemon Butter Garlic Shrimp or Baked Cod Side 1: Quinoa Pilaf with Peas Side 2: Roasted Carrots
Day 5: Meat-Based Main Dish: Chicken Stir-Fry with Mixed Vegetables Side 1: Steamed Broccoli Side 2: Brown Rice
Day 6: Vegetarian Main Dish: Lentil and Vegetable Soup Side 1: Crusty Bread Side 2: Greek Salad
Day 7: Meat-Based Main Dish: BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches (or BBQ Jackfruit for vegetarians) Side 1: Coleslaw Side 2: Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges

In a follow-up request, I asked for a shopping list for this meal plan. A full list of ingredients was supplied, broken down into sections for proteins, grains and starches, vegetables, herbs and spices, dairy and eggs and other ingredients. It didn’t however give any indication of how much I need to buy or link to any recipes so I could work that out for myself. I was pleased to see, though, a friendly reminder to check what I already have in stock before heading to the shops!

If you’re one of the many people I talk to who are stuck in a rut with their meals, AI could support you to introduce new meals into your repertoire without the need to trawl through recipe books or online recipe sites. Be aware though that if you follow up your response with a request for a recipe for one of the suggested meals, despite requesting results from UK sites and my settings stating that I am in the UK, ChatGPT did still give me American recipes.

Would I switch to AI for meal planning?

Whilst I was pleasantly surprised by the results of my experiments, I’ll be sticking to doing my own planning!

Yes, it was quick to provide me with a meal plan, but it took me a long while to hone the brief and I would need to refine it further to get meal results which are more in line with the food we like to eat and to get links to recipes so that the shopping list was provided with quantities needed.

It also doesn’t factor in using up ingredients across the week to reduce waste, needing a separate meal on certain days for the children to work around clubs, know what I have in the fridge and freezer to use up, recognise where efficiencies might lie in terms of my energy use and time spent in the kitchen, or how to ensure there are accepted foods on the table for my children who might find some meals challenging. I only requested evening meals here too, but we all know that there are more meals in a day that just dinner.

I’m not averse though to recommending that clients, where I feel it will be helpful, give AI a go. I have also used it and will continue to use it myself, on occasion, to support me in my planning, for example, when struggling for ideas of what to serve with a main dish.

Can AI revolutionise the way we approach meal planning?

Whilst I don’t believe that AI will revolutionise the world of meal planning, for some people, it could be one of many really useful tools in helping them overcome the barriers to getting started. There are so many ways in which we can approach meal planning, the key is finding what works for you so that it is something that you can stick with long term and reap the benefits.