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Meal Planning

Fall 2016 | Course: User Research Method, CMU

During coursework for a class "User Research Methods", my project was focused on how to make meal planning a breeze by organizing your week. Over 2 months, I observed, interviewed, and conducted tests with my target audience - college students. The process and its outcomes are listed below.

When it comes to Meal Planning...

When to cook

How to cook

How to save money

What to buy

When it comes to meal planning, people always spend so much time on figuring out what to buy, how to cook it, when to cook it, and how to save money. It is exhausting in and of itself. For me, I usually have no specific meal planning in advance when I go to a grocery store. I like food and cooking, so I always buy lots of ingredients. However, due to last minute changes in recipes and chaotic schedules, some ingredients I have no time to cook always turn bad, so I have to throw them in the trash bin. Therefore, the issue I want to understand is that how to make meal planning a breeze by organizing your week. Planning meals in advance can not only save budget but also avoid a waste of food.

The key stakeholders are identified as college

students who come in direct contact with the

kitchen often, and most of them will consider

a limited budget when they go to grocery store.

Stakeholder Map












  • Creating innovative products and services aimed at a mass audience might not be acceptable in the market.

  • College students are the most interactive with meal planning since they are busy to cook and have a limited budget, which means a good meal planning is very useful for them.

  • College student is the group that is more likely to be an early adopter of new technology so increases the possibility of using recipe apps.

  • A limited budget

  • Chaotic schedules

  • Last minute changes in recipes

  • No specific meal planning in advance

Ingredients turns bad

Throw to trash bin and waste food

Research Methods

Inquiry & Interview

A 30 minute interview was conducted with 5 participants where they were asked relevant questions about buying behavior, ingredients, and cooking decisions made during the process. The purpose of doing the interview is to get basic cooking information from college students and to know the issues of meal planning and the budget.


  • It is difficult to control impulse spending even people have a rough meal plan in their mind.

  • Most people never think about how they can keep the ingredients fresh longer but want to know when the ingredients will expire.


Observation is a systematic data collection approach. I use all of my senses to examine people in natural settings or naturally occurring situations. In order to understand that how they engaged in a social situation, I observed two graduate students who were going to grocery store. During the shopping process, neither of them used a physical shopping list but they did have a rough list in their mind.


  • Having a shopping list in mind cannot save too much time since people are still distracted by the things they forget to add on their rough list.

  • People prefer to buy more frozen food than they actual need for one week, because frozen food is not easy to turn bad.

  • They would like to get recipes by asking others when they see ingredients they have never seen or cooked before.

Co-design Activity

The co-design activities can support different levels of participation. The purpose of my co-design activities is to engage real world users in design activities in order to uncover new ideas, priorities, and information of "How do people plan their meals during one week and accommodate their diets". Therefore, I conducted one hour co-design activities with 3 participants and got some important insights below.


  • Some people buy frozen food in the greatest bulk because they want to save time for cooking

  • People like to cook with friends to share their meals

  • When people eat alone, they just a eat simple or single meal. When they eat with others, they have many options

Domain Survey

Do you plan your meal in advance for the week?

Will you make a shopping list before you go to grocery store?

Total number of responses: 33

In order to gather broader insights from a larger number of people, an online survey was distributed to college students who come in direct contact with the kitchen often, and who would consider a limited budget when they go to grocery store. The online survey includes 14 questions about shopping list, cooking behavior, meal planning and recipes, etc.  


  • For people who do not plan their meals in advance, it happens a lot to them that ingredients are wasted every week.

  • For people plan their meals in advance, most of them do not eat something different every meal every day, which means their plan put a somewhat limitation to their creative side.

  • Fresh ingredients such as vegetables go bad quickly is one reason that people cannot avoid food wastes every week.

  • Check refrigerator periodical is necessary since some people always forget what they bought at the grocery store or forget to use the ingredient in time.

Criteria of a Successful Solution 

Must have

  • Multiple functions 

  • Meets customers’ needs

  • User centered

Could have

  • Additional features

  • Plain language

Should have

  • A good interface or an appropriate aesthetic

  • Minimum errors

  • Clear instructions

This research is aim to help the researcher to better understanding how to help people plan their meals for a week. Based on the research, we can see that most the of college students would not plan their meals for their weeks in advance. They always wasted their ingredients, so instead some of them buy frozen food in the greatest bulk. So if there is a solution to help them plan their meals in advance, such as smart meal planning calendar, or a product that can tell them the expiry date of the ingredient, that would be really helpful for less impulsive buying and food wasting.

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