November 19, 2013 at 1:00 am

Maureen Tisdale

Let's Talk Food: Ziplist, and how do you plan and shop?

Ziplist.com isn't perfect, but it is helpful. (ziplist.com)

“You really need to see how Jessica gets her cooking done,” her husband Kirk told me. I’d stopped by their home one Saturday morning to return two finally emptied bins of hand-me-downs they gave us for our son.

Jessica was out and about, and Kirk had just read my Let’s Talk Food on early-morning cooking. These friends — also working parents of young children — related to that, as well as the batch-cooking I’d written about before that. And, Kirk said, Jessica had a great tool for planning and shopping.

So another week when they were both home, I went by to see and chat about what they had going on. Let me tell you, that morning was a blast — I stayed just shy of a couple of hours and got several columns (including the German Apple Pancake Kirk made while I was there) out of that visit full of ideas, laughter and connection with old friends.

Part of Jessica’s system is Ziplist.com, which she uses to help coordinate her planning and shopping. Since I’m frustrated with my own homegrown system, I’m hoping Ziplist — and other ideas from readers and elsewhere — can aid my efficiency going into the super-busy holiday season.

Jessica learned about Ziplist while checking out Onceamonthmeals.com while looking into different ways of cooking ahead. But cooking a month’s work of food over one weekend was a nonstarter for Jessica.

“I have opted to cook each weekend, as I just cannot eat frozen food all of the time,” she said. (Maureen thought: That kind of cooking is a great idea for special situations like right after a baby arrives, though.)

So Jessica moved on to Ziplist. With Ziplist, she explained, you save recipes from Ziplist or other websites by clicking a “Recipe Clipper” button you add to your toolbar, or by adding your own. The site automatically creates an ingredient list from a recipe — handily divided by things you’re likely to need and staples you may not — so you can click on what to add to your grocery list(s) directly from the site.

If you get the mobile app (which is free on the App Store, Google Play and more), you can sync your account on your computer and phone. Then, on your phone, you can pull the list up while shopping and click on an item as you get it, sending it off the screen to a “cart” area (at the end, you hit “checkout” and that list is cleared).

Plus, with phones synced, if Jessica needs to add something later from the home computer or her phone, it automatically uploads to Kirk’s list on his phone if he’s doing the shopping.

“It’s made (shopping) easier — and improved communication,” Jessica said.

It’s easy to re-create a list in the future; once you’ve had an item in your list, it remains in “list history,” where items are easy to click on and pull onto a new list.

You also can tag recipes — for example, as “Thanksgiving” or “brunch” — to find them more easily later. You also can filter, they explained, by recipe creator or publisher, number of ingredients, time, rating, servings.

Nowadays, Jessica has so many recipes on there the website has become a necessity rather than a luxury.

“If Ziplist goes away, my life is ended,” Jessica says — maybe only half joking.

I’ll admit I was a bit intimidated at first — I’m about as tech-savvy as I am gifted at cooking meat — but it wasn’t hard once I got past my nervousness about trying something new.

There's a lot to like about the site

Ziplist automatically organizes your shopping list by common store aisles and sections like produce, meats, bread & baked goods, etc. This is a great alternative to me making a list by dish then reordering it to make my shopping trip more efficient.

If you don’t purchase something, you can leave it on your list for next week by not clicking on it. For example, Saturday Meijer was out of the cookie dough I need to make another batch of Aunt Bev’s Pillsbury Bake-Off contenders I wrote about recently. I left it on the list to get this week.

You can add recipes yourself — even for non-recipe foods. A lot of our common meals aren’t so much dishes as simple go-tos like turkey sandwiches or hummus-carrot wraps for my husband’s lunch; adding these as “recipes” (keeping each item needed on a separate line) let me have an easily accessible list of ingredients for future shopping lists.

That said, Ziplist has its flaws

Recipes don’t always save correctly. The Recipe Clipper is fairly ingenious; it even worked on Let’s Talk Foods. But I quickly learned it doesn’t always save them right. One LTF recipe saved with the title “Puzzles and Games,” assumedly because that was elsewhere on the page. Also, in a previous Let’s Talk Food, reader Matt Turner gave a link to an enchilada dish I want to hold on to. The recipe clipper originally only picked up some ingredients. I could copy and paste the missing ingredients, though, so be sure to check and fix the recipe if needed as you squirrel it away.

The My Meal Planner is limited. I’m batch-cooking in advance and planning meals for three people sometimes in three different places. I need a visual overview of the week in one place — sometimes not just by recipe — and Ziplist’s Meal Planner didn’t seem to help me here.

So while cool, Ziplist is not a comprehensive system for me. I will continue to play with it for recipe collection and shopping, but I’m still on the hunt for great planning tools.

And by the by, if you’re also cooking for a family — or holiday shopping for someone who is — check out Saturday’s cookbook giveaway. All the cookbooks are family-friendly, and as a bonus to the uber-busy, you don’t even have to comment to double your chances — and you have until Dec. 1 to enter.

Meanwhile, this isn’t the last you’ll hear of Kirk and Jessica; stayed tuned for columns on planning recipes with duplicate ingredients and most fun of all, husbands in the kitchen.

What are your tips, tricks and suggestions for meal, recipe and shopping planning? We’d love to hear about ’em in the comments below the recipe. You need a Facebook account to add comments, but they’re easy to sign up for, and free. Over the next few days, Detroit News Food Editor Maureen Tisdale will respond to comments or questions. You also can follow her on Twitter @reentiz. Join the discussion!