How to make a meal planning app without coding or breaking the bank

Do you want to launch a meal planning membership and need the tools to make it a success? Or maybe you already have one, but your customers are asking for features that you can't offer?

Whatever the reason, a diet and nutrition app tailored to the needs of your clients and community can be a winning solution.

The problem?

It’s a bit of a minefield if you’re not experienced in software development. But fortunately, there are options.

In this guide you’ll learn how to design your app and five options you can use to build it, even if you’re a technophobe and don’t have thousands in the bank.


Designing your app

Step 1. Define the goal of your app

Step 2. List the must-have features

Step 3. Design your app

Step 4. Test your assumptions

Step 5. List any additional requirements

Time to build — but which option should you choose

How much can I expect to pay?

Fixed price vs. per-hour contracts: which is best?

Option 1. Hire a developer

Option 2. Hire an agency

Option 3. Build it yourself with no-code

Option 4. Hire a ‘no code’ freelancer or agency

Option 5. Try a done-for-you solution


Designing your app

Before you build anything, you need to know what it will do. Here’s how:

Step 1. Define the goal of your app

Ask yourself, what problem is it solving for you and/or your customers?

It’s important to answer this before you jump into building your app, as everything comes back to this. Even better if you can ask potential users what problems they most want solved.

For example, a common issue we hear is that recipes end up buried several layers deep inside a website, and they are PDFs. Awkward to handle, tough to navigate, and not intuitive: users can’t annotate them, and they often can’t even find them.

Equally, it could be to solve a problem you’re facing. For example, you might be tired of spending your Sunday evenings creating meal plans for your coaching clients (which are 80% cut-and-paste anyway) and want an easier solution.

These are all ‘Jobs-to-be-Done‘, in the words of Tony Ullwick and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.

People are a lot less interested in a product or service, or even in the long-term outcome, than in the task they’re trying to achieve right now. So, you need to get to the root of the problem.

Step 2. List the must-have features

Next, create a list of features your app must have. These features should be the answers to the problems defined in step one.

If you’re working with a time limit or on a budget, it’s time to take your list of jobs-to-be-done to MoSCoW.


MoSCoW is a prioritization method that helps you clarify what to focus on first. Which of the 'jobs-to-be-done' is most important to your customers?

For example, we often hear that a search function is near the top of users’ priorities, and so is the ability to mix and match and substitute meals in meal plans. Identify the ‘Must-Haves’ and put your focus there.

The temptation at this stage is to add things that seem like a good idea. It’s better to build something simple that works and delivers real value; you can add more functionality later, once you have some users.

If in doubt, leave it out!

Step 3. Design your app

Once you have a list of the most important features, you can create an outline of the main screens and how they flow together.

This is called 'wireframing'.

It can be rough — sketching with a pencil and paper is fine — and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Take inspiration from similar apps that you know work well and apps you use on a daily basis.

Copying an interface that’s already familiar to users is an advantage, because they’ll intuitively know what to do — just like you do when you see a hamburger menu, or the generic forward-and-back arrows in a web browser.

If you fancy trying a design tool, things like MarvelApp allow you to create designs with a small learning curve. You can even import your hand-drawn sketches instead of designing in the tool.

[Prototyping tools help you create a basic design for your app without much prior experience.]

If this is beyond you, or you just don’t have time, you can always hire a freelancer on a marketplace site like UpWork.

Just don’t overdo it. At this stage, the aim is just enough to know what to build. You’re looking for a sketch, not an oil painting.

Step 4. Test your assumptions

Getting feedback at this stage will save you A LOT of headaches later on. What you’re trying to do is test any big assumptions.

For example, does your app really need a customisable shopping list? And can users find their way around?

If it’s important, assume you’re wrong and find out for sure before you invest time and money.

Ideally, you'll share a basic prototype with people and get feedback.

Tools like Marvel App can help you create a clickable prototype based on your sketches. UsabilityHub is another tool that can help with testing designs and finding willing participants.

[Tools like UsabilityHub allow you to set tasks, ask questions and see where people clicked during testing]

If you don’t have a clickable prototype, try creating a video explaining how the app will work and invite questions, or just talk a friend through your design.

The point is — try to get some relevant feedback at this stage.

Step 5. List any additional requirements

Will your app be something that people download onto their phones (a mobile app) or something they can access via a website (a web app)?

Which devices and screen sizes does it need to be optimised for?

These are the types of questions a developer or agency will want to know before building anything.

List any requirements that you know of. Don’t worry if you’re not sure at this stage, you can add to the list later.

Time to build — but which option should you choose?

Once you’ve designed your app, it’s time to build it. The question is — which option is right for you?

One key criterion is price.

As a rule, you’re going to trade off time against money: do-it-yourself solutions cost much less but take much longer, while a full-service agency might get the job done fast and securely but at significant cost.

The other trade-off is between price and guaranteed success.

Pay an agency top dollar, and you’ll get a good-looking app that works. Hire a freelance developer and you'll pay less, but you might find things don't go as smoothly.

So, how much money are we talking about here?

How much can I expect to pay?

It really depends. If you’re getting someone else to build your app then anything from $10,000 - $25,000 (USD) should be doable, depending on what you want and whether you’re working with a freelancer or an agency.

But remember to budget for on-going costs for maintenance and enhancements, not just the initial build. (At Member Kitchens we have spent more money developing our software SINCE we launched.)

If you’re planning to do some or all of the work yourself (we’ll explain how later, even if you don’t code) then the financial cost will be a lot lower but the amount of time you’ll need to invest will be higher.

Alternatively, consider a done-for-you tool instead of developing your own app from scratch — it can be a way to get good results fast without breaking the bank.

Fixed price vs. per-hour contracts: which is best?

Software development is tricky and there are always requirements that are missed upfront and need to be changed later.

So, be wary of anyone offering you a fixed price to build your app unless you are crystal clear about what you need.

If you do opt for a fixed-price deal, make sure you agree in advance about what happens when requirements change.

Per-hour contracts offer a lot more flexibility, but you might be worried about costs spiralling.

It’s especially fraught if you don’t have any development experience, and struggle to judge whether time is being used efficiently or not.

My favourite?

A blended approach — agree a budget for the initial build and a fee structure for any changes and enhancements, which could be per hour, per feature, or both.

This approach has several benefits: it focusses your efforts on the 'Must-Haves' features (a.k.a. the 'Minimum Viable Product'), helping you to keep a handle on your budget.

And it gives you the flexibility to change things when you get feedback from your customers, or hit a constraint.

Option 1. Hire a developer

If you’re pretty clear on what you want to build then hiring a developer can be a cost-effective option.

You can find a range of people and skill sets on freelance marketplaces like UpWork. Ask around for recommendations too.

[Freelance marketplace websites can be a great place to find coders for your project]

The programming languages and technologies that a developer will use will depend on your requirements (e.g. mobile app vs.web app) and their preferences.

Go into the process with an idea of budget and timescale, though leave yourself some wiggle room.

Get at least three quotes, and be sure to ask a lot of questions.

Questions to ask a developer:

  • How would they develop your app and why?
  • What happens once the initial build is completed, for example, who will support it and how much will it cost?
  • What happens if you want to add a new feature in future?
  • How will you review and give feedback on work in progress?
  • What examples of similar work experience can they share?
  • Who owns the intellectual property? (This should be you)

Look for someone who you feel comfortable with and communicates well. Regular, open discussion is important to ensure what is delivered meets your expectations.

Option 2. Hire an agency

Hiring an agency gives you a little more security, knowing there are more senior colleagues and specialists to step in if a developer finds a problem they can’t solve.

But agencies are more expensive than solo developers. Which raises the question: do you need it?

Businesses turn to agencies for flagship apps involving complex original code and design. If that’s what it takes to answer your customer’s problems, then it’s the right choice for you.

But in many cases, the majority of functionality is shared across apps. Branding differs, some special features stand out, but the basis of the app is the same. Don’t reinvent the wheel.


If you’re considering working with an agency, ask the same questions you’d ask to a developer, plus anything you’d like to know about the agency.

A lot of software agencies will have a formal scoping phase, which makes fixed price deals a little more reliable. They’ll often have formally defined working practices too, which they’re happy to explain to you.

Again, ask around for recommendations and check out freelance marketplaces, as a lot of small-to-medium-sized agencies offer their services there.

If you have a large budget, companies like MVP Factory can staff full development teams for your project.

Option 3. Build it yourself with ‘no code’

Did you know, there are tools that allow you to build an app without writing a line of code?

Granted, there is still a learning curve, and there can be drawbacks in the long run: you won’t have as clean a codebase, meaning potentially higher loading times, and you might have to make do with a restricted feature set.

But it’s far easier than learning to code from scratch, much cheaper than hiring someone, and your customers probably won’t even notice.

What’s more, working this way doesn’t close off other options — you can build your own no-code app, roll it out, get customer feedback, and build the second version with a developer or agency.

For web apps, Bubble is amongst the most popular no-code tools and takes care of everything (hosting, databases, workflows, user interface) all in one.

[No code tools allow you to build complex apps and websites even if you can’t code]

Tools like Draftbit are great for mobile apps. There’s a visual builder that lets you see how your app will be laid out as you construct it, and lets you work at your own preferred level of detail.

[Tools like Draftbit allow you to create mobile apps without coding]

And there are tons more; Makerpad maintains a comprehensive list of different ‘no code’ tools and tutorials to get started.

Side note: this is how the idea for Member Kitchens came about. Back in 2019, I created a meal planning app called Almost Vegan using a no-code tool. It took about three months and $650 to learn how to use Bubble and get the first version of the app into customer’s hands.

Option 4. Hire a ‘no code’ freelancer or agency

As well as ‘no code’ tools, there are ‘no code’ freelancers and agencies who specialize in using these tools to build apps.

Depending on what you’re looking to build, it can be faster (some agencies claim up to 10 times faster) and cheaper than traditional methods, but not always — so shop around.

If you have some budget and you want a solution fast, this is a good place to start even if you then transition to a more complex custom solution later.

Many of the no-code tools list freelancers and agencies on their own websites. No Code List maintains a list of no-code agencies too, which allows you to filter by tool.

Option 5. Try a done-for-you solution

If the up-front cost of hiring a developer or agency is putting you off, or you don’t have the time to learn how to build it with a no-code tool, then you could try a done-for-you solution.

For a flat monthly fee, you can outsource all of the technical, time-consuming aspects, allowing you to focus on what you do best — serving your community.

There are even white-label tools that will let you apply your own branding and design and insert your own content, so to users it just looks like it’s yours.

Choosing among these should be on the same basis as you’d create a scope with an agency or developer: look for the must-haves first.

That Clean Life, for example, provides an elegant solution that offers comprehensive meal planning functionality for you, but has limited functionality for your customers and isn't fully white-label.

Member Kitchens is a white-label solution that’s designed for scalable nutrition programs. It offers similar meal planning functionality as That Clean Life but with the ability for your customers to login to a custom-branded app, view recipes, edit their plans, and more.

[White-label meal planning software allows you to bypass the design and building steps]

The focus is on putting control in your hands and your customers’, with often-requested features like recipe search and customizable meal plans as standard.

There are custom portion sizes and interactive shopping lists to put control of their health in your customers’ hands, and search filters that include dietary requirements and intolerances.

And it works on any device, and it’s fully branded and customizable so as far as your audience knows, it’s your app.


So, now you know how to get your own recipe and meal planning app.

Will you build it yourself? Start looking for developers? Sign an agency up to build you something unique, beautiful, and expensive? Or opt for a white-label tool?

It's in your hands.

Still undecided? Here's a good rule of thumb:

If you have requirements that are super-specific to the needs of your audience or business, and have the budget, then look at hiring a developer or agency to build a custom app.

If you have specific requirements but no budget, then do-it-yourself might be the only option.

But remember, in either case, the initial development effort is only the tip of the iceberg. You’ll be responsible for the upkeep too, which might not be a tech-headache you want.

If on the other hand, the features you need from a meal planning app are similar to what’s already out there - and the secret sauce is in your recipes and nutritional advice - then you’re probably better off checking out a done-for-you solution like Member Kitchens.