Meal Bandit: The reality and the dream

Warning: This post might get techy, but I encourage you to read on anyway even if you don’t know MIPS from bean dips.

I hope you’ve noticed the new Upcoming Dinners feature over in the sidebar (if you’re reading this post via RSS, please click through to the real site and have a look). I put it up yesterday. It looks pretty snazzy, I must say, but it barely required any work. The data comes from my calendar on 30 Boxes which is by far the best web-based calendar of the jillion out there (and believe me–I’ve tried Trumba, AirSet, SpongeCell, Kiko, Planzo, and some calendars with even stupider names.)

How did I do it? I added some upcoming dinners to my calendar (which is also full of exciting things like meetings and babysitting), gave them a tag (“dinner”), and then created a custom badge showing the next five events with the “dinner” tag. Then I edited the HTML a little bit. It took less than ten minutes. It was fun. The future is now.

Why did I do it? I figured if the whole world was watching me plan meals, it would (a) deter me from trying to come up with dinner at 4pm, and (b) push me to try more new stuff for dinner rather than always falling back on old favorites like salmon cakes and sausages and grapes, tasty as they are. Oops, we had sausages and grapes this week, along with some toast that I brushed with olive oil and let Iris scrape with a clove of garlic.

Why does this fill me with emptiness even as I am filled with sausages, grapes, and toast? Because it’s only the first step in fulfilling a dream that may never come true. The name of the dream is Meal Bandit.

I’m curious about what people eat. Not just memorable meals, but day to day stuff. I can’t be the only one. People are buying Tucker Shaw’s book, Everything I Ate, which chronicles everything he ate in 2004. With photos. Here’s what Shaw told Gothamist about why he did it:

Food magazines are like fashion magazines: They celebrate what’s beautiful, new, or unusual, but very rarely report on what people really wear or eat. If people in the future rely on current food-related media, they’ll think that we eat nothing but ramps and pork bellies all day. Or McDonald’s and Chips Ahoy and low-carb cupcakes. The truth is much broader.

Actually, I could eat ramps and pork bellies all day, but that’s beside the point. Aside from the purely voyeuristic element, hearing about what other people are making for dinner gives me ideas for what to cook myself.

And if Everything I Ate is a niche item, Hungry Planet is a legitimate bestseller. If you haven’t seen it, the idea is simple. A photographer travels the world and talks families into setting out a full week’s worth of food so he can take a picture. It’s an utter page-turner. I believe the mother of the Greenlandic family said her favorite food was fermented narwhal. I’m serious. One of the things I noticed is that the dietitians may be right: to me, the most appetizing diets are the most colorful. The families I really felt sorry for, rich and poor, were the ones that didn’t display an assortment of fresh vegetables. Now, could you please pass the narwhal?

Another way to see what people are eating for dinner is to look at the mighty eGullet dinner thread, the most popular thread on this food discussion site by several orders of magnitude. It was started in 2002 by a user named Priscilla, who wrote, “I am (perhaps inordinately) interested in what folks cook in their own kitchens.”

She got an answer or two. Actually, as of this writing, she has 13,679 answers. People post their dinners on the thread (which runs 456 pages) every single day. Just yesterday, someone named Nina C. made her very first eGullet post, about her dinner of spinach ravioli with goat cheese and green onion with black olive butter sauce and pecorino romano from Mario Batali’s latest book.

The trouble with the eGullet dinner thread (which, don’t get me wrong, is awesome) is that it’s extremely hard to navigate. If you want to see only the dinner-related posts of a certain user, there’s no easy way to do that as far as I know. It’s also skewed toward the kind of food-savvy people who post on eGullet.

Enter the Bandit

Meal Bandit, a product I invented, a product that doesn’t exist, provides another way to plan and share what you eat. Simply put, it’s a specialized sharable web calendar. You can plan out future breakfasts, lunches, and dinners (or, if you’re not the planning type, you can enter meals after you eat them). You can then, if you like, tag your meals like you tag your photos on Flickr. If you’re making samosas (or getting them for take-out), you can tag them as “indian, fried”. If you’ve entered your city or zip code in your profile page, your meals will automatically be geographically tagged. That means if you want to find out what kind of Thai dishes people are cooking in 98102, you can easily search for that. (Answer: larb.)

Meal Bandit will not be a way to exchange recipes. There are already tons of sites like that. You will be able to specify the source (URL or name of a book or magazine) of a dish, though, and leave comments on other people’s meals asking for more information. There will also be a way to give props to meals that sound great, and then see popular meals. If you are a guy, getting your home-cooked meals onto the Meal Bandit top ten list will be a guaranteed way to meet women.

Of course, there will be ubiquitous feeds. Every search will return an RSS feed, like on Craigslist. There will be webcal feeds so you can put your own meals onto Apple’s iCal or any other calendar that supports the iCalendar format–including 30 Boxes. And like 30 Boxes (and many other sites), Meal Bandit will produce HTML or Flash badges that you can put on your blog or Myspace page. Like this one, from Australia:

div.thirtyBoxes .eventItem {margin-left:10px; text-indent:-10px;} div.thirtyBoxes .eventDate {font-size:10px; } div.thirtyBoxes .eventSummary {color:#666; font-size:10px; } div.thirtyBoxes .header {font-weight: bold; margin-bottom: 6px; } div.thirtyBoxes .footer {margin-top: 6px; background-color: #eee; font-weight: bold; font-size: 10px; text-align: right }

Upcoming dinners
Apr 8: shrimps on the barbie
Apr 9: shrimps on the barbie
Apr 10: shrimps on the barbie

As with Flickr, if you don’t want to share with the whole world, Meal Bandit will allow you to keep your meals private or share them only with your friends. But if the last couple of years on the web has taught us anything, it’s that people are willing to share everything online. I guess once the masses understood that it was safe to pay by credit card on the web, it was a short line from there to uploading naked pictures of yourself. Sharing what you eat for dinner is pretty tame compared to the average LiveJournal.

In principle, you could do pretty much all of this stuff with a site like Eventful or Upcoming.org. But those sites are really geared toward public events, so a site that filtered out all the non-meal noise would be more fun.

I want to know what people are eating in Ireland, India, and Iceland. Don’t you? Let’s have a look at the current state of Meal Bandit:

http://www.mealbandit.com/

It’s kind of sad that the holding page was smart enough to figure out that the word “meal” is in there, but not the word “bandit.” Are there really no good bandit-related searches? Anyway, it turns out my web programming skills are stuck in 1999. Anyone need a CGI script written in Perl? Didn’t think so.

I bought a book about Ruby on Rails, which is the hippest web programming environment of the moment, but there’s just no way I’m going to code this puppy up myself. So I’m asking for your help. Are you the kind of person who wants to work on a fun web application in your spare time for no pay? Join the Meal Bandit team. I don’t care where in the world you are, as long as you love food and can code RoR. I will head up the UI part. We will get a Basecamp account and go to town. Let’s slap this together and get bought by Google (or Epicurious) at the end of the summer.

If you think Meal Bandit sounds like fun and have any feature ideas or think I’ve gotten part of it wrong, please leave a comment.

Oh, incidentally, here are some names I rejected: Foodpad, Dinner Demon, Eatpad, Dinnr.

12 thoughts on “Meal Bandit: The reality and the dream

  1. L

    Ah, too bad you couldn’t get Dinnr! That would have been perfect.

    I think this sounds like a blast. I am not a RoR expert, so if you find one of those, you should probably go for it. That said, I’m getting pretty handy with PHP, I’ve certainly got a bit of experience in the software industry, and I’ve can make spare time.

  2. L

    oh, and thanks for the tip on 30 boxes. I use Trumba right now, and it’s ok… but has it’s issues. 30 boxes looks cool.

  3. katre

    “If you want to see only the dinner-related posts of a certain user, there‚Äôs an easy way to do that as far as I know.”

    Do you mean “no easy way”?

    Also, check out Ning.com, seriously. It’s supposedly a way to create social web apps quickly, with tagging and RSS and whatnot, so it sounds like exactly what you want.

  4. mamster Post author

    Thanks for the correction, katre. I’ll fix it right now. L, the reason I’m leaning toward RoR is not just that it’s the flavor of the month, but I really like the apparent maintainability of the code; I feel like I could actually work with the code myself, whereas I’m always more nervous doing that with PHP code.

    Of course, Roots and Grubs runs on PHP, so.

  5. L

    Yeah, I think RoR is probably the right way to go… I was just saying if you don’t find an expert, I could probably get up to speed pretty quickly if I put my mind to it…

  6. Liza

    I saw the Ning people give a demo and it probably is a lot of what you want, although not if what you want is an excuse to say “powered by Ruby on Rails!” But yeah, the disappointment in the room was palpable when they said, “And it’s in PHP!”

  7. Kathy Ramsey

    I don’t know nuthin’ about birthin’ no websites. But I would like to know about the sausages and grapes recipe.

    For some reason the last name Shaw sent a shiver through me and I got all tensed up, but then I realized it was a different Shaw and I relaxed a little.

  8. Neil

    Marlene! (sorry Kathy, I couldn’t resist ;-)

    Now all you need, Mathew, is a way for me to make reservations to eat your upcoming dinners.

  9. Heather

    ooh! you should totally have THIS: go to etsy.com, and check out all the trippy shopping options on the left… you can shop for stuff by color, and all other kinds of badass, timesuck fabulous options!!!

    (see how un-tech-savvy i am? i can’t even do the linky thing. :( )

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