5 Reasons to Start Meal Planning

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“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

We’re all familiar with this old proverb, and we’ve all been there and done that. Our ideas are great, but our inability to organize ourselves properly leads us down a path we’d rather not travel on.

This is true for many things in life, but it is especially applicable when we think about our diets.

Healthy eating and eating “well” are concepts that we are constantly surrounded by. In magazines, on billboards, and when we visit our doctors office, we are forced to think about how we measure up to established standards of healthy living, whether in terms of our weight, our BMI, or our cholesterol levels.

When we go to restaurants we are now confronted by the calorie count and fat content of our food, which can make us feel bad about the choices we make.

Ultimately, we all know that we need to fuel our bodies correctly to stay healthy and strong. Thousands of studies over many decades have shown us that there is a direct link between eating well and lowering our risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, or diabetes.

Whether we are over, under, or at an “ideal” weight, we all require different things from our diets – and our food.

The one consistent thing we can all benefit from is being more organized. When it comes to our diets, that means taking the time to create a varied and healthy meal plan on a weekly basis.

Meal planning can be flexible, and it can take into account any of the dietary requirements you may have.

Whether you’re trying to lose weight, gain muscle, or cope with a dietary intolerance, organizing your meal plan will help you to feel in control of your diet and your time.

We’ve put together a definitive list of the benefits of meal planning to help you start living your best life today.

Two crisp breads topped with hummus, radish slices, and yellow bell pepper
“Those who think they have no time for healthy eating will or later to find time for illness.” – Unknown

1. It’ll save you time

If you’re always running late in the morning, or find yourself leaving work in the evening with a rumbling tummy and zero energy to cook, you’re more likely to indulge in fast food options or takeaways. After all, who doesn’t love a good delivery pizza after a long day?

Unfortunately, it’s this combination of feeling tired and hungry that is responsible for many of the bad food decisions we make on a regular basis.

Taking time to create a comprehensive meal plan takes the guesswork out of working out what to cook and needing to buy the groceries required. Though spending one afternoon or evening per week dedicated to planning and shopping for 7-days-worth of meals might not be the most fun of activities, it’ll help keep you on track and in control. What’s more, if you combine the planning and shopping for food with some actual meal preparation, you’ll have an empowering start to the week, knowing that you have good, healthy food ready to go.

Start by thinking about the meals you’d like to make, as well as how extra portions can be stored in the freezer or used in a different way at lunchtime.

Then make a shopping list – making sure you check your pantry and cupboards for any basic supplies you might be running low on. By taking inventory on a regular basis, you’ll ensure you never run out of something you need, and you’ll save yourself time by not having to go to the store again for just one or two items (which inevitably turns into three, four, or ten items…).
When you get home with your shop, do some basic preparation of fruit and vegetables. Use tupperware containers to store washed berries, chopped fruit, and frozen bananas for smoothies. Dice onions and garlic, as well as chopping up any other vegetables – carrots, cucumber, broccoli, peppers, sprouts, or tomatoes – for use in the meals you plan on making. Store those in sealed boxes or bags to keep them fresh. Spending time doing this means that, even if you can’t make the whole meal ahead of time, you’ll have everything you need to bring a meal together in minutes.

Last but not least in the time-saving category, consider investing in a slow cooker. There are slow cookers in a real range of price brackets on the market, and you can have one on your doorstep in 24 hours or less.

There are literally thousands of simple recipes for slow cookers, which work by consistently cooking food at a low temperature for up to 12 hours. Add chicken, beef, or lamb to a slow cooker with root vegetables, stock and dried herbs. Your house will smell cozy and welcoming when you get home from work, and it won’t take long to get dinner on the table.

A wooden bowl of spinach leaves on a grey background
“Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself.” – Michael Pollon

2. It’ll save you money

Avoiding those midweek takeaways and fast food stop-offs will do more than keeping your waistline trim – it’ll also save you money.

In December 2018 Bloomberg found that, while fast food has long been heralded as a cheap option, price rises at outlets like Taco Bell and McDonalds are putting them on a par with modern (healthier) farm-to-table-style chains.

While McDonalds does offer a $6 meal with a burger, fries, drink, and a pie, other menu items cost upwards of $6 or even $9 without additional side orders. Taco Bell stuffed burritos will set you back around $5 – more expensive than menu options at independent, local Mexican restaurants in certain areas of the USA.

While so-called “fast-casual” chains like Chipotle and Panera Bread might offer fresher, healthier options that fit better with the healthy eating mentality, they aren’t actually better for your wallet. Approximately one third of adults in the US eat fast food each day, which makes it unsurprising that this area of our economy is booming.

However, home cooked versions of your take-out favorites can be just as – if not considerably more – enjoyable, and while fast food prices continue to rise, market research is showing that cooking at home is actually getting cheaper.

If you love hot soup and a sandwich or a fresh burrito bowl for lunch, the good news is this: it’s easy and affordable to create these options at home.

Cooking up a batch of soup or sautéing vegetables and chicken with spices is not only healthier – you can identify and source the ingredients yourself, with no additives, and use ingredients like olive oil and butter more sparingly – but you’ll be able to generate several portions from a single spend. That $9 you spend on a burrito bowl could easily generate 3 or 4 of your own bowls – with no extra charge for guac.

Meal planning saves money in other ways, too. Ever noticed that you spend more at the grocery store when you’re hungry?

That’s because stores offer irresistible snack items at the checkout and at the end of each aisle, tempting you to buy more than you need. Creating a meal plan and writing a detailed shopping list makes it easy to focus on buying only what you need, thus saving you money that can be saved or spent elsewhere.

Sticking to our tips about preparing and storing your fruit and vegetables ready for use can also help you to really make the most of your shop. Avoid waste by using older vegetables and fruit in soup or smoothies. And don’t dismiss frozen options, either – frozen fruit and vegetables are picked and frozen at their prime, contain all of the vitamins and antioxidants of their fresh counterparts, and tend to be much cheaper than fresh.

A large pile of plump and ripe blueberries
“If you don’t have a plan and leave your food choices to chance, chances are good that those choices will stink.” – Kirsten Bentsen

3. It can help you lose weight

Whatever the motivation – an annual physical, a summer beach holiday, or a health condition – Time Magazine reported that, at any given moment, around half of Americans are actively trying to lose weight. Based on a survey carried out between 2013 and 2016, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) found that 56.4% of women and 41.7% of men said that they had been actively trying to slim down in the last 12 months.

With so many people trying to lose weight, it is unsurprising that we look for answers in online articles and magazines.

While fad diets can make you lose weight quickly, they offer unsustainable results. Dropping 5lbs for a summer holiday or big event might give you the instant outcome you need, but you won’t be able to keep the weight off long-term. The best way to achieve that is by eating a balanced, healthy diet, and staying active. The great news is – meal planning can actually help you lose weight, and sustain that loss.

Taking the time to plan your meals for the week, then creating a detailed shopping list before going to the store is a fail-safe way to ensure that you aren’t tempted to buy random (often unhealthy or processed) items. Buying only the ingredients you need for the meals you intend to make is more economical, and it’s easier to resist temptation if you don’t have treats and snacks laying around. What’s more, avoiding processed, pre-prepared meals also helps heighten your awareness of exactly what you are fuelling your body with.

While processed foods can contain additives or hidden fats, making your own food from scratch basically eliminates those. Avoiding the artificial stuff used to preserve food, as well as cutting down on the amount of fat and salt you use, are easy ways to make a healthy impact.

Planning out your week’s meals can help you reach your goals faster. The CDC advises that people who lose weight gradually and steadily (at a rate of 1 to 2 pounds per week) are more successful at keeping weight off; and they should achieve this goal by eating well and exercising regularly.

Eating well means not depriving yourself of crucial food groups, and allowing some degree of flexibility in their diet. Those who enjoy regular treats – such as the occasional takeaway, dessert, or their favorite snack – are more likely to lose weight and keep it off for good.

By planning your meals, you can take control of your diet and build in the kind of treats that keep us all going whilst losing that extra weight – pound by pound, inch by inch.

Vine tomatoes on baking paper with garlic cloves and fresh rosemary sprigs
“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.” – Tony Robbins

4. You can try new things

Most of us love to try new things, and when it comes to food, we’re at our most adventurous.

Our sense of taste has the potential to transport us back to happy moments and memories, reminding us of holidays, vacations, and our childhood. Though we love comfort food, we also like to try new things – new tastes, new recipes, and new flavors.

Our desire to try new things has led to the growth of specialty stores and the availability of imported goods. It’s just as easy to pick up the ingredients for Thai and Chinese dishes in your local grocery store as it is to buy what you need for mac and cheese. Combined with the number of recipes now available online, it’s possible for us to try new things more frequently than ever before. Even though this is the case, many of us stick to cooking the same 5 or 6 meals and cycle them around on a weekly basis.

Creating a meal plan is a great way to ensure that you try new recipes and tastes. Sitting down once a week to create your weekly plan also gives you the time to find new recipes and ideas, while writing a detailed shopping list means you won’t forget a crucial ingredient.

There are literally thousands of recipes on the internet, from a variety of different cuisines, to suit all tastes. Whether you are extremely skilled in the kitchen, or just want to whip up a tasty meal in 20 minutes or less, you’ll find recipes to shake up your boring food routine and encourage you try new, and more challenging, things.

Stuck in a rut and wish other people shared in the burden of cooking? Encourage everyone – even the kids – to find new recipes or think up new meal ideas, and then get them involved in the kitchen. Let them lend a hand in washing, preparing, and storing the fruits and vegetables for the week; and encourage them to ask questions about where food comes from and how it should be cooked.

Research by the University of Alberta has shown that children who help cook at home are more likely to enjoy fruits and vegetables than kids who don’t cook. You’ll also be equipping them with the skills they need to be healthy and independent at college and beyond.

A smoothie bowl with goji berries, coconut, strawberries and banana
“Change is hard at the beginning, messy in the middle, and worth it at the end.” – Unknown

5. You’ll waste less

If you’re here because meal planning sounds like a good alternative to wasting food each week, you aren’t alone. Research has shown that as much as 40% of the food we buy in North America gets thrown away – that’s worth more than $160 billion, each year.

But the US and Canada aren’t alone in this, as food waste is a global issue.

The New York Times tells us that we throw away 1.3 billion tons of food a year, which is approximately 1/3 of all that is grown. The biggest culprit? Dairy products, which spoil more quickly and are thrown away more often than any other food group.

As supermarkets are doing what they can to avoid food waste – selling otherwise discarded, misshapen fruit and vegetables; and adjusting best-before labels for different food types – it’s important that we, as individuals, attempt to cut back on waste too. It benefits the environment, but it also benefits us too – we can save money, and spend it on other things that matter. That’s where meal planning comes in.

Meal planning, done correctly, encourages you buy groceries in a waste-conscious way. Buying frozen fruit and vegetables is not only cheaper, they can be stored for longer, and have a lower environmental impact than buying out-of-season fruit that has been shipped from elsewhere.

Investing time in washing and preparing fruit and vegetables means you are less likely to throw them away than if they fester in bags and punnets in the fridge.

Another pro tip: freeze any leftover, imperfect fruit and use it in smoothies; and add leftover vegetables to a pot with some stock for soup. Soup can also be portioned out and frozen for sick days, cold days, or hurried lunches.

Planning out your weekly meals will also help you to feel accountable for fuelling your body and your spending. Those quick and easy lunches from the likes of Chipotle and Panera Bread easily add up during the course of the working week; while creating your own versions can be a fulfilling way to fuel the whole family for several days.

Chicken, beef, pork, and other meats are one of the most expensive components of your weekly shop. Challenge yourself to try new, crock-pot recipes with cheaper cuts; which are often under-appreciated and frequently wasted. Finally, be inventive. Recognize the products you buy and throw away most often, and find alternatives. Last but not least, use leftovers in creative ways – by transforming them into other main meals or healthy lunchbox options.

Meal planning can seem daunting before you start, but after a couple of weeks, you’ll be wondering why you didn’t start sooner. Get out that notepad, look up some new recipes, and step forwards into a healthier, happier, and more organized way of eating!

Have you lost weight or saved money by meal planning? Tell us all about it below!

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Natalie Seale

Natalie Seale is a writer, researcher, and editor for keepinspiring.me. She holds an MA, MSc, and PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh, and has started two businesses since 2011. Natalie is an avid reader, a keen traveller, and enjoys cooking and walking with her English Spaniel. Her posts focus on inspiring others to live healthy, happy, and active lives.