5 Meal Planning Benefits and How to Start

Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. See our disclosure for more info.

If you’ve even thought about getting more organized with your meals, we’ve got you covered. Here are some great meal planning benefits and tips on how to start planning your meals today.

Ultimately, we all know that we must 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.

What is Meal Planning?

Meal planning can be flexible and can take into account any dietary requirements you may have. It is when we sit down and decide our meals in advance using our schedules as our guide, along with our food preferences, what food we have on hand, seasonal produce, and what we can get on sale.

When you know what meals you will eat in advance, you are better prepared. You will have all the ingredients you need on hand and will set yourself up to make healthier choices throughout the week.

With meal planning and some preparation, you won’t feel rushed or out of time. When this happens, many of us are guilty of hitting a drive-thru on the way home. However, when we do this, we make poor food choices that can ultimately affect our health.

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

We’ve put together a definitive list of the benefits of meal planning to help you start living better by feeling better.

A planned meal of crisp bread topped with hummus, radish, and yellow bell pepper.
“Those who think they have no time for healthy eating will or later to find time for illness.” – Unknown

Benefits of Meal Planning

“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 we see constantly. In magazines, on billboards, and when we visit our doctor’s office, we are forced to think about how we measure up to established standards of healthy living.

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

Planning things ahead of time can help you reach your goals. Below you will find many meal planning benefits you can take full advantage of so you can improve your nutrition while saving time and money.

1. It Saves Time

If you’re always running late in the morning or 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 restaurant meals. 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 weekly 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 meal planning and grocery shopping for 7-days-worth of meals might not be the most fun activity, it’ll help keep you on track and in control for a healthy lifestyle.

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.

A wooden bowl of spinach leaves for a weekly meal plan.
“Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself.” – Michael Pollon

2. It Saves 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 Mcdonald’s are putting them on a par with modern (healthier) farm-to-table-style chains.

While Mcdonald’s 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 a healthier food choice– 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 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 grocery shopping trip. Avoid food 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.

Meal planning with a large pile of plump, 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 with Weight Loss

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, the 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 and make weight management harder to achieve. 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 diet and staying active. The great news is that meal planning can help you lose weight and sustain that.

Taking the time to plan your meals for the week and meal preparation, then creating a detailed shopping list before going to the store, is a fail-safe way to ensure 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 and 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 gradually and steadily (at a rate of 1 to 2 pounds per week) are more successful at keeping weight off; 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 your 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 while losing that extra weight – pound by pound, inch by inch.

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

4. It Encourages Variety

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 you try new recipes and tastes. Sitting down once a week to create your weekly plan also allows you 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 various 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 to 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 brainstorm new meal ideas and 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 likelier to enjoy fruits and vegetables than kids who don’t cook. 

You’ll also equip them with the skills they need to be healthy and independent at college and beyond.

A smoothie bowl with, 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 annually, approximately 1/3 of all that is grown. The biggest culprit? Dairy products 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 and 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 to buy groceries in a waste-conscious way. Frozen fruit and vegetables are cheaper, can be stored for longer, and have a lower environmental impact than buying out-of-season fruit 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 feel accountable for fueling your body and 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 creatively – 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 wonder 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!

How to Start Meal Planning

Start by thinking about the meals you’d like to make and how extra portions can be stored in the freezer or used differently at lunchtime.

Then make a shopping list –check your pantry and cupboards for any basic supplies you might be running low on. By taking inventory regularly, 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 groceries, 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 chop 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 you’ll have everything you need to bring a meal together in minutes, even if you can’t make the whole meal ahead of time.

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.

Your Guide to Meal Planning

If you are just starting out in the world of meal planning, you may need some help. We have already shared how to get started but let’s go into more depth and offer up a few more tips in this guide to meal planning.

Choose a Day

Choose a day each week to do your meal planning. When you designate a specific day to do this, you can add it to your regular routine. The same applies when choosing a specific day of the week for grocery shopping. Let it become your new habit.

Check Your Schedule

Next, grab your calendar and meal planner and check your schedule for the week. Do you have any plans coming up? Perhaps you have kids who participate in sports and have practices or games? Any appointments? Look for anything that might throw off your schedule or days that you don’t need to meal plan for at all.

Choose Recipes

Now to the meat and potatoes of the matter—what recipes to choose for the week. Make this the fun part of your meal planning process! You probably already have a pretty good idea of the kinds of food you want for the upcoming week, so it should be pretty easy to find some good recipes.

You can use your go-to healthy recipe lists or pull out some of your favorites for your weekly meal plan. Have a list of up to ten recipes on hand to prepare your meal plan. You want to avoid eating the same kind of meals week after week.

Keep some variety in your diet. If there are any gaps you need to fill, don’t be afraid to try new recipes! For example, maybe try some copycats of your favorite restaurant meals.

Don’t Forget the Protein

When creating your weekly meal plan and developing healthy eating habits, you want to find a way to balance your proteins throughout the week. Your family may love chicken, but you can quickly tire of it when it is the protein used for every meal. Instead, choose a different protein option for some variety for two to three meals that week. You can even have one day where you don’t cook meat at all.

Bring in the Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are important for weight loss, weight management, and a healthy lifestyle. They also make a healthy snack for the week and can help you create a more balanced meal at dinner.

According to the CDC, adults should consume 1.5 to 2 cups of vegetables daily, but only 1 out of 10 adults actually follow through with this. As you meal plan, find a way you can include a fruit or vegetable into the meal. It can be as simple as adding a side salad or making a smoothie for breakfast.

Choose a Couple of Easy Meals

Plans can change, and life can get busy, derailing us from our meal plan. To help combat this, try to pick a couple of easy and quick meals you can include in your meal plan so you can switch meals out as needed. An easy but healthy recipe only requires a few ingredients and minimal effort.

Use Pantry and Fridge Ingredients

We already discussed meal prepping above and how after grocery shopping, we should meal prep our fruits and vegetables and other ingredients, so they are ready to go for our meals.

Meal prepping should also include seeing what you have on hand and using those items before they go bad or expire. Have some fun and get creative. Gather a few ingredients you have on hand or leftover and see how to put them together to create a new, delicious meal.

Think About Future Meals

It never hurts to think forward to future meals either when meal planning. Grab your meal planner and take an inventory of the ingredients you have on hand.

We are willing to bet that many of the ingredients in your pantry or even on your grocery list can be used to make multiple meals or delicious future meals if you lack time or motivation. This is just another way to save money.

Find recipes that use many of the same ingredients to cut down on the length of your grocery list and save some money.

Ready to Plan?

As you can see, there are so many benefits to meal preparation and planning that it seems almost silly not to at least give it a try for one week. Sit down and think about what you want to eat, build your grocery list around it, and see how it can help lead you to a healthy lifestyle and an easier time in the kitchen during the week.

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

Photo of author

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.