Sometimes there really are miracle cures. People tend to think that things that save them time and money will be difficult or unpleasant. Meal planning, however, is one of those miracles. It can reduce waste, save time, save money, and reduce stress. What’s not to like?

As with other things, you can do enough to cover the basics, or you can go all in. In the case of meal planning, doing the basics would be deciding on meals for the week and making a run to the store to get everything you need. Going all in would also include doing the week’s prep work so that everything is ready to go for each day’s meals.

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Meal Planning Overview

The typical time frame for meal planning is weekly. This coincides nicely with how most people view their time, in weekly increments. It also works out reasonably well with purchasing perishables: Not all items will last a whole week, but you can plan to consume those with the shortest shelf life earliest. 

Some people do their meal planning monthly. This isn’t always necessary but is a great aid if you get your funds once each month, such as if you’re dependent on a pension, Social Security, or SNAP for your food money. Planning monthly can help you take advantage of bulk purchases, reducing your per-meal costs.

From the standpoint of planning for a week at a time, the idea is to select what your meals will be for that week, then writing out a grocery list and making a single trip to the store to get everything you need. You reap a few benefits from this approach.

The Benefits

Meal planning saves you time. You make fewer trips to the store. You don’t waste any time deciding what to make each day; you do that once for the whole week. 

Many people choose to meal plan to control what they eat. Planning helps you make good choices. If you have healthy food prepared for the week, there’s a good chance you’ll eat that healthy food.

Meal planning reduces waste. Before meal planning my crisper functioned mostly as a food ager. I would age food there until it was no longer suitable for consumption, then discard it. Lots of money went out in the bins that way. And that was totally unnecessary. 

When you meal plan, you purchase with purpose. Everything that goes into the crisper, for example, has a purpose, a meal it is intended for. Waste of produce becomes rare rather than routine — and that saves you money.

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Meal Planning Saves Money

Reduced waste is only one of the ways meal planning will save you money. 

People often stop at the grocery store on their way home from work to grab a couple things they need (although these days, many are instead running out after working all day from home). Two things tend to happen in this scenario.

One is that any trip to the grocery store has the potential for some impulse purchases. The muffins looked really tasty, so we now have muffins. Reducing the trips to the store reduces the likelihood of impulse purchases.

Stopping to grab a couple things is not efficient. We may not stop at the store where we usually shop, opting instead for someplace more convenient; after all, it’s only slightly more expensive and it’s only a few things. Doing this a couple times a week can end up costing a lot across time.

Detouring to the store also has a cost in time and money. It costs time to make additional trips to the store. It generally costs money for transportation as well. It all adds up.

Meal Planning Isn’t Restrictive

We tend to fear not what is real, but rather what we perceive. One thing people fear about meal planning is that it will reduce their spontaneity or keep them from getting takeout, which they enjoy. Meal planning does not need to be restrictive.

There’s no reason you can’t put a night or two of takeout into your weekly plan — presuming, of course, that such luxury is affordable in your budget. You can even plan that one night will be takeout, without determining which night in advance. Planned spontaneity!

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The Bottom Line

Oftentimes people embark on a change like meal planning for a single purpose, such as to eat healthier or to save time. They then find that the change comes with other unanticipated benefits; they may not have realized that meal planning would save money or reduce stress. No matter which benefits first draw you to meal planning, you can have them all. 

You can carry this as far as you’d like. Cooking larger volumes at once, and then eating leftovers or freezing portions can save you even more time — and possibly money as well. Thinking about a month in advance can help steer you toward bulk purchases and further stretch a tight food budget. 

It is possible to eat well without spending an excess of money. As with most instances where money’s involved, a little planning pays huge dividends. 

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