Meal planning rocks.
OK, that conclusion is premature, but you are bound to agree with me once you try meal planning. I started down the path as a response to the tiny, tiny refrigerators and pantries I found in our apartments in Europe. Until the end of July, we're stuck with an icebox that's less roomy than my old dorm fridge and a "pantry" is a shelf, a rickety rolling cart, and, well, the floor. In our dollhouse kitchen, stocking up on food we might eat sometime is out of the question, and leftovers cause a serious space crunch.
When you're faced with tight spaces and tight budgets (that cursed dollar!), meal planning can ride to your rescue. Your kitchen will be less cluttered, your wallet will grow fatter, your sanity will remain intact, and you'll have more time to relish all the benefits.
Meal planning benefits your budget both by lowering your initial outlay for food and by reducing food waste. When you stop buying on impulse, you'll end up buying fewer items and, thus, spending less. Also, if you take in less and if you know how you will use just about every item you buy within a reasonable timeframe, you'll end up throwing out less.
I learned the hard way. When I lived in Las Vegas, I filled to bursting my old pantry and fridge with groceries that looked tasty at the store, that I bought when I mistakenly thought I was out, or that I kept around just in case I had the urge to cook with them some night. My purchasing was out of control, and my costs were through the roof. Worse, I had to throw out tons of rotten or expired food that just never had its day on my plate. Wasted food equals wasted money.
Another advantage to meal planning is that it eliminates the nightly stress of figuring out what's for dinner. I used to come home from work absolutely starving but with no idea what I could eat. I'd squander lots of time sprawled on the sofa trying to talk my hungry, cranky self into pulling together a meal from the pantry, only to end up scarfing down a comforting bag of chips. The evening flows so much more smoothly if you have an action plan in place and know that you've already gathered all the ingredients necessary.
Not to mention a meal plan will keep your overall diet healthier. That junk-food binge I mentioned above? That happened a lot, but what's even worse is that just as often I decided to avoid the no-plan problem by getting fast food on the way home. Fast food, and restaurant food in general, is high in fat, salt, and calories, and a regular diet of the stuff will lead you, like me, to pack on the pounds That puts you at risk for weight-related health problems such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
With a meal plan in place, you'll waste no time cruising through the drive-thru. You'll also avoid nightly grocery runs (and all the impulse purchasing that happens when you shop hungry). Even better, plans mean no sitting around, useless and starving, while you mull over what meal might satisfy you, with your energy steadily sapping away. Meal planning may require an upfront time investment, but that small sacrifice will pay dividends in minutes saved throughout the week.
Still, a lot of people, even presented with all these benefits, will refuse to plan meals. "It's just not my thing!" they cry. "I'm a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants cook! I like creativity and spontaneity! I can't be pinned down by plans!"
Guess what? Meal planning offers more flexibility than you think. You don't have to decide a month in advance on every molecule that will pass your lips! I plan week to week myself. However, while I shop based on my plan, I don't limit myself to strict adherence to the schedule. For example, I shuffle meals within the week occasionally to satisfy cravings. You also can delay meals if you decide at the last minute to eat out with friends. What's the worst that will happen? You'll just have one meal already planned for the next week, and you won't need as much from the store.
As for creativity, I have found meal planning fosters it far more than it hampers it. I keep a running list of meal ideas or recipes I want to try, simply recording them in my planner as the notion strikes me. Later, when I sit down to make out my dinner schedule, I drop those ideas into the coming week's plan rather than completely forgetting the brilliant cooking ideas that struck me at breakfast. I still have the inspirations, and I still act on them, but I do it in a way that's less stressful and less expensive. Besides, be honest: Finding a way to make a meal out of the pasta and jelly in your pantry may pull on your creativity, but is the end result worth the effort? How creative can you be without key ingredients or when you're exhausted?
Reconsider meal planning. It keeps you healthy and sane, it saves you money and time, and it allows you flexibility and fuller creative expression. Coming soon, the site will offer up instructions on setting up a meal planning system, advice on choosing recipes and balancing your meals, and lots more helpful ideas. Until then, why not start jotting down what you'd like to eat, so you can think about how to make that happen?