I began meal planning haphazardly and out of necessity, and it has changed my life for the better. Here are five reasons it can do the same for you, as well as tips for getting a smooth start to the routine.

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I started weekly meal planning years ago when I was living on my own in my first apartment and learning to cook—and grocery shop without my mom. This was before “adulting” was a colloquialism, but there is no better word to describe a nineteen-year-old learning to survive in college. Despite my lack of experience and guidance, I quickly discovered how beneficial the practice could be.

Why meal plan?

You will feel less stress at 5pm every day.

Raise your hand if you can relate to the following experience. You just got off work for the day, and you are trying to figure out what to eat for dinner. Meanwhile, you and your partner begin to argue about your dinner options while you both grow increasingly hangry. I’m sure many of you can also relate to the frustration of being halfway through preparing a meal when you realize you used the last onion or clove of garlic the previous night. You can avoid these situations by meal planning.

Planning makes grocery shopping easier.

It’s simple math. Meal planning makes grocery shopping easier, faster, and cheaper. If you enjoy spending hours wandering around the grocery store each week, I wish you all the happiness, but this post is not for you.

Your body will thank you.

It is easier to be mindful of calories and nutrition when you’re not snacking mindlessly and eating oversized portions because “that’s what was in the pantry/fridge.” Stock up on the healthy foods and know when your next meal is because you planned it. In addition to meal planning, I use the Lose It app on my phone to keep track of calories and macronutrients. My husband often pokes fun at me for logging all of my meals for each day by 9am, but it helps me to say “no” to unplanned snacks throughout the day.

The planet (and your wallet) will thank you.

Reduced food waste is a good thing. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted in the world each year. I’m not even a hipster environmentalist; I just hate throwing away food. It is a waste of the planet’s and your bank account’s resources to purchase food that is going to end up in the trash.

It is an excellent excuse to use pretty office supplies.

In case you need another reason to buy and use stationery, colorful pens, and washi tape, I hereby give you permission. You’re already saving money by not wasting food, right? You might as well reinvest those savings in the activity that saved you the money in the first place!

The marble Post-It weekly calendar shown below can be found on Amazon and in Target stores. It comes in a variety of prints and is also available as a magnetic grocery list pad. Needless to say, I own the matching set.

Pro tip: If you’re eying up the crab cakes on the sample menu, find my all-time favorite recipe here.

How to meal plan…

Choose one day of the week for meal planning and grocery shopping – and be consistent. I do most of the planning and all of the shopping at my house, but I ask my husband for input if I’m considering trying a new recipe or if I’m feeling indecisive about the menu. We always check our schedules and identify which nights we only have time for quicker meals, such as the days I take classes at the gym, he has board game nights, or either of us has an event after work.

For a while, I shopped on Monday evenings after going to the gym. Since we didn’t have many fresh ingredients left in the house seven days after the last shopping trip, every Monday we would either reheat leftovers from a weekend meal at a restaurant or prepare an easy dinner like salad or pizza. I changed my shopping day from Monday evenings to Sunday afternoons when I started a new job that shifted my routine. I now appreciate that I have the option to be slightly more presentable (read: less sweaty) when I’m not going straight to the store from the gym.

However, I do miss the smaller crowds and interaction with the evening staff. At 8:30pm on a Monday, there are no customers scrambling to get the last ripe tomato in the bin, children racing shopping carts down the aisles, or long lines at the cash registers. Shelves have recently been restocked, children are asleep at home, and staff have more time to assist individual customers.

I particularly miss the opportunity to interact with the staff because the non-peak hours are when workers with disabilities are more likely to be scheduled. Just as I do not enjoy the chaos of weekend grocery shopping, they may not do as well in fast-paced, high-pressure situations. They recognize when a customer’s patience is growing thin while the scanner malfunctions for the third time on their shift, and I am glad to provide a positive experience by comfortably engaging with them. My background in behavioral health and human services helps me to empathize, demonstrate patience, and encourage these staff with a friendly smile.

Regardless of the time of day or week that you shop for groceries, it is important to remember that no one’s dream job is to be a cashier. However, everyone wants to have a good day at work.

meal prep

Shop in your refrigerator and pantry first. Take inventory of what ingredients may be left over from the previous week. Any fresh produce or opened jars may be nearing the end of the timeframe in which they are safe to consume. Find a way to incorporate these ingredients into meals for the beginning of the upcoming week.

Consider ingredients that are in season and on sale. Because I am a self-declared picky eater, I am not a stickler for exclusively buying items that are in season or on sale. This is why I suggest considering these items, not restricting your diet to only these items. I must admit that in-season items usually do taste better. However, there are times I crave winter squash in the summer or summer squash in the winter, and that’s okay. The USDA has an easy-to-read guide to eating seasonally on their website.

Additionally, I swear most food tastes better when I know I saved money with a coupon or sale. It takes very little effort to check the virtual and printed coupons while I’m making the grocery list, and it feels good to save a few dollars. I keep an envelope full of coupons, organized in order of expiration date, in the same drawer as the grocery list in the kitchen. Of course, to access those deals, you almost always need to have a store card, so sign up whenever they are offered!

Identify your nutritional goals. While I am in no way qualified to provide nutritional advice, I personally thrive on a high-protein, low-carb, vegetarian diet. It can be helpful to identify your nutritional goals so the appropriate foods are always well stocked in your home and effortlessly incorporated into your weekly meal plan.

Stay in your lane. Separate your grocery list by section of the store, so you aren’t spending time unnecessarily traversing the store. While I don’t mind grocery shopping once per week, I am an organized and efficient person. I use the following six categories, listed in order of location in the store: produce, meat/seafood, packaged goods, dairy, frozen, and bakery.

Only plan what is useful to you. My breakfasts and lunches are very routine, and the only meal I share with my husband on a regular basis is dinner. Therefore, we only write dinner plans on our weekly meal plan list. Another thing to consider is where the meal plan list will go once it is created. I tape our list to the inside of the pantry door so it is easily accessible in a location that makes sense when preparing meals. The side of the refrigerator is another common location, and a shared digital file works, as well.

This was before “adulting” was a colloquialism, but there is no better word to describe a nineteen-year-old learning to survive in college.

Have you tried meal planning in the past, is it a practice you are considering for the first time, or have you been meal planning successfully for years? What barriers have you encountered, and what solutions have you found? I’m eager to learn more about your experiences. Share your thoughts in the comments below!