When I first moved out on my own, I would swing by the grocery store or market on my way home from work to grab the ingredients I needed for dinner. I would do a bigger shop each week for the staples, but didn't plan ahead much for meals. My husband shared this habit and it continued after we got married. We would call each other from work during the day, and one of us would stop on the way home to grab what we needed.

Then we had children. Trying to balance work and kids and commitments and activities is a never ending hamster wheel and adding a daily decision as to what to make for dinner can send you over the edge. I know, because if a week comes along and I don't have a meal plan, I've been known to throw my hands up and order takeout, which isn't good for our waistlines or our budget. I embraced meal planning years ago, and I want to tell you how meal planning will make you happier, too.

1. You save time. So. Much. Time. You spend 20-30 minutes, once a week, to plan out your meals. You do one big grocery shop per week, and a smaller one mid-week for fresh produce, lunch meat, etc. No more daily drives to the grocery store where you wander the aisles looking for inspiration.

2. You eat healthier. You plan meals that are balanced, healthy, and filling. While the occasional dinner out is a nice treat, if it happens too regularly, you'll see the negative aspects of that in how you feel physically. It also impacts my next point.

3. You save money. The weekly "big shop" I do is at a large discount supermarket about twenty minutes away. The driving time is worth how much money I save by shopping there. I fill my fridge with the necessities for my meal plan and grab a few little things mid-week at the store in my small town. If I ever have to do a larger shop in town, I groan at how much more money I'm spending. Grocery store prices aside, I plan meals that coordinate so that I very rarely have to throw food away. Make a big salad that can go with chicken one night, and burgers the next. Plan a meal that makes a great leftover lunch and save yourself from the "I have nothing for lunch, so I'll eat out" excuse.

4. You get to try new things. I don't know about you, but if I do a daily shop, I tend to stick to the same-old same-old: recipes that I have memorized because I've made them so often that they are ingrained in my brain. They can also get old and boring and not fun. When I meal plan, I'll pull out a cookbook, or surf the Internet, flip through a magazine and try something new. Eight times out of ten, I find something that everyone loves and that gets added to our dinner rotation.

5. It reduces stress. No more wrestling with the daily 'What's for dinner?' dilemma. It's already been decided. I also write the monthly meal plan on a chalk board in my kitchen so the entire family knows the plan. My husband will help by taking out what we need from the freezer (and cooking on nights when I'm not home), and the kids know what condiments we need when they set the table.

If you want help and encouragement in meal planning, Meal Plan Monday is a fantastic resource.  Here are a few recipes you may want to add to your meal plan that are easy, quick, and delicious:

Healthy Pasta Primavera

The Best Baked Enchiladas

Quinoa and Corn Salad

Happy meal planning!