What's for dinner? Meal planning for your health, budget and sanity

Your Next 21 Meals Planned by Chef Ryan Scott

Kids sometimes get in trouble for standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open, but parents are guilty of it, too – especially when it's nearly dinnertime, and nothing is on the menu.

Deciding what's for dinner is a matter of time (what can be prepared with the time you have), health (what will give your household the best nutrition), availability (what you have on hand) and motivation (how much effort you feel like putting into the meal). When nothing looks appealing or satisfies any one of these factors, it's easy to opt for carryout, cold cereal or some other mediocre compromise.

"I've been making menus for my family off and on for 17 years," says 45-year old Mindee Myers of Lincoln, Nebraska. Myers has a husband and three children, two of whom are teenagers still living at home. "Initially I did freezer cooking, so I did menus for that. But that got to be a pain, so now I just plan ahead."

Myers isn't alone. There's an online army of meal planners with blogs, apps and printable menus at their fingertips. The motivation to plan an entire month's worth of menus may differ slightly from family to family, but in general, it boils down to health, cost and convenience.

"I have been meal planning since 2001," says 34-year old Aset Brathwaite of Snellville, Georgia. Brathwaite is a stay-at-home mother whose husband works as a translator. The couple has eight children, ranging in age from 4 months to 16 years. For her, the process began when she was legally required to plan menus. "At the time, I was operating a family home day care, and we were required by the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] to meal plan for the month."

A Matter of Convenience

Myers says there are several reasons she's continued to menu plan, something she does for five weeks at a time using Google Docs. One of those motivations: "to avoid the 'what do I make for dinner?' every day. I hate that."

This seemingly easily resolved conflict is more stressful than you might think. A small study from Flinders University in Australia examined the food duty struggles of working mothers. They found deciding what to make for dinner caused the most stress of any food-related jobs in the house – even more than the actual cooking or providing a healthy diet overall.

"Once it came to cooking, most women could whip something up, but the actual thinking, 'What on Earth am I going to make for dinner tonight?' was the most stressful task out of all their food-related activities," researcher Rachel Roberts said in a press release.

"Understand that 30 minutes of planning, once a month, will save hours of time throughout the month," Myers says. "It seems miserable to sit down and do the planning, but when you realize the daily time and stress it saves, it's worth it."

For Better Health

With 10 people in the home, Brathwaite finds planning for all three meals and two snacks enables her to give her family the healthiest options.

"I am also very health conscious, and meal planning is my way of making sure we are all getting the right amount of nutrients and calories each day," she says. "There are times when I do not plan and find myself wasting time looking for something to eat or ordering takeout."

When you plan ahead, you don't have to piece something together at the last minute, and leaving time for food preparation gives you an opportunity to use fresh produce, lean proteins and whole grains – the building blocks of a healthy meal.

There's little doubt that cooking from scratch is healthier than eating out or even cooking convenience foods, and at least one study from UCLA showed that opting for convenience foods – such as frozen or boxed dinners – saves no total preparation time over a made-from-scratch meal.

More from U.S. News:
Healthy snacks for when you feel hangry
8 ways to start an urban garden
10 tips for saving money on a plant-based diet

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