This is the first of a multi-part post on how to plan your meals
First off, what do you mean when you say "plan your meals?" I'll be the first to say that there's no right way or wrong way to do things - there's just your way that works for you. I've used formal month long meal plans with breakfast, an afterschool snack and dinner planned every day, I've also scribbled a couple of dishes on the back of a slip of paper and used that to go grocery shopping. Both methods work, and are as different from each other as the east is from the west.
When I say "plan your meals" I'm basically saying have an idea of what you're eating every day for a defined period.
Ok, so what good does that do me? Why should I plan my meals? In my case, my brain either works overtime when I'm under pressure or it completely shuts down. I wish I could pick which one would happen, but usually at 5:30 when I'm tired and hungry I simply can't think of what we should eat for dinner. Having a menu for the week posted on the fridge restarts my brain and having the supplies I need just inside the refrigerator door lowers my stress.
Eating at home saves us money and allows us to eat healthier meals. You save money three ways: one is by getting fresh foods and skipping the overhead that a restaurant has to add on. Also, by not running to the store all the time you save a ton on impulse buys. Finally, you save money by using the food you've bought and not having to throw it out when the tomatoes get squishy and the lettuce melts into a yucky mess in the produce drawer.
You also eat much healthier, too. In 2007 when I did Weight Watchers we were encouraged to plan all of our daily points in advance. That way if I was tempted by something I had my daily planned snacks and meals to look forward to, which made it easier to resist temptation. Cooking at home also gives you complete control over the ingredients, which is important if you have someone with food sensitivities/allergies or a vegetarian/vegan in the family.
I try to do all of my shopping on one day each week. This saves time because instead of having to run to the grocery store to pick up two items (and invariably forgetting one of them!) I have everything at home when I'm ready to cook. I also like to use listmakers like Allrecipes.com shopping lists to help me get everything I need in each part of the store. Best of all, I save time and stress by not having to worry about what's for dinner each night. I come home, look at that night's menu, and I'm good to go!
What do I love most about eating at home? The relationships. We often hold a "Make Your Own Pizza Night." I'll make an easy dough earlier in the day and let it rise. Then we have friends or family over and give everyone their own dough ball to toss and make into a pizza. Anything you could ever want on a pizza is laid out on the kitchen counter. Picky kids get to make a pizza with exactly what they want on it - no more and no less - and gourmet parents finally get to have their spinach artichoke garlic black olive pesto pizza. We enjoy the time together making the meal and the time spent at the table eating the meal. The very best part? No check at the end of the dinner and the knowledge that the memories and dinner in cost less than half of a similar dinner out.