I'm just going to say that meal planning is one of the best habits I've gotten into EVER. I used to think that people who did this were obsessive compulsive. Some are, but for the most part, it is a handy tool that can help you to eat healthier, eat a better variety of foods and save money. It's not hard either.
My foray into meal planning started because I was tired of eating the same things over and over, annoyed that I would get to the end of the groceries I had in my refrigerator/freezer/cupboard and not have much of a variety. We were throwing out too much. Plus we were eating out far too often. Usually that happened because I hadn't thought ahead about what I wanted to cook and neglected to get anything out to thaw and didn't have anything simple to make. I'd had enough.
The truth is, you can make meal planning as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. I know people who plan down to every detail what they are going to cook and do their grocery shopping accordingly. I chose a much simpler approach instead. I go buy groceries and plan from that. A huge plus is that I can take advantage of what is on sale at that particular time instead of having to stick solely to my list.
Here's what I do. I make a list of things I know we are out of. I buy primarily staple items such as chicken, pork, hamburger, potatoes, lettuce, frozen veggies, etc. I'm going to tell you right up front that we eat very little that comes out of a box. At present, the only boxed foods in our pantry are white rice, taco shells and some ramen noodles, in our freezer some minute steaks and 2 pizzas. That's it. Everything else I cook from scratch, so I make a point of keeping basics on hand at all times along with a nice variety of spices.
Once I come home from the grocery store, I make a list of what main course items I bought and add to it what I may still have in my kitchen. It might look something like this:
Then I write down the days of the week and figure out what we are going to have as the main course for each of those days. If we are going out to eat on a specific day, I write "Out" in that spot. We try very hard to limit our dining out to two times a week.
The nice part of this is it eliminates possibly eating the same thing two days in a row. Plus we try not to eat red meat two days in a row, or starchy items like potatoes too often. At this point if you wanted to, you could then write in what you want as sides to go with each of these items, going from what you just purchased and already have. That's up to you, I don't unless it's something very specific that I know I need to do some advance prep on or I want to use up. And you have at a glance a list that tells you each night as you prepare dinner, what you may need to get out of the freezer to thaw for the next day! As we use up each main course item, I cross that off my list. It makes it simple to know what I have left for my next meal planning session, as well as what I may need to buy. As soon as we run completely out of an item, I start my shopping list for my next trip to the store.
At any given time, I may have anywhere from a week to 10 days worth of meals planned out. I've also gotten into a habit of planning specific items that I know will yield a decent amount of leftovers towards the end of the week so that we have easy lunches for the weekend. It has taken a bit of practice, but the end results have made me a very happy person. We throw out far less food, we eat a much bigger variety and I've actually gotten down to doing one big grocery shopping trip a month! I still have to go pick up perishables such as milk, bread and fresh vegetables/fruit here and there, but overall I find myself using what I have in stock much more efficiently by shopping this way. It eliminates all those awful temptations to just throw things in the cart.
Twice a year I do what I call a grocery "purge". We eat down to the point where there isn't much left in the house. I do it in the spring because we eat different things in the warmer months, plus I don't like to have as much in my refrigerator/freezer during the spring/early summer as we live in an area where the weather can change at a moments notice and we might find ourselves without electricity. It doesn't happen nearly as much since we have moved, but it still happens. My other purge is usually in October, more as a space maker since I know I'm going to have a frozen turkey to store (sometimes two) as well as other holiday foods. Once the holiday/storm season is over with, I restock and go back to my usual game plan until the next purge. This also eliminates things getting lost in the pile and going bad. I HATE that!!! We might have a few "interesting" meals towards the end of the purge, but that's okay, to me it's worth it.
Getting started is probably the hardest part. You need to do an inventory of what you have and either use it up, or shop for items to go with it so you can use it up. Groceries are one of those things that are a constantly revolving item in your home, that you can't change. But you CAN change how you shop and how you cook so that you use them more efficiently and find yourself far less stressed when it comes to cooking. Meal planning is a tremendous help in these areas. It also saves time.
I've been meal planning for about 4 years and I say that if I can do it, anyone can do it. Now I can't imagine not meal planning. Start small and simple by doing 4 - 7 days worth. I know some people who plan an entire month at once. Everyone is going to have different ways of doing it based on the size of their family, availability of groceries and the amount of storage space you have. Regardless of all of those factors, even if you are someone who shops more than once a week, you will find that it truly helps. When I started out I was a once a week shopper, it took me a while to fine tune it to the point I am now, but I know that I dread cooking dinner far less. Just that factor or alone makes it worth it. All the rest is just icing on the cake!