"Who has time to cook? I'll just hit the drive-thru." If you’re like most of us, the day-to-day business of life can have you slipping into this mindset — but if you eat out more than once per week, you spend too much on food. And worse, you do your health a disservice.

Meal planning doesn't mean subsisting on kale smoothies, and it doesn’t have to take too much time. This practice can save you time and money while keeping you healthy and happy, as well. Not sure where to start? Here’s what you need to know about meal planning — and how it will improve your lifestyle.

What Is Meal Planning?

Do you avoid the mere mention of the words "meal planning" because the concept seems hopeless unless you can afford a private chef? Dismiss that notion! Have you ever agonized over what to serve for the holidays? Have you ever wondered what you could make that would please everyone in your family? Surprise — you've performed meal planning already.

Meal planning refers to the process of taking the time to plan any number of meals and snacks. Most people understand it as taking one day per week to prepare dinners in advance. This step can be a part of meal planning, but it doesn't have to be. Your version may resemble writing a menu more than whirling around your kitchen like a dervish on Sunday afternoon.

Many people choose to meal prep as well as plan. If you juggle a career and a family, or if you work more than one job in the gig economy, this process can help you eat more healthfully on the fly. It can also help you save a considerable amount on groceries. Please, don't abandon the idea of meal planning altogether simply because eating precooked dinners doesn't appeal to you. You can allow for spontaneity sometimes, too, and plan for splurges.

Why Is Meal Planning Good for Your Health and Lifestyle?

Be honest — on a day-to-day basis, how much do you think about nutrition? Chances are, unless you're remedying a medical condition, not much. Meal planning benefits your health and lifestyle in many ways.

1. You Keep Count of Calories

Even if you do keto or a similar low-carb, high-fat diet, calories still count if you want to maintain a healthy weight. Meal planning helps you balance out higher-calorie foods with lower ones. You could pair a kale and spinach salad with a hearty bowl of chicken and dumplings soup. If you can't say no to french fries at lunch, you can plan a low-cal veggie soup and a lettuce wrap for dinner.

2. You Control Sugar and Salt

Yes, many jurisdictions have tightened requirements on restaurant and packaged food labeling — but when was the last time you read each ingredient? Today's hectic lifestyles allow little time for more than a cursory glance. This omission could unwittingly damage your health. You might think, for example, that a fast food sub sandwich is a healthier choice than a burger and fries. However, a French dip sandwich contains nearly two times the recommended daily intake of sodium — devastating if you have high blood pressure.

3. You Avoid Artificial Colors and Preservatives

If you read many labels, you'll see a flurry of unpronounceable terms and the words "artificial colors" or "artificial flavors." What do these mystery ingredients do to your health? Researchers don't know in many cases. Why take unnecessary risks?

4. You Make Sure to Meet Your Nutritional Needs

Scientists learn more about phytonutrients every day. These vitamins and minerals give vegetables and fruits their vibrant hues, and they also benefit human health in various ways. When you plan your meals, you can design your menu to eat a rainbow and get all the nutrition you need without supplements.

Tips for Easy, Affordable Meal Planning

"OK, you've convinced me. Now, how do I get started?" Quite easily! Follow these steps to create a meal plan like a boss.

Take inventory: What ingredients do you already have on hand in your cupboard? Do you have plenty of rice and noodles? How is your stash of spices?

Make a list: Next, consult with your family and a cookbook. What do you and they enjoy eating the most? What dishes sound intriguing? Write a list before heading to the store, so you don't forget anything.

Invest in containers: Again, you don't need to cook and freeze every meal you plan to eat for the week, although you can. However, you do need to save any leftovers.

Free up freezer space: Is your freezer overflowing with frozen convenience meals? Commit to stop buying them until you free up space. Then, when you whip up a batch of spaghetti sauce, you can freeze some for later as well as eating some now.

Get creative with leftovers: Have you ever watched an episode of "Chopped?" Pretend you're a contestant, and your leftovers are your basket ingredients. Learn new techniques for cooking — that leftover baked potato can top an impromptu shepherd's pie, for example.

Improve Your Health — and Save Time and Money — With Meal Planning

Meal planning simplifies your schedule and saves you money. Additionally, this process allows you to maximize your nutritional intake and control the number of calories and additives you consume. Taking the time to plan meals can do more than improve your finances and your health — it can improve your life.

Author's Bio: 

Alyssa Abel is a lifestyle and education writer with an interest in student and postgrad life, career tips, and strategies for self care and growth mindset. Follow her blog, Syllabusy, for more updates.