By Matthew Kadey, M.S., R.D., Tribune News Service

When the clock approaches 5 p.m., do you start thinking about what’s for dinner? Many people wing it when it comes to mealtime, hoping that a fridge full of food will inspire great culinary creations. But meal planning over spontaneity may lead to better eating.

“Meal planning is the foundation of a healthy diet. The practice helps you plan out a given set of healthy meals so you’re more likely to put nutrient-dense foods in your body,” says Laura Poland, R.D.N., owner of Dietitian in Your Kitchen. “It’s much less likely you’ll resort to eating out or ordering delivery as a last minute option when life gets busy.” A grand benefit, considering a Tufts University study determined 92 percent of the 364 restaurant entrees measured exceeded the recommended calorie intake per meal.

Planning out your meals may keep you on good terms with the scale. A 2013 Nutrition & Diabetes study found using a pre-determined list of foods to dictate purchases is a cost-effective method to fend off weight gain. Poland adds, “Menu planning and then scribbling down a detailed grocery list makes it easier to resist unhealthy impulse buys.”

Menu planning also is a huge cost saver, reducing restaurant purchases, food waste at home, and extra trips to the grocery store (with less gas use and unnecessary purchases). And if nothing more, menu planning can squash a big stressor in your daily life: the worry of “what am I going to cook tonight?”

Menu planning know-how

When it comes to eating well, meal planning is one of the easiest things you can do to set yourself up for success. Here’s how to do it like a pro.

Look at the whole picture. Menu planning is not just for dinner. To maximize the benefits, include breakfast, lunch and even snacks in your plan of attack.

Put together the puzzle. To reduce food waste and save money, avoid selecting recipes that include ingredients that don’t fit together. For example, if one recipe calls for cilantro, make sure you have another dish that can put the herb to use.

Stretch it out. Choose an interval of time for meal planning that works best for you, whether it’s a week, two weeks or a month in advance.

Do research. For recipe inspiration, Poland encourages flipping through food magazines and cookbooks or surfing the web (try Foodgawker.com.) Consider creating a recipe Pinterest board, which you can return to during each menu planning session.

Shop your pantry and freezer first. Take stock of what you already have on hand, and plan meals that will put to use the can of beans in your pantry or bag of frozen broccoli in danger of freezer burn.

Make it a family affair. If your family has a say in what you’re going to eat for the week ahead, it’s less likely you’ll face pushback at the dinner table.

Put perishables first. Plan out meals so that items like fresh fish and tender greens get used first. Later, rely on foods with a longer shelf life, like eggs and carrots.

Mix it up. It’s OK to fall back on meal favorites, but try to keep your menu interesting. Poland suggests including a new recipe or two in your menu. “Trying unfamiliar foods and dishes gives your body a greater variety of nutrients and your taste buds a mix of flavors to fend off dietary boredom,” she says. Plan a few meals that are less costly such as a bean-based dish, and then one or two featuring more splurge items such as wild salmon.

Embrace technology. There is no shortage of apps (like Paprika and Pepperplate) that make meal planning easier than ever. Functions include creating recipe databases and grocery lists as items run out.

Do double duty. Try to include a few meals in your menu that take advantage of cooking once and eating twice, like a double batch of chili or a rotisserie chicken as a salad one night and tacos the next.

Think seasonal. When considering what meals to serve, plan around fresh, seasonal produce, which is usually more cost effective and nutritious.

Press the easy button. To save time, keep a generic shopping list on hand that includes things you buy frequently (such as milk, eggs, spinach, chicken breasts); then add extras as needed so you don’t have to start from scratch each week. Create a shopping-list template on your computer to make menu planning easier.

Get organized. Try organizing your grocery list by aisle so that you don’t waste time back-tracking. The more you walk, the more opportunity to fall prey to impulse buys.

Practice the 90:10 rule. When creating your shopping list, make it up of about 90 percent nutrient-dense edibles (whole grains, a rainbow of produce, lean meats and legumes), and make room for about 10 percent treats, such as ice cream and chocolate. This occasional splurge makes healthful eating sustainable.

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