I started menu planning a while ago. Before that, here's what would usually happen (and occasionally still does happen... sighs)
1) If I didn't have something pre-planned, I would decide on the way home that dinner was too much trouble, since I was tired or had a long day at work, and I would pick up fast food, usually an unhealthy choice. I would thereby blow the budget for the month with poor food choices. We were eating take out food 2 or 3 times a week (sigh.. occasionally more).
2) As a result of buying fast food, I would also have no proper leftovers for lunch the next day, leading to another take out meal and more money spent (or hubby getting sick of tuna fish sandwiches).
3) I would decide what I was going to make for dinner that night during the drive home and discover when I got home that I was missing an ingredient. Either I would order in (pizza, anyone?) or I would have to make a trip to the grocery store for the missing ingredient and end up spending more money than I meant to (never can just buy one thing at the grocery store) and more time than I meant to (dinner at 8:30 tonight, dear).
4) We ate certain meals A LOT because they were quick and easy (spaghetti and barbecued leftovers come to mind). I probably used a rotation of about 8-10 meals over and over again and half of them were not very healthy choices.
Since I have been menu planning, I have:
1) Saved money by: stocking up on sale items; using leftovers effectively in future meals (planned-overs); not buying take out as often; cutting down trips to the grocery store.
2) Saved time by: not having to think every day "oh what am I going to make for dinner tonight???" - I only take about an hour once a month to sit down and write out the dinner ideas (frequently incorporating past monthly menus, since all the work has been done). I prepare things in advance where possible (like browning ground turkey for tomorrow's crockpot meal as I am preparing tonight's dinner, cutting up the onions for tonight's dinner AND tomorrow's dinner all at the same time); cutting down trips to the grocery store.
3) Spent more time with hubby by: knowing the second I walk in the door what needs to be done rather than spending 20-30 minutes looking through the fridge or freezer and cookbooks hoping desperately for inspiration; planning ahead with crockpot meals so I don't have to do ANYTHING when I walk in the door except maybe throw some vegetables on to steam or put together a quick salad.
4) Made wiser food choices: by cooking myself rather than eating out I am making healthier food choices and giving hubby and I a greater variety of nutritious choices.
5) Adding variety to our menus: by planning ahead, I am making sure to include new recipes every week to keep our menus interesting and varied. This really helps me to continue a healthy eating lifestyle. I also make sure to mix things up during the week (oh, I'm already having chicken twice that week, I'll make this night beef or pork or fish instead). I also am more likely to try new ingredients, because I usually research 2 or 3 recipes using the ingredient before I decide to buy it.
I really struggle with some of these challenges when I don't pre-plan. It doesn't have to be a rigid straight jacket (just the opposite I think, since it encourages me to always be trying new recipes). I just find that it makes my life go more smoothly when I do it, so I wanted to encourage others to try it. I frequently flip nights around (switching what I had planned for Wed. and Thur. for example); it's no big deal.
How about you??? Will you take a crack at menu planning? How about just looking ahead to the next couple of days or week?