My last year of college, I was infamously bad at cooking, and more of my meals than I should probably admit were enjoyed at local watering holes. On-face, eating out seems way more expensive than cooking, but I had a solution to that... I would only order the daily specials at local restaurants. For example, 40-cent wing Mondays, half-price pizza Tuesdays, or $5 burger and fries Thursdays.

(from Kevin H. on Flickr)

A friend of the blog once asked, "what if you don't feel like eating pizza on Tuesdays or Burgers on Thursdays?" It caught me off guard, because I never really ate meals based on what I felt like (sans for the occasional evening visit to a restaurant). It was always just based on what I figured I could afford.

These days, I cook a lot more; but my meals are still meticulously planned. Every Wednesday I get the Harris Teeter circular, I look at the best sales and make a meal plan based on that. On Friday I get the weekly "e-Vic" email, make adjustments based on those sales; then on Saturday I go to the store and get a week's worth of groceries. I still don't eat based on what I feel like on any given day.

Planning out meals saves money in two ways. First, I buy based on the best sales. If chicken is on sale in a given week, I tend to eat chicken that week. If bread and deli items are on sale, it's sandwiches during the week. Second, waste is greatly reduced. When you don't have a plan to use up your perishable food, you inevitably wind up throwing out stuff that turns bad. Freezing kind of works, but only if you remember to do it before the food turns.

I love Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen, but my problem with these is that they assume you have an unlimited grocery budget and can afford to make the test kitchen's "perfect" recipe. For example, they might have a recipe that calls for ground turkey rather than ground turkey breast, and they might have a very legitimate reason for it. But if ground breast is on sale for significantly less money, what am I to do? Similarly, what if they suggest using one cut of beer over another, but the less preferable cut is half the price?

To me, the ability to be truly spontaneous when it comes to meals is a luxury. Regardless of whether it's eating out or cooking, I know it would cost me a lot more money. This is also the reason I don't pay much attention to the debates over whether processed food is more or less expensive than fresh produce. This is only a concern if you don't plan your meals or shop the sales.