Sunday, July 13, 2008

More about not eating in restaurants

In response to my post of recipes last week, my friend Sue, a working mom in the Boston area, commented thusly:

As may have occurred to you, those of us who do take out or eat out sometimes do *not* do it b/c we think we're saving money :-). We do it b/c we are stressed, b/c we feel like we and/or our kids need the treat, b/c we are taking 5 million kids in 5 million different directions on a given night and this is easier, b/c we haven't had a chance to go shopping and haven't gotten organized...

maybe there are better trade-offs to be made, but it's not as if, if only the cost became visible, we'd all go "Wow, I could had a V-8" and go home and cook.
Sometimes I think that I'm writing for the converted, but Sue's comments show me that that's not always the case. I understand the issues Sue presents, and they are very common in this day and age.

To begin with, I would define "simplicity" as "being conscious of the choices we make in how we spend our time and money." I often say that you can tell what someone values by where they spend their time and how they spend their money. This is one of the reasons that my simplicity tends to the side of frugality - money I spend in X place I cannot spend in Y (unless I debt, which is a different story). In other words, it's not just about money, it's about values.

I don't have anything against restaurant meals as such. I acknowledge that they can be a treat. I'm spending a lot of time this week deciding where we're going to go for dinner next week when we're in Kansas City. Birthdays, anniversaries - to me, any time we eat sushi is a treat. But it's a treat precisely because it's so rare. But in the normal course of life, how many times does one eat in a restaurant before it stops becoming a treat? Once a week? Twice a week? Certainly to my mind if one is spending 40% of one's food budget on restaurant meals (the figure that I read that motivated the original post) we're well past "treat" territory. Fewer times makes each individual time more special.

In addition, for me at least, fewer restaurant meals ease the financial pressure that would cause me to be work more, be stressed more, and have to resort to more restaurant meals! This is how something that's supposed to be easier actually becomes harder in the long run.

I stand by what I said in the original post, also, about the nutritional value of restaurant meals versus home cooking. There's no way, in most cases, to know the nutritional content of any meal one eats in a restaurant, and they are often quite high in fat and sodium and HFCS and other elements that we would try to limit at home. Cf the many studies of Chinese food which show the astronomical fat content of even the "lighter" dishes. (And the tomato sauce in pizza is not nutritional.)

Like Sue, I have a couple of kids who won't eat any of the recipes I posted, and whose main sustenance is tofu and noodles with soy sauce and cheese. (Day after day after day.) But I can get them what they want the way they want it at home a lot easier than in a restaurant, I can get it to them in the healthiest possible way (without a lot of added fat etc.), and I can (usually) get them to eat a "carrot shekel" or two as well.

I can also manage the spiritual aspect of the meal much better - the blessings before and after, the sharing of conversation and concern, etc. Also, there are aspects of eating at home that don't exist at all in restaurants, above and beyond managing the nutritional content: the help the kids give to the preparation and clearing of the meal, for instance.

As much as we might want to define "simpler" as "easier," Sue is quite right that it can be complicated, in terms of time and effort (precisely those elements that are at a premium in modern life), to live a "simple" life. Gardening, cooking, making meal plans and shopping lists, shopping in multiple stores... It reminds me of the line in Gandhi where he says that it takes a lot of his friends' and supporters' money to keep him in poverty. It takes a lot of thought and planning to keep oneself and one's family in simplicity.

The recognition that one is resorting to restaurant eating because of stress or lack of organization can serve to point out where one needs to make adjustments in one's life. I would put it to you that making the effort to simplicity is worth it because of what it adds, financially yes, but even above and beyond that.


Mary T said...

Well written! I like this in particular: "But it's a treat precisely because it's so rare." For me that is exactly how it is. We went out to eat a couple times when we were in Charleston and next week we may go out to eat once or twice when my hubby's folks come to visit. But do we go to restaurants much otherwise-- almost never. We have so many good meals here at home. But-- hubby and I and the grown kids ALL cook--and that's something that has evolved. If I had to come up with a good meal every single night-- it'd be really hard. I think you need to look at your family and your own situation and figure out strategies that will work for you all. Restaurants can be cut out, fast food can be drastically cut down--lots of money can be saved that way and the food will be better too. but-- if its not someone's habit right now-- it can be a 'goal' no point anyone feeling awful and overwhelmed, big adjustments take time.

suefendrick said...

There is no question that it is better to make food at home and eat it at home the vast majority of the time. I was just pointing out that your surprise at why people eat out so often when it's so much cheaper and often healthier to eat at home doesn't take into account the many things that people are balancing. In many cases some time thinking through how to improve the situation would indeed improve it, but I think it's important to also respect the different balancing acts each family and person is doing.

rebmoti said...

I completely agree with both of these comments, particularly about the balancing act each family has to perform. I think my approach would be toward increasing one's consciousness of and attention to one's choices, and in particuly agree with with Mary's comment about any move in the right direction being a positive move, depending on the exigencies of each situation.