I’m Changing the Way I Think About Dining Out—And It’s Helping More Than Just My Budget

published Jun 23, 2019
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I always find it healthy and enlightening to take a step out of my personal universe: In questioning our assumptions just a little, we empower ourselves to live deliberately.

At least twice recently, I’ve come across references to how dining out used to be a “special occasion event” in generations past, instead of an all-too-accessible alternative to preparing meals at home. For example, our family often opts to eat out when we’re having a tough night or the time gets away from us and we just don’t feel like cooking. Dining out in these situations isn’t usually a decision I feel good about for my family—I don’t like it from a health perspective, and I definitely don’t like it from a budget perspective. Even though our family of seven is drawn to anywhere without a Kids Eat Free promo, eating meals out at restaurants is expensive.

Credit: Cathy Pyle

But then it occurred to me that we might dine out less frequently if we tied it to a celebration, even a small celebration like someone’s room finally getting organized. I like it from two different angles: First, it makes eating out more rare. The biggest way to cut down on our dining out spending is to eat out less. The corollary of this is that we’re committed to (and prepared to) eat at home even on nights when we “have nothing to eat” or we don’t feel like cooking.

Here’s how we’re doing it:

We have the pantry and freezer perpetually stocked with ingredients for simple go-to recipes

For us, this includes ingredients for chicken tortilla soup, for instance. All the ingredients are canned or frozen. Taking this one step further, for those evenings when even throwing together a soup is too laborious, being prepared to not get takeout means having food on-hand that only requires heating. Ready-made meals like Trader Joe’s orange chicken or cans of chili, for example.

Credit: Maskot/Getty Images

We’re rethinking what “dinner” means

I no longer underestimate the satiation of a couple of crispy fried eggs and some hot toast. And nothing says you can’t eat yogurt for dinner. Or slices of apples and cheese. Be flexible and creative. But remember, if you have a fighting chance of changing your tendency to pack up and go out for burgers, thinking of some options before the moment strikes will set you up for success.

We’re excited about celebrating every small milestone

A promotion at work. Paying off the car loan. Aunt Deidre’s birthday. The last week of school. A piano recital. Even just a finally-cleaned-out garage? Let’s celebrate! Marking special moments with a meal out gives us an opportunity to enjoy the accomplishments and company of our loved ones in a way that celebrates them. And when eating out isn’t an everyday occurrence, its special-ness is elevated.

I’ve slowly started implementing these practices in our family, and my daughter must have noticed. The other day she and her brothers wanted to go out to eat and she was trying to convince me by suggesting things we could celebrate. While that kind of thinking doesn’t keep us from spending money, looking for things in our lives and about each other that we can honor is definitely something I can get behind, a surprising but valuable result of a simple shift in our criteria for eating out.