When it comes to budgeting, eating out has been my Achilles' Heel. It's not that I don't like to cook - I do. I LOVE to cook, but ....
There's always a but, right?
I'm not one of those excuse makers. I strongly feel that if one wants to do something, one can. It's just a matter of adjusting expectations/needs/wants.
A few years ago, I went to the doctor for a check-up. I was trying to establish care with a new physician, because when one gets sick, one needs to have a "regular" doctor. The quick care places don't really do anything more than trauma care with referrals to other specialists and/or back to one's regular doctor. The logic (if one can call it that) behind having a regular doctor is that one will have established a relationship with this physician, but it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes the regular doctor moves, or the insurance carrier changes and the regular doctor isn't in that network, or the doctor belongs in a practice, and the chances are as good as not that when one goes to see one's regular doctor one will end up seeing one of the physician's partners. If one is like me, one rarely even goes to see one's doctor. It's hard to establish a relationship with someone one sees only once every three or four years.
So, I went to the doctor, and when I was weighed, I expressed concern about my weight gain. We discussed it, and I mentioned that I suspected a large part of my problem was that I tended to eat dinner - my primary meal of the day - late in the evening. The doctor asked if I could change that.
To be fair, I wasn't asking for advice on how to lose weight. I know what I need to do. I was just explaining why I thought I'd been gaining.
Anyway, I suppose I could have changed the habit of eating so late in the day, but it would mean that we would not be able to have dinner as a family at least two nights per week ... or that I would have to no longer allow my daughters to participate in dance classes late in the evening.
The problem is that dance starts at 3:00 in the afternoon - too early for dinner - and isn't finished until 8:00 - too late for dinner.
And that schedule is also what got us when it came to breaking the eating out habit. It's super easy to decide to pick-up Take-Out on the way home from picking them up after dance.
One way we've combatted the issue is that one of us stays home and makes dinner while the other drives out to the Centre to pick-up our dancing queens.
Unfortunately, that doesn't always work. Sometimes there are other evening events - like volunteering or Yoga - that keep us out late (sometimes we have to decide which frugal act is more important - saving gasoline with fewer trips out or eating at home). And with a couple of take-out places, sort of, on the way home and cellphones, it's easy to order pizza on the road, which is ready when we get there, and we can sit down to eat almost as soon as we walk through the door at home.
Only, it doesn't always work that way, either, and the reality is that we have eaten a lot of cold take-out. And I realized that I could probably start something simple as soon as we walk in the door, that can cook while we're doing all of the chores that have to happen before we can settle down to eat, and we'd have a more wholesome, and hot, meal than we do when we succumb to the take-out temptation.
Take-out seems easier, also, because most of the food we have in our house seems to require some time-consuming prep. When we transitioned to mostly local foods, most of the easy-to-prepare foods went out of our diets. There aren't a lot of open-the-can/heat-and-eat options in my kitchen.
And then, the whole gluten-free thing happened. No more quick-and-easy grilled cheese sandwiches. Forget about the frozen pizzas (in fact the premade GF frozen pizzas at the grocery store - which aren't very good - cost the same as the take-out GF pizza). Five-minute couscous with leftover chicken - not happening.
We, of course, have options, but most of those options take a bit more thought and a bit more time to prepare.
What isn't an option is eating out - especially as gluten-free locavores.
Being a locavore means that our goal is to eat food that was grown/raised as close to where we live as possible. That means that most prepared food at the grocery store isn't an option anyway. Before we transitioned to GF, we'd already eliminated most prepared foods from our diet.
We still allowed ourselves to eat out, though, IF we went to a locally-owned restaurant. When we had to change our diet to gluten-free, eating out became more difficult. What we found was that even when we ordered something that we thought was GF, there were occasions when we'd feel poorly after we ate. Then, we found out that what we thought was GF food, too often, wasn't. For instance, we were super excited to find that a local restaurant has a GF pizza crust option. It's not a great pizza crust, but beggars can't be choosers, right? We ate the pizza thinking it was safe. Then, we found out that their cheese is not GF.
What the ...? What?
Wait. I've made cheese. It has milk, rennet and salt. That is all. No wheat. No gluten.
Apparently, the cheese mixture (Wait. They don't grate their own cheese??) they use at that pizza place has added wheat flour. My guess is to make the cheese brown better and make it crispier, but I just don't get why they adulterate such a wonderful food like cheese, which is perfection in and of itself.
But worse, we order GF pizza crust, which would imply that we have an issue with gluten, which all wheat products contain. One would think that the person, from whom we are ordering, would let us know this little-known fact about their cheese. They didn't. And we wondered, for a long time, why their pizza made us feel so ... sick.
The problem with eating out is that we, simply, can not know where the food comes from or how it is prepared, and when one is trying very hard to make conscious choices about one's food, eating out is no longer an option.
So, what do we do?
1. Have a few go-to meal options that can be prepared quickly:
- Tacos/Nachos are fast and easy. Just brown and season ground meat, chop up a few vegetables, and grate some cheese. It's ready to eat in less than 20 minutes.
- Wraps (with GF tortillas) take about ten minutes, if I spend time slicing pickles, olives and tomatoes *but this is usually a seasonal option, because lettuce and tomatoes don't grow here during the winter.
- Soup. I often have some quart jars of pressure-canned broth in the pantry. Saute some onions, garlic, and/or mushrooms, add some leftover chicken, drop in some dehydrated rice, and add some frozen vegetables and/or dehydrated greens - and it's a meal. Takes about 20 minutes, tops.
- Eggs. This also is seasonal and depends on how much our chickens have been laying. We scramble them or make a crustless quiche. If we do quiche, I'll also make roasted potatoes. Including prep time, it takes about forty-five minutes for a quiche with roasted potatoes.
- Stir-fry. Chop up some vegetables, throw in some leftover meat, cook up a pan of rice, et voila! Dinner. Super easy. Takes about a half hour.
- Pancakes/crepes. My daughters call it dinner-for-breakfast. I don't like pancakes, personally. My daughters love them. So, I make pancakes for them, and then, after I've made their pancakes, I thin the batter and make crepes for myself, which I fill with cottage cheese and some jam. Right now, it's blueberry jam, which is absolutely delicious!
3. Learn to appreciate GOOD food. It seems like a no-brainer, and it is, but I think most people don't really get it - or they think that the restaurant food (because of the price or ... something) is much better than what they can make at home. The fact is that much of what we get in most casual dining restaurants is boxed stuff anyway, and with very few exceptions, my rendition of that meal is better than what we get in the restaurant. My hamburgers are juicier and tastier (because I season them) than most hamburger joints. Also, the meat I use is either locally raised beef or venison. Better for us, much more delicious. When one starts with wholesome, fresher ingredients, the outcome is always better.
4. Add dessert. On the really wacky nights when I'm just wiped out, and I can't even think enough to compose a meal, I'll grab some leftover meat from the fridge, add BBQ sauce and add raw carrots, pickles or olives, sliced cheese, or even potato chips on the plate as a side. Then, I'll whip together a super quick apple crisp and throw it in the oven while we're eating. It's finished cooking when we finish the "main course." The dessert is sweet and warm, and fills our bellies the rest of the way.
The best thing we did for ourselves was to realize that the restaurant food is not faster, more convenient, nor tastier than what we cook here at home. It's not a treat, not in any definition of the word "treat", to eat out rather than eating at home. We've conditioned ourselves through some kind of brainwashing marketing campaign that we should prefer eating out, that those restaurants are doing us some huge favor by taking the burden of cooking for ourselves off our shoulders. We "treat" ourselves to restaurant food, but really, the only "treat" to eating out is that someone else does the dishes (unless our take-out meal requires the use of plates ... then, there's no treat).
But when we really consider what we're getting, especially if we have dietary quirks, allergies, or preferences, it's not a treat.
It's not a treat to poison our bodies with GMO food, or factory-farmed meat, or wheat, or tomato sauce from a BPA-lined can. When we get food from a restaurant, we don't know, for certain, that what we're getting has been chosen with the same level of scrutiny required of the food we bring into our homes. Some restaurants blatantly and proudly advertise their crappy food - like the restaurant that brazenly exclaims that it uses Smithfield meats (we NEVER eat at that establishment), like it's a good thing, or the restaurant that charges $2.59 for a kid-sized bowl of Kraft Mac&Cheese (and, yes, their menu does say that it's Kraft Mac&Cheese, which we can purchase at the grocery for about a dollar for a whole box!). It astonishes me that they don't even pretend they make it themselves. And parents buy this bowl of stuff they could make at home for about fifty cents.
Taking all of that into consideration, it seems a little silly, then, to think that eating out is a treat - or even a remotely better option - than eating in.
When it comes to frugal food:
Oven-roasted chicken served with baked potato and a salad (made at home): total cost for my family of 5, including beverages: $14.81. Total savings over eating out for a similar (if not comparable) meal at a casual dining facility: $85.19
Feeding my body wholesome, organically-raised food: Priceless.