Eating out has a lot to do with your lifestyle, and we rarely say, "Hey, let's eat out tonight." For one thing, we're 15 minutes from the nearest restaurant, and it's not that great. Unfortunately, the small-town restaurants serve mostly frozen food that they've thrown in the fryer or canned stuff that's been merely reheated. I don't buy that stuff to fix at home, so why should I pay three or four times as much to have it served to me in a restaurant?
An unexpected benefit of moving to the country is that it caused us to really think about eating out. When we first moved out here, there were times when we would decide that we were too tired to cook, and we would all pile into the car and go out to eat. After a few disappointing meals at the nearest town, we even drove 45 minutes to the little cities to eat at better restaurants. It didn't take us long to realize that it was ridiculous to spend 90 minutes driving to and from a restaurant for dinner.
A few decades ago, eating out was something that people did for special occasions. It was something that they pondered. It wasn't just dinner. It was special. That's the way I view eating out today -- and I grew up eating out at least five times a week. Yesterday, I talked about eating fast food, which is what I do at mealtime when I'm in the little city 45 minutes away shopping or taking care of other errands. And yes, we eat out when we travel, which we do more often than one would think. A week ago, we delivered goats to Tennessee, and I'm delivering goats to Missouri soon.
On our way home from Tennessee last week, we stopped at FlatTop Grill in Champaign, IL, for dinner. It's a chain of restaurants in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin that serves stir-fried veggies, meats, and tofu. You walk through a buffet line where you put your favorite vegetables and rice or noodles in a bowl, then add a sauce or two (there are a couple dozen from which to choose), decide which type of protein you want (beef, chicken, tofu, etc.), and then you hand it to the cook, who stir fries it while you relax at your table. It's a little challenging to find out exactly what's in the various sauces, (although they do have allergy info available) but you basically have a wide variety of fresh, real food available, and aside from the sauces, you know exactly what you're eating. I was also impressed during our visit to the Champaign restaurant that they've added a couple of organic wines to the menu, including a very nice Reisling that I really enjoyed.
Other than traveling, the only reason I really like to eat out today is to experience a food that I can't fix at home or to discover a new way to prepare foods at home. We sometimes eat out to celebrate a special occasion, like a birthday or an anniversary, but we only eat at restaurants where we really love the food. My favorite restaurant in Bloomington, IL, is Destihl's, which is locally owned and has a "Down to Earth" philosophy, which includes buying products from local farmers, using LED lighting and paper straws, and sending the spent grains from beer making to a local dairy farm to be fed to the cows, whose cheese they use in the restaurant. Their food is delicious. Yes, their food is more expensive than most restaurants, but I don't mind because I love their food, I can't duplicate it at home, and I'm happy to support a business with their philosophy. And we only eat there three or four times a year.
No doubt it's harder for some people to break the fast-food addiction or the urge to eat out often, because it's terribly convenient if you live in a city. It's terribly convenient. But when I lived in the suburbs, no one ever suggested that maybe we shouldn't eat out so much. In fact, when we talked about eating out only once a month to save money, one of my friends was shocked that we would attempt such a feat. So, I'm here to tell you that it can be done, and there are a lot of benefits to eating at home more often.
You're bound to eat healthier if you're cooking for yourself, because you know what's in the food. When I found a muffin recipe last winter, there was no way I was going to use the amount of butter suggested. But if I had eaten a muffin from that recipe in a restaurant, I would have had no idea that it was so unhealthy. And even though I altered the recipe to make it less of a cardiology nightmare, I don't make those muffins more than a few times a year.
You'll save a lot of money if you eat at home. I can't believe some people don't get this. I complained about the KFC $10 meal challenge a couple months ago, but I could fix a lot of different meals that would cost less than $10 for four people, including a salad, soup, entrée, and even a dessert. At least five of the menus on this page would cost less than $10 to prepare. The pork roast and turkey breast would cost more, but it's really healthier to eat meat only once or twice a week, and there are less expensive cuts if you aren't growing your own meat. The first year we moved out here and were still eating a vegetarian diet, our food bill went from $10,000 a year to $6,000, and most of that drop was a result of eating at home more often.
If you have a job that requires you to eat out often with clients, you're on your own. You'll have to do your own research, figure out what are your healthiest options at the restaurants you frequent, and exercise some self control when it comes to ordering the less healthy options. It might also mean that you'll have to find a couple restaurants with healthier options.
I really don't think it's a problem to eat healthier. It can be a challenge, but it's not insurmountable. Like Thoreau, we are not hermits. (He visited local taverns and towns regularly while living on Walden Pond.) We go into town and even travel to cities on a regular basis. And we're not perfect. We do our best to plan and do a little research so we can make good choices, but sometimes we wind up with a less-than-perfect meal. We eat, we move on, and we try to plan better next time.
For more posts on food, check our Real Food Wednesday.