4 reasons we eat out too much – and how to break the cycle

In Monday’s post about tightening up our family finances, I mentioned that we have been eating out too much lately, and several of you admitted that you’re in the same boat.

So how to cut down on the restaurant meals? Well, it helps to know why you’re turning to them in the first place. I reflected on it for a while and came up with four basic reasons I eat out too much – and some solutions to steer my eating habits back toward home:

Reason 1: Boredom. When life is feeling humdrum, dining out can seem like a quick fix. But honestly, I’m pretty rarely blown away by a meal out – in fact, my husband and I have started calling most restaurant experiences “The fifty-dollar disappointment.” Sure, there are amazing restaurants out there, but exceptional meals tend to come with a price tag to match. To be able to afford those great dining-out experiences, I need to cut back on the mediocre ones that I’m only craving because I’m bored with the usual routine.

Solution: Jazz up mealtime a little bit. Some ideas:

  • More meals with friends and family. We usually share dinners at least once, sometimes two or three nights a week, with another family, but we’ve gotten out of the habit over the past month. Sharing a nightly meal is one of my favorite ways to make dinner time more fun: you get to share the expense and workload of getting dinner on the table, and it can turn an ordinary Wednesday night meal into a fun little party.
  • Try new things. I’m a back-to-basics kind of cook, but every now and then it’s fun to experiment with new dishes, or even just an alteration on an old favorite. Grilling out can also make a “regular” meal feel like a treat.

Reason 2: Lack of Planning. It’s easy to say we don’t have “time” to cook at home, but is that really true? Or is it more that we didn’t plan ahead? True, if it’s 6:00, I haven’t taken the chicken out of the freezer yet and there are no veggies in the fridge, I “don’t have time” to go grocery shopping and then come back and prepare a meal by a reasonable time. But if I’d had everything on hand, putting it together would likely be quicker than a trip to pick up takeout (and a whole lot faster than corralling the whole family to a restaurant!)

Solution: Better planning! Lately I’ve been flaking on creating weekly menus and doing my shopping on time, which has led to stressful moments digging through the pantry and – you guessed it! – too many last-minute runs for pizza. Time to get back on the regular menu-planning, grocery-shopping wagon.

Reason 3: Date Night Syndrome. For much of our early parenting years, my husband and I rarely went out: lots of little kids and nursing babies, lack of child care, and a serious budget crunch made “date nights” few and far between. So whenever we managed it, we made the most of the date with a full-on meal experience including drinks, appetizers, an entree, and desserts (one each.)

But since our youngest is now 3 and we have two kids of legal babysitting age, heading out for an hour or two with my husband has never been easier. The problem is that we are still mentally stuck in that early-parenting stage where nights out together were scarce, and have gotten in the habit of enjoying blowout meals whenever we get the chance. It’s one thing when you’re doing that quarterly, quite another when it’s once a week!

Solution: We need to get creative about what it means to go on a “date” instead of always defaulting to the standby of a nice dinner. Some ideas that are cheap or free:

  • Go for a walk, stop for ice cream
  • Attend a performance at the local community theatre
  • Head to the $3 movie theatre
  • Look for free outdoor performances
  • Have dinner with the family, then head out for a drink or dessert and coffee.
  • Have more “date nights” in the house – a game of cards, shared TV show or just a quiet conversation after the kids are in bed.

Reason 4: Too Busy. Feeling frazzled at dinner time is often an indicator that my life has gotten a little too busy. If I feel pressured to check my email fifteen times between 6 and 7 PM, or have a hard time managing dinner because I’m driving kids around at that time every day, or can’t seem to wrap up my work day by 5:00 most days…then it generally means my priorities have gotten a little out of whack.

Solution: Take a hard look at my evening shuffle and see if there are things that need to go. Sometimes extra “busy-ness” is a temporary thing that I just have to get through – but sometimes, it suggests that I’ve taken on too many responsibilities or have let the kids get over-committed. We all have different levels of tolerance for “busy”, but if I can’t set aside a “kitchen hour” at least three times a week, I start to feel off-balance and have to scale back.

Did any of the above reasons for eating out too much strike a chord with you? What helps you keep restaurant meals under control?

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