For most of my adult life, I have eaten out more than I have cooked, and for the last 10 years or so I have eaten out nearly every meal. This behaviour has roots, of course.
There weren't many rules in our house growing up, but eating separate from the family was not allowed. When it was necessitated by my brothers' late basketball practice or my dad's long work day, there was a sadness in the house that one of them had to eat alone. Usually my mom would sit with them, just so they wouldn't be alone at the table. We also had lots of fun at meals, even as adults. Once my mother, in the middle of buttering her Wonder bread, leaned over and buttered my arm, then went right back to her bread. I was about 30 at the time. At my parents' lake house dinners were riotous affairs, with stories and laughter and grandkids refusing to eat anything that wasn't white. My brother Stan (11 years my senior) was generally the instigator, and at one particularly fun meal, my mother threw a corn cob at him.
And mom was the more quiet, civilized one of the bunch.
The first year in my own apartment, I lived mostly on scrambled eggs and canned corned beef hash. Once a week, I went to the Tao restaurant, a vegetarian place in my college town, for a toasted cheddar cheese sandwich and fried rice. I chatted incessantly with the waitresses, and I realized then at 19 I was finding all of those meals alone depressing, and couldn't wait for Tuesday night at the Tao.
So, I eat out. I knew this was one of the stressors on my finances, but I didn't really believe it when friends told me it wasn't good for my health. After all, I ate Chinese food a lot–plenty of vegetables, right? I had yummy creamy soups at Panera or Olive Garden–soup was always healthy, no? A sandwich wasn't much of a meal–couldn't call a sandwich and chips from Jimmy John's overeating, could you?
The first step in taking control of my health had to be giving up eating out. I had to learn to enjoy food, enjoy cooking if I was to raise my awareness of what I was eating and be accountable to it. And if I could save a few hundred bucks a month my financial health would improve too. So I pledged to stay out of restaurants for three weeks (save for a regular Tuesday morning breakfast with my boss).
I was surprised by how easy that was to do for three weeks. What has been much harder is going out occasionally. First, finding things on the menu that I feel good about eating is a challenge at all but a handful of restaurants in town. Second, it seems like one dinner out makes me crave another and another. I've been pretty good about not indulging those urges, but I am surprised how, after four months of this new life pattern regarding food, I can fall immediately back into a strong desire for…for what? Sauces? Being served? Salt, salt, salt? About a week and a half ago I went out for Lucca's pizza (the best in Bloomington). I didn't just eat a couple of pieces. I ate 2/3 of a pie. And the next day I wanted desperately to get pasta or cajunish food at J. Gumbo (about 1200 calories a serving). Every day that week I struggled to stay in line–I didn't eat out, but I had popcorn a couple of nights WITH some butter. I stayed within my daily calorie allowance, but I snacked a lot and I didn't eat very mindfully.
I learned that, while I may be able to allow for the calories in my daily intake, restaurant food begets a desire for more restaurant food–still. I have broken the habitual behaviour, but I have't freed myself of the urges that went with that old pattern.
Tonight I had dinner with a friend, and I had chicken parmesan with spaghetti. A great meal, and one that broke many of the standards I have been trying to meet (no pasta, no deep fried, breaded food, no empty calories), but I ate well the rest of the day, and I enjoyed the meal without wanting a second plate or several appetizers. That wish for more more more wasn't part of the experience. We will see how I feel about my own cooking tomorrow, but I think it is going to be okay.
And, by the way, I have not added any debt to my credit cards since I stopped eating out every day.