Some of you might be wondering now, why all the fuss about eating in? Is that such an escape from the ordinary? Well, in a culture in which roughly half the food we purchase is already fully prepared, 77 percent of it from fast-food restaurants, and almost a quarter of it all consumed on the road, let's take a moment to slow down, and see what these bonuses from the other persuasion might be. In 2006, I embarked on what became two years of not eating any restaurant food, in the unlikeliest city for that (New York). I documented my favorite homespun recipes, ones that I thought would be practical and encouraging for the busy-but-thrifty (and still do) on my blog, Not Eating Out in New York. I also posted discussions on home cooking in the form of tips and announcements or summaries of local events related to home cookery in my blog. One constant among the posts was a new monthly essay pontificating on one particular reason for not eating out.
So I thought I'd go through them and offer the best-of for the Week of Eating In. Dig in.
1. It's Easier Being Green
For anyone who would like to support sustainable farms, or would prefer to drink only organic milk, eat free-range meat and pesticide-free plants, buying the ingredients raw will stretch your dollar by leaps and bounds compared to searching for this only in restaurants. Not only is it less expensive than dining at a restaurant that touts its farm-to-table philosophy, but it's more manageable. There are more options set before you, at a store. You can be more certain about the ethos behind what you're eating, because you've seen it, touched it, cooked it. And, if those restaurants in your neighborhood are as hot as they are around here, you can be sure to get a seat in your own kitchen.
2. Wasting Not
One-third of America's garbage is comprised of packaging: bags, boxes and other things that come with purchases that are not meant to be kept. This includes all the accoutrements that come with your take-out dinner. Compare a home-cooked meal to an average meal that you might order in, for delivery: there's a plate, utensils and maybe a couple napkins for the former, and there's bags, cartons, packets, disposable cutlery and stacks of napkins often as fat as a burrito for the latter. All this makes a huge addition to the waste stream, and much of it (like dirty food containers), are never recycled.
3. Your Health
It's no coincidence that both the rise in obesity and the rise of eating out, particularly at fast-food restaurants, have shot up in recent decades. Cheap eats all too often means unhealthy eats -- pizza, deep-fried food, frozen hamburgers tossed on a grill -- so if you're trying to spend less, you could do some serious damage to your health if you're not careful. Cooking can be empowering in this aspect, you can be sure of how much fat, salt, sugar you put in your food. Since restaurant food has different priorities than your home kitchen (they want to make something irresistibly tasty before considering how healthy it is, most of the time), you can reclaim a pretty significant part of your health by being in control of your food hands-on.
4. Dinner Parties Are Contagious
Eating in is a habit that breeds upon itself, just like eating out is. For instance, if you don't have any leftovers or remaining half-bunches of food in your fridge from the night before, you're less likely to want to cook that day. Just as cooking for yourself can have a domino effect, so does throwing the occasional dinner party. After making the effort of having one, your friends may decide they want to invite you over for dinner, too, to repay the favor, or just because they found it to be such fun. Then the next couple will, and so on. Potlucks have a way of repeating themselves, too. So long as the mood is light and casual -- not stuffy, formal, and put-upon, as in the fanciest restaurant outing -- it's much less intimidating for folks to want to repeat the fun.
5. Feeling Like You Deserved It
Seldom do you feel a sense of accomplishment after stuffing down a take-out sandwich wrapped twice in butcher paper and cellophane, in the middle of a busy day. But, if you brought that sandwich, expertly layered with beefsteak tomatoes, roasted red peppers, your own leftover roast chicken, or whatever you like, wrapped it and brought it with you on your busy day, and it was delicious, there's a surge of pride that's sure to come as you gobble the last bite, and move on with your day. And that's a great feeling. It can change your whole attitude that day, even.
6. Tapping Your Creativity
There are those who say they just can't cook, but everyone should be capable of making something edible. Whether or not that looks like something from Julia Child is another thing, but hear me out -- you do not have to make a known or familiar entree. It can be improv, kitchen-style, a little bit of leftover rice with some extra greens and a poached egg. It can be your painting, on a plate. As time goes by, your creativity will surely liken itself to your palate better, and you'll figure out ways to satisfy yourself that even a restaurant wouldn't know.
7. Taking Charge of What Goes Down Your Mouth
In a system in which our food passes through so many hands, travels however far, by whatever means, from how they were harvested, and often, fully prepared before eating, it's a small act of empowerment to take charge of the final step, cooking it. And for something as vital as food, this is nothing to sneeze at. You'll be more aware of what it is, where it came from, and how it was seasoned (or whether it was fully cooked), whereas not knowing any of these things are what leads to mystery illnesses and disease. You can't change everything about the food system, but you can take more action, and be a little more in control of your everyday diet, when you cook it from scratch.
8. To Preserve A Dying Art
Many of my friends who say they don't know how to cook never cooked much at home, nor saw their parents do. It's a generational difference, as a half-century ago this was seldom the case, never cooking at home. It's even more prevalent now today, and with home economics crash courses in cooking out the window for a lot of public schools, many children simply do not have the experience in eating in. Which will be surely passed on to future generations. Keep it up, even if it seems archaic, and start cooking early on. It's a skill that'll be easier then, like learning to read.
9. It's Expensive
I hear it lamented so often that eating in can be more expensive than eating out -- "Whole Paycheck" is the pet name for a certain large grocery chain that many perceive to have pricey food. But if you shop frugally, and keep a kitchen stocked with essentials like dry goods in bulk, remember to use up leftovers in creative ways, eating in should never exceed the cost of prepared food. Fresh produce like cabbage, carrots and other winter root vegetables have a way of being some of the cheapest purchases per pound around (around $1, even at the farmers' markets), and they're hardy, and should last in your fridge for a while. After three years of adding the cost of each recipe I've posted on Not Eating Out in New York, the total cost of each dish for one serving rarely exceeds five dollars, looking nothing like the prices on a restaurant menu.
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