On economics and the waste of eating out

A recent report (by an employee of the restaurant industry) claims that “the average person eats out five times a week … which is good for the economy” Hard facts are: eating out is bad for a family’s economy, and does nothing to help that of the nation.

Eating at restaurants (even including the “fast food” variety) costs more than preparing healthful meals at home; it’s one of several reasons why we seem less and less able to make economic ends meet. How much is saved by regular use of home-cooked meals is a function of the size of the family group, but it is always a significant amount.

I cannot recall a single instance in which my parents ate out; certainly we children never did so. Yet we lived in a very affluent village in New York’s tony, Westchester County, where the only restaurants worthy of the name were in private clubs (e.g., country clubs). That established, allow me to point out also that very little commercially prepared food was brought into our home.

Some of our “wealthier” neighbors had baked goods delivered to their door, but our economically wise mother baked everything (except sandwich bread) from scratch; sometimes, when an aunt or grandmother visited, even the sandwich bread came from our own oven. Our meals were planned and prepared as influenced by the varying prices of main ingredients. Although we weren’t Catholic, we always had fish on Friday, because that’s when fresh and inexpensive seafood was in the butcher’s cold case.

Tough, beef liver was featured once a week; it was “good for you,” as well as very inexpensive, but I hated it. Chicken wings were so unpopular with most of the local residents that the butcher sometimes nearly gave them away, which was when we enjoyed them (I thought them to be the best part of a chicken).

My farm-raised mother never wasted a scrap of edible food. One of my more vivid memories is of her, seated by the oil-cloth-covered kitchen table, meticulously cleaning anything edible or cookable off whatever bones it was attached to. If we had lamb roast on Sunday, you could be sure that there’d be curried lamb on Monday.

Boiled potatoes with either chipped beef or salt pork gravy were other regular, hearty and inexpensive meals, which were usually accompanied with fresh greens (e.g., dandelions from our own yard). And we regularly enjoyed salted, dried codfish, in a white sauce, which also was served over boiled potatoes or, possibly, toasted bread. A small wooden box of dried codfish then cost about 39 cents: today it’s $5.

We had cakes and cookies, but they never came from a store. Angel food cake was everyone’s favorite (especially when covered with fresh-whipped chocolate cream), but the sponge cake that always followed (using up the egg yolks separated when making the angel food) was never popular. Nothing was ever wasted!

The Nash family even made it’s own soft drinks; no, not using one of those inefficient, expensive carbonating machines sold today. We boiled up a washtub full of sugar and water; added a small bottle of commercially-produced root beer concentrate, then, working as a family, bottled and capped the beverage. I’ll always remember how, if the bottles sat for too long (a couple of months?) the caps would blow off with pops as loud as gunshots.

When we had popcorn (usually on Sunday evening, in place of supper) it was made from corn that we shucked off dried cobs, which had been brought back from our annual summer visit to Grandpa’s picture-perfect dairy farm. The corn was fried in saved bacon grease drippings; some of us ate ours in a bowl with milk (which, unfortunately, didn’t come from that farm).

The culture in which my mother was raised was based on frugal living, saving for the future and taking care of one’s family with no help from government. That was largely responsible for our being able to move to previously mentioned Westchester County, when we children were in grade school, so that we could benefit from what then was widely recognized as “the nation’s best schools system,” along with the educational offerings of nearby New York City.

I well-learned those economic lessons from my youth: my personal family almost never ate out, nor ordered in. Neither did we owe any debt (occasionally, a car, or a home mortgage), or waste money on designer clothes, vacations to the Mouse House or tickets to ear-splitting “concerts” and mind-numbing professional sports events. There were no costly after-school activities, and our children didn’t each have a $300 cell phone, nor bedroom television – not even their own radio.

What we did have was a debt-free (or relatively so) home, with healthy meals, adequate medical care and a reasonably secure future. Our children didn’t get every toy they sometimes wanted, but they got lots of love, thoughtful care and guidance and a comforting and secure environment.

I’m not today completely happy with the fact that, as part of saving for the future and for unforeseen emergencies, I seldom treated my wonderful wife to dinner out (I estimate that we had dinner in a restaurant much less often than once a month, and took the children along maybe once a year).

Now that I have to plan meals, clean up afterward and otherwise care for the home that she was in charge of for so many years, I begin to realize what a boring, repetitive task that can be and how very much a break for dinner out was appreciated. That admitted, as part of a sensible, thoughtful, rational plan for family health, happiness and security, eating out was, and should be, at the bottom of the list of things to do. It seems to me that economically irresponsible families would do well to give some thought to what eating out “five times a week” takes out of the family’s income. That, of course, is hardly the only way that modern families waste available funds, and thus default on debts, consequently depending on a socialistic government, and me, to rescue their irresponsible behinds.

Realistically, the restaurant industry, which produces nothing of significant value to export, does not, by itself, help to reduce our national or international debts: all it really does is to redistribute dollars within our own failing economy. There thus is no persuasive argument for mindlessly supporting it.

So eat out less. If you want my recipe for crispy salt pork and gravy on boiled potatoes, just ask. When my mom made it for a family of five, she probably spent $1 for everything; today, you’d likely spend nearly $1/person, but that’s still a tenth of what you’d have to spend in a moderately priced chain restaurant. Yes, eating out is an avoidable expense, and a questionable use of limited manpower, to which we’ve, sadly, become addicted. Fortunately, it’s an easy habit to break – if one’s willing to try.

Of Cabbages and Kings is a syndicated column by J.G. Nash. Relevant comment may be sent to him at jgn@jgnash.com.

On economics and the waste of eating out
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