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Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Joy of Eating (Out)

Photo by Thomas Hawk

On a twenty-minute drive across town with the cherubs I realized we eat at restaurants way too often.
“Ooh! There’s Hard Times Cafe! Can we eat there tonight?”
“The Melting Pot! The Melting Pot! Let’s go there!”
We tried The Melting Pot, a spectacular cheese-, oil-, chocolate-, and calorie-chockablock fondue place, on my birthday last year. For the five of us dinner cost as much as one month’s rent on my first apartment.
“No, we’re not going to The Melting Pot tonight.”
When your eight-year-old not only knows what Sichuan is, but can pronounce it correctly (by English-speaker standards, anyway), you start to wonder what kind of gastronomical monsters you have created.
“We’re eating at home tonight.”
“At home?!? Why?!?”
“Because eating out is expensive and we don’t need to do it every night.”
“How about every other night? We haven’t eaten out since… Tuesday!”
Forehead to steering wheel.
“What are we having for dinner?”
“Pork chops.”
“I HATE pork chops! I want Thai food! Or Lebanese! Or Southeastern Hindi Fusion!”
On the upside, my kids are fairly savvy on world geography, unlike most of us The-Five-States-That-Border-My-Own-Comprise-The-Known-Universe Americans.
I blame the hubs for this situation. He loves to eat out, and would likely do so every single night if I allowed it. When he walks in the door at six o’clock I merely put the back of my hand to my temple and murmur, “I’m not sure what to have for dinner.” He responds each time with the foolproof predictability of an if-then series of software code:
If wife cooking=0, then restaurant.
If wife cooking=yuk, then restaurant.
If wife cooking=yum, then restaurant for dessert.
If you know me, you know I don’t even like cooking. Baking, yes—if the recipe calls for flour and sugar, I’m your girl. But the meat-and-vegetables stuff, not so much. I have a few friends who make their livings as chefs, and when one of them comes to my place for dinner I don’t even try to impress, because I have about as much chance of success as I do of finishing an Ironman Triathlon (while continuing to be alive) or being crowned Miss America. My goals when entertaining gourmet types are that the smoke alarm does not go off while they are present, and that no one experiences foodborne illness during the first twenty-four hours post-my-cooking.
But this eating-out thing may be getting out of hand.
Our kids know which restaurants offer what perks to entice the little ones to drag their parents (i.e., their parents’ wallets) into the establishment:
Chevys gives out balls of tortilla dough. Every single time we go there the kids argue for baking the dough after we get home, and I insist yet again that no one is putting that crap into his mouth after it’s been rolled on a public surface between fingers that an hour earlier were catching worms, scratching body parts, and booger-digging.
Crackerbarrel puts one of those wooden triangle/golf-tee board games at every table. Which would be great if you popped out or adopted only one offspring. Is there ever an empty table anywhere near you at that place? Never mind two.
Paradiso, an Italian restaurant far enough away that we would never go there but for the irresistible lure they cast, has a separate room for the ten-and-unders. Genius. With picnic tables and G movies and two servers of their very own, kids need not even interact with their parents. Mom and Dad can keep an eye on the progeny through the one-way mirror that takes up most of the wall between the rooms. I’m pretty sure I heard angels singing the Hallelujah Chorus to my husband and me the first time we went there.
But the reigning king of kid-friendly eateries is Buffalo Wild Wings. Each child gets his own tablet to play with. And I’m not talking Sumerian clay plates. Honestly, when we go there it’s like having a date night. None of the kids even talks to us or to each other because they’re all busy interfacing with their new electronic best friends. We probably wouldn’t have to order food for them, because odds are they’d never notice.
But is eating out as much as we do really a problem?
We’re not overspending to the point that it’s taking a toll on other, higher-priority financial needs like paying the mortgage. Most importantly, I can still support my yarn addiction. And my baby-daddy travels for work so much, he rationalizes both that I need a break after long days of single-parenting, and that our dining habits are supported by his unused per diem.
We all enjoy eating out, and it offers practice in crucial life skills such as decision-making, compromise, and self-advocacy. We’ve also gotten comments from waiters on the kiddos’ articulacy in ordering for themselves. (It’s pretty stinkin’ cute to hear a second-grader ask, “Can I have the chicken fingers tossed in Buffalo sauce, please? Yes, I’m serious.”)
And what is the point of eating meals, anyway? Sure, you need to fuel up the bod so it will continue to function, but you could do that with Soylent, an engineer-designed, tasteless, liquid food substitute that really should’ve been named after something besides a movie whose big reveal is that [SPOILER ALERT] people are being fed other dead, liquefied people. (There’s a reason manufacturers hire marketing firms, dude.)
But besides replenishing the body’s nutrient deficiencies, meals also serve as platforms for relationship-building. Studies have shown that eating together—while interacting in a positive way—is one of the most valuable things families can do to promote child development and general well-being. Anne Fishel, co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, reports that, among myriad other gains, dinner is the most reliable way for families to connect and find out what’s going on with each other.”
So, hey! Going out might not be as bad as I thought.
If—and here’s the rub—we’re actually having family time.
Holy cow. Look at the clock. Hubs just pulled into the driveway and I got zip going on in the kitchen. So much for those pork chops.
Back of the hand to the temple. “Kids! We’re going out!”
“Yay!!! Where are we going?”
“Somewhere that there’s nothing for us to do but nourish ourselves and relate to each other! ‘Cause we’re having family time!”
Grumble, mutter, hiss and moan. “Can we at least go to The Greene Turtle? They’ve got an arcade!”
An arcade?
An arcade’s pretty interactive, right?
The chitlins do have their own coinage. They’ll be learning practical life lessons about things like spending vs. saving, opportunity cost, and house advantage.
And the man and I could have fifteen or twenty whole minutes to ourselves.
“The Greene Turtle it is!”
Awesome parenting at work here.
That’s what I’m going to keep telling myself, all the way to the sports bar and grille.
The use-by date on those pork chops is just a guideline, anyway.


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