Is Eating Out a Special Occasion Anymore?

by Danielle Omar on March 5, 2012

When I was a kid growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, eating out was a special occasion. It usually meant we were celebrating a birthday, holiday or some other special event. I think this was normal for the time, but I also had a mom who thought her food was much better and definitely cheaper than what we could buy out. Something still debated today, since many of her “specialty” dishes can now be bought pre-made at Whole Foods or Costco. Yes, Mom…your food is waaaay better than Costco’s. 

But I have a secret to tell you that may come as a surprise.  Eating out is no longer a special occasion. When you eat out every day for lunch and pick up take-out dinner four or more times a week, eating out has probably lost its magic. Not only is it not a special occasion, it’s not even special…it’s just part of your everyday life. We now live in a time for many households where the home-cooked meal has become a special occasion.

Why does this matter? Well, there’s the obvious reason that restaurant food is often high in fat, calories, sodium and sometimes a host of other unwanted ingredients (take for example, this grilled chicken sandwich).  Thank you, Andy.

But the other reason this is important is the mindset we have about eating out.  Like I mentioned, for most of us born before 1980, eating out was considered special. This imprinted in our minds that restaurants were for celebration, and the food we would eat in this environment was also something special. Perhaps a dish mom would never make, or a long, lingering meal that started with appetizers and ended with dessert.  There was a certain “feeling” that eating out provoked and it was fun, social, celebratory and well…special.  At least that’s how it was for me.

What I see with my clients is that they are still living in this reality today. When they eat out they immediately revert back to their childhood and go into “special occasion” mode. This usually results in ordering way too much of food that they would probably never make for themselves.  But it’s not a special occasion…it’s just a Tuesday night.  Which was very similar to what happened Monday night and probably Saturday night, as well.

There’s an underlying and much more long-term issue with this when looking at children. What do you get when you have a family that eats out almost every night for dinner? Well, you get kids who don’t know how to cook for themselves.  You get kids who end up eating out for the rest of their lives because they never learned basic cooking skills; they never learned to appreciate/respect preparing food or cooking itself.

I spend a lot of time and effort encouraging people to eat at home more. I know that not everyone will listen. I understand the lure of eating out. It’s convenient. It’s easy. It’s comfort.  But if you’re anything like my clients and would like to lose weight, maintain your weight, or just get healthy….you need to start thinking about what you’re doing when you step into a restaurant. You need a strategy.

I have some basics tips that I share with my clients.  Below are a few to get you started.  

Get your head in the right place. Remind yourself that this is not a special occasion…this is not a fancy restaurant…you are in a place you frequent often and probably know the menu by heart. You don’t need to share an appetizer, you don’t need a fancy drink (skip the Arnold Palmer and order water) and you certainly don’t need dessert.

Order “As If.” Order the same way you would as if you were at home. Do you put butter and sour cream on your potato at home? Do you fry anything in your kitchen?  Do you eat a basket of bread before dinner? Do you eat 16 oz of steak in one sitting? Do you put that much cheese on your salad? Do you use that much dressing?  I could go on and on…

Get Creative. Order in portion-controlled sizes like soup or have a side salad and an appetizer. Order sauces/dressing on the side. Get anything in a wrap or sandwich on a salad or in a bowl instead. Order double veggies and skip the starchy sides. Have one slice of pizza with a side salad. Go with seafood or shellfish. Share an entree.

Use The Plate Rule. Utilize the plate method when ordering.  Make half your plate fresh veg or salad, and then leave the remaining quarters for lean protein and high fiber carbs.  This will eliminate ordering one-note dishes like pasta or giving in to a burger and fries.

I also have some food principles that I share with my clients when eating out. For one, I mandate no cheese in restaurants. That means no cheese on salads, in omelets, on burgers, or in sauces. It’s simple and effective because it makes you think before you order and of course you will save hundreds of calories by not having it. Save the cheese for when you’re home and you can control the type and the portion.

Is eating out a special occasion in your house?  How do you get creative in a restaurant when ordering?  Do you eat out often and if so, how do you keep it healthy? 

Danielle Omar

Owner, Registered Dietitian at Danielle Omar Nutrition
Danielle creates personal eating strategies for busy men and women through individual nutrition counseling, cooking classes and digital programs. She inspires working parents, busy families, and stressed out professionals to change the way they think about food. Danielle is also a cookbook author, nutrition and culinary spokesperson, and recipe developer. Click here to sign up for her Confident Kitchen newsletter.

Latest posts by Danielle Omar (see all)

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Terra March 10, 2012 at 3:51 am

I was born before the 80′s too, and agree going out was a special treat in my family. My Mom always made meals at home, and we all ate at a table together. Since I have been with my husband, we have been through periods in our life where we ate out too much. Now we try to make it a treat, and make fun meals at home. When I eat out, I don’t eat fried foods, and try to avoid extremely high fat foods. BUT I try to still enjoy myself, and enjoy my time. Take care, Terra

Reply

2 Danielle Omar March 11, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Thanks for the comment, Terra. It makes total sense to avoid the fried and high fat foods…what’s so sad is sometimes the “safe” foods like salads and sandwiches have more calories and fat than the obvious bad choices!

Reply

3 julie March 11, 2012 at 3:55 am

Eating out is a problem for me, as far as overeating is concerned, and I try not to do it more than a few meals/week. This means I have to pack lunches, have previously prepped food at home, simple meals. I think my mom had me on so many diets at home that I have this concept that I have to eat something fried and cheesy (not really a meat person), though I’m training myself away from that. Even if I order something healthy, the portion sizes are out of control, and while I’m usually good at taking home half, a bit of alcohol can change that. Besides, I love my farmers market and feel like a fool eating out when I have so much awesome, pretty food at home.

Reply

4 Danielle Omar March 11, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Yes, it does take some prep time to eat meals at home and bring your lunch…and many people don’t make the time to do this. But, it’s half the battle just recognizing what’s going on in your head, so congrats to you for that!

Reply

5 Nadine Nicholson April 10, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Danielle, are you in my mind girl? My husband and I were JUST talking about this last night. We realized that we went out to eat twice on the weekend and it felt rushed without any special experience. We probably spent $100 in total, money that would feed us at home for a week, with more experiences as a family. Another issue we have in our home is an open concept kitchen/family room. We often eat at the counter peninsula and it’s easy for our 4 year old to slide away and play with his toys. The dining room table is also in the same room so eating there doesn’t make much of a difference. Any tips to create more of an eating experience, in a room that has the kitchen, dining table and family room, would be great! Thanks so much. ~ Nadine

Reply

6 Danielle Omar April 11, 2012 at 10:51 am

Thanks for your comment, Nadine. I too have a 4 year old and honestly, she rarely sits at the table WITH my husband and I for dinner. I usually feed her first at her little table, but she helps me cook and prep the meal. This works for us because while my husband and I are eating (which we do at the kitchen table) she gets to play in the kitchen or talk to us, or do whatever. This way, my husband and I get our quality time together without the meal being all about her, AND she gets the exposure to us eating together as a family. Eventually, she will be mature enough (if she can ever sit still) to sit with us at the “big” table, and she looks forward to that. I think at this early stage (the under 5 set) it’s about exposure and modeling the behavior you eventually want to see in them. Hope that helps.

Reply

7 Shannon Cherry April 12, 2012 at 4:48 pm

You are so right Danielle!

Eating out with the family for us (with 2 6-year olds) is never a special occasion. Ever. So I like the idea of keeping it simple when we do go out as a family.

One thing my husband & I DO do is go out to lunch once a week. That to us is a special time, as we treat it that way. (Either we skip dinner all together or have a light dinner at home when we do this!)

I would love to hear some tips about cooking at home and making those times a special occasion and healthier!

Reply

8 Margo DeGange, M.Ed. April 16, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Wow Danielle, this is SO true! We often have this indulgence mentality every time we eat out, which of course today is often. Thanks you again for helping to keep us healthy. I love you for that!

You know, I looked at this issue and discovered that so often, eating out is actually cheaper… money wise. Just to go to the store for groceries for a quick dinner can set you back 40 bucks or more. But, it is not cheaper in terms of residual costs (like illness, weight gain where clothing will cost more, etc) and unintended consequences (less than optimal health, allergies, preservatives that cause havoc, etc).

I have changed the way I eat out. Now, I try to order things as close to the way they were made as possible, and this results in going to a lot of the same restaurants and ordering the same things, but I am fine with that. I am loving my body! I most often order grilled fish and broccoli or green beans, and a salad with dressing on the side. But even there you have to WATCH! I ate at a place called “Cheddars” a few times and always order the green beans. Last time I did I noticed they were sweet. I ask to speak to the manager to see if there was sugar in them, and sure enough there was, and the menu did not inform me. I requested that the menus be changed and got a “funny” reaction.

You are wise for sharing this post with us.

Love and hugs,

Margo

Reply

9 Marion Taylor July 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Thanks for reposting this great topic Danielle! Changing the way we think about the culture of dining out is a topic that really doesn’t receive a lot of attention, thanks for sharing your insights.

Reply

10 Danielle Omar July 30, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Thank you, Marion! I appreciate the comment. This topic is near and dear to my heart.

Reply

11 Liz August 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Born before 1980 here, Danielle. I don’t remember too many details from childhood. What stands out, though, is eating at the Picadilly cafeteria with my mom (and longing for the dessert and a soft drink but not getting it because of the cost). Today, married with two young boys, I have a running theme that restaurants are once a week and no more. Even with that frequency, restaurant eating has lost its luster, and even once a week seems too often for me. Enjoyed the post!

Reply

12 Danielle Omar August 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm

I can relate, Liz. When I was growing up, eating out was expensive and certainly not an everyday affair…back then once a week was not the norm, it was more like once/month! Thank you for the thoughtful comment!

Reply

13 Min@ savortherainbow August 28, 2012 at 8:49 pm

Although I wasn’t born before the 80s, going out to eat is certainly a special occasion for my husband and me. We cut back on dining out considerably when we were budgeting, but we stuck with it because my husband’s health improved so much! He has a heart condition which requires him to take his medicine for life. And just by eating at home more, his medication dosage got caught in half! I love all your tips here. My family and friends can certainly use them! I’m writing this down..thank you for sharing!

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: