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Monday, January 18, 2010

How to Make Eating In More Like Eating Out

Spicing Up Eating In

I've been a SAHM for years, and as a result we've always eaten most of our meals at home. The chief difference between meals at home "Before" and meals at home now is we don't really have a choice now. It's really interesting how putting something out of reach makes it all the more desirable, too. Here are a couple of ideas to make eating in just as good an experience as it is for your wallet and waistline.

The first thing to ask yourself is "Why do I want to eat out anyway?" I know exactly why I want to eat out!

  • No shopping for food
  • No prepping food
  • No schlepping the food (to the dining room table and back to the sink)
  • No cleanup
  • Wait Staff!
  • Interaction with friends
  • Distractions for the kids
  • Variety in the dishes and in the meal (Appetizers! Bread Baskets! Desserts!)

Whew! That's a tall order for a dinner at home. Never fear, though, it can be achieved.

The Meal: There are a couple of things that you can't get away from: If you're going to eat a homemade meal at home, you're going to have to shop, prep, and schlep the food some. You can cut down on this step by planning to serve a meal you've prepared earlier in the day or earlier in the week. In fact, if you're a fan of Once A Month Cooking (freezer cooking), you may have prepped the meal a whole month ago. Using a slow cooker is another way to cut down some on the meal prep so you can focus on your day instead of on the stove.  I'll mention cooking circles later in this article as a way of adding variety to your meals.

Plate the Food in the Kitchen: Of course we're used to placing all the serving dishes on the table and passing them around, but chances are you have a pretty good idea how much everyone is going to take. Go ahead and plate the food before it leaves the kitchen. This will also result in less to clear away from the table after the meal.

Hire a Waiter: Kids love to role play, and giving them the role of waiter for a night may be all you need to give your tootsies a rest for the evening. If they're too young or if you'd like to keep the family gathered around the table for the meal, have a waiter's station set up near the dining room table. This can be a card table put up just for the night, or you can use the kitchen counter. At the waiter's station have a pitcher of water, extra napkins, silverware, and anything else that usually has you popping up and down like Jack in the Box during dinner.

A Table Full of Friends: It's true, it is easier to decide with friends to head for the nearest restaurant after the basketball game. Having said that, it's much more rewarding to have everyone over for dinner instead. There's no check to worry about splitting at the end of the meal, there's no fisheye from the waiter when you're lingering over dessert at the end of the evening. What this does take is planning. You can plan the entire meal in advance and set a date to get together, or if you issued an impromptu invitation you can stretch a meal by adding a quick soup or salad and more side dishes. Soups are really easy to make in bulk and freeze, and a bag of salad takes 5 minutes to grab at the grocery store on the way home.

Interaction or Distraction? One of the biggest benefits to having the whole family at the table is the relationships it builds, but sometimes after both of you have been at home all day long the last thing you want is to interact more. Enter the board game, the book of puzzles, the coloring book, whatever you think would distract your family members while still allowing you to interact. I'm a personal fan of board games over dinner because the pause for turns keeps everyone involved while the game keeps your mind off more pressing issues, like the lack of job, job interviews, bills, etc. If you want to spend some quality time with your spouse, letting the kids read or play with a book of puzzles or a coloring book is a good way to distract them while the two of you talk. I don't like glowing screens or battery operated gizmos and gadgets at the table though. They are a little too effective at distracting kids.


Variety: What does a regular meal look like at your house?  Is it a one-pot dinner?  Is it one meat and two vegetables? Time to change it up a little bit.  The easiest thing to do is add courses to the meal.  Start with a soup, salad, or an easy appetizer.  Plan to serve dessert and get some cool whip to garnish even the simplest after dinner sweet.  If you love lingering over coffee at a restaurant, preload the coffee maker before dinner and have one of the kids hit the on button half way through the meal.

Another way to add variety to your meals is to join a cooking circle.  Different cooking clubs operate in different ways, but in general you prepare one meal in bulk, package it, and freeze it.  Keep one prepped meal for yourself and exchange the other prepacked meal with the members of your cooking circle.  You get three new to you homemade takeout meals that can be thawed out and served any time.  Eating out at home could be a great time to serve that cooking circle meal.

More Ways to Spice It Up:

  • Dress Up - If you wouldn't get groceries in what you're wearing you probably don't need to be sitting down to the table for an Eating Out Dinner In.  You will feel better if you take a quick minute to change into something that you feel good in. 
  • Clean up - Either clean as you go or make sure that the dishwasher is unloaded so everything can go straight into the washer after dinner.  That way once the meal is done there's little or no work to do, just like when you eat out.  
  • Change the lighting - Ever notice that when the lower the lighting at a restaurant the higher the bill?  You can recreate some of that high priced atmosphere at home by pulling out the candles, or unscrewing a light bulb or two.  Easiest is if you have a dimmer on the dining room lights.  
  • Add music - Play the radio or turn the stereo up loud enough so you can hear it at the table
  • Eat Outside - Ok, it's January here, so I'm not a huge fan of this one right now, but once it warms up you can bet I'm going to set up the back porch like an outdoor cafe.  
What would you do to make an evening in as much or more fun as an evening out?

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