Eating out with family

The holiday season always means a bounty of family, festivities and food. Gather long-lost cousins (perhaps once-removed) around the table at a nice—albeit expensive—restaurant and eat, drink and be merry. The pinnacle of festivities. I frequently ask myself why in the season of giving back, the only thing that seems to be exchanged are dollar bills and credit card numbers to book a reservation—a year ahead of time of course—for a “family tradition”.

It may be a tradition, but I don’t like it.

When I picture eating out for Christmas, I picture “A Christmas Story.” An empty Chinese restaurant and a duck that still wanted to see for himself how sad of a scene it all was. No one else was there. Just them; who were only there because the Bumpus’ dogs destroyed their Christmas turkey. They were miserable, and for the longest time, this is what I assumed people that were forced to eat out on Christmas day were like. I may have been young and I was certainly naïve, but I never expected a pandemic like this.

And yes it is a pandemic. As Americans, we eat out a ton. More than we should. Way more than we should. According to Erik Millstone and Tim Lang, authors of “The Atlas of Food,” the average American ate roughly 125 meals out in 2005. Once every three days? Is that a lot?

Yes, but not the most. Good enough for second, but alas, the USA does not win the gold. That dubious title goes to Japan, where the average Japanese citizen eats nearly 200 meals out per year, according to Millstone and Lang. Yet, according to the United Nations, Japan enjoys the highest life expectancy rate of any country.

The American and Japanese diets differ greatly—the USA is the number one daily consumer of calories while Japan is 85th—but the differences stem from something far removed from the food itself. The seafood-rich diet doesn’t hurt, but it’s not the food that matters most.

It’s who they dine with that seems to matter most. According to a Japanese study, when a Japanese person dines out; 82 percent of the time, it is as a family—not a hasty drive through the McDonalds on the way to soccer practice. I am guilty of this occasional misdeed (as a majority of us probably are) but when meal time is a belly-busting burger and a cup of liquid sugar parked in the parking lot, there is a problem. When the average American dines out 125 times a year, a sizable part of those trips were to a fast food restaurant. According to a CBS News survey, 45 percent of people questioned said they had eaten at least one dinner at a fast food restaurant in the week prior and 23 percent of 18-29 year olds admitted to eating two or three fast food dinners in the week prior.

Yes it is dinner and yes it is family—but it is not a family dinner. Not in my book.

Grab a big red box from the freezer and throw it in the microwave for 20 minutes, round up the family, sit down and enjoy (as best you can). To some that may seem like a wholesome family meal, but I take it one step further: preparing a family meal should require some kind of cooking. Removing a plastic tray from a cardboard box and blasting it with radiation in order to heat it up doesn’t sound like cooking to me.

Cooking is so much more than just the food; it is the people, the process and the experience all wrapped up into one delicious package. Family of mine recently shared a story of when they went out to a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner: the one day a year where every household is a four-star restaurant and the spread is large, no matter where you are. Rather than dawdle over hors d’oeuvres and football games, they were pushed into a specific seating at the restaurant and their one plateful–though generous—was presented. They said the food was great, but it isn’t the same. Nagging waiters trying to prepare for the next seating, compounded with the realization that the post-dinner nap was a half-hour drive away left them with a good dinner, but not Thanksgiving.

My family is largely Italian and Irish: the best of both worlds if you ask me. The food of Italy and the drink of Ireland combine for me to form something magical. We’ll have seafood on Christmas Eve, like we always do. All of us will help prepare the feast, like we always do. We will cook and celebrate, because we always do.