Over Christmas break, my sister and I were talking about why restaurants are so much more important to other people than they seem to be to us. We grew up in a very frugal family that spent its early years with a low budget in a small town. At the time, three out of the four of us were cripplingly picky eaters. And so, with the exception of annual family vacations during which we’d eat at fast food joints three times a day, I didn’t grow up eating out very often.
Beca and I had a few theories as to why people so often want to go out:
- Neutral ground: It can feel weirdly intimate to have someone you know only casually over to your house. After all, you live there. And there have definitely been times in my life that having someone over has required me to clean my entire house — like when we lived in a tiny pool house with the only bathroom in the bedroom, or when we lived in a studio apartment — so our whole life was on display.
- Relaxing: Going out is fun! Staying in means someone has to cook, and that’s work. Isn’t that just what you did all day? Let someone else do the cooking and cleaning — go out. Right?
- Gifting: The other person, the person you’ve asked to go out with you, is special, and taking her to the restaurant is your way of treating her specially. Let her order what she wants. Don’t force her to subsist on what you can scrounge up in your fridge.
- Pantry hurdles: It’s hard to cook if you don’t cook, if that makes sense. I was in the lucky position of receiving most of the kitchen stuff I still use back when I was 22 and sometimes couldn’t successfully scramble an egg. (My trademark dish at the time was pasta with marinara dumped cold over it.) I know people can get in over their heads with a long list of equipment or ingredients, and so restaurants feel less intimidating.
The answer, quite a lot of the time, is to just keep things relaxed and expectations low. You’ll save money, and calories, and build up cooking skills and a working kitchen so you can host more easily in the future. I’ve said it before, but remind yourself again of scruffy hospitality, and the liberating concept of the crappy dinner party.
Maybe you can throw something in the slow cooker, while they bring sides. Or you can find lazy recipes, like the time in college I just slathered jarred pesto on a frozen pizza to unexpected rave reviews. If you’re a parent and they’re parents, too, remember that they might feel relieved if your house is as disorganized as theirs; if they’re not parents and you are, they might as well see how it really is.
A friend once made a steak frittata using leftovers because she couldn’t afford enough steak to feed us all. One time I had a friend over for chili and made her season it herself (the limits of anosmia). Sometimes we’ll have people over and they bring food they happen to have and we pull out food we happen to have and everyone gets fed over good conversation. Once, we were having a picnic outside the aforementioned crappy studio apartment and J killed a rat with a rock. (Remarkably, the guests who witnessed this act of brutality are still our friends.) Some of my favorite evenings have been meals thrown together in a tornado-hit house with a shoestring budget. There are times for a well-laid, thought-out table, and times, of course, to escape to a restaurant, but it’s worth considering your motive.