On the True Value of a Forgotten Restaurant Meal

I had an interesting moment of clarity about the true value of restaurant meals when I recently went through a pile of credit card receipts from a year ago. In that pile were receipts from fifteen or so restaurants we had been to in mid-2008.

These dinners were from barely a year ago, and yet I hardly remembered any of them. Heck, I couldn't even remember the names of some of the restaurants, much less what kind of food they served. And yet the aggregate cost of these culinary experiences was hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

You'd think after spending all that money I'd remember more of these experiences, but sadly, I don't. The ones that really stuck in my mind boiled down to a couple of really fancy restaurant meals we had, Laura's 40th birthday dinner, and the spectacular all-you-can-eat ribs we had last fall during our visit to Belgium. That's three or four restaurant meals--out of fifteen.

In complete contrast, I remember nearly every dinner party I've hosted at our home, going back many years. Those dinners were all truly salient and meaningful experiences, full of fun conversations, good eating (well, I did make the food after all!) and good times with friends. And yet the entire cost of all the food--for everyone--for a dinner in our home was usually far less than what Laura and I would end up spending on just ourselves for the average forgettable restaurant meal in this forgotten pile of receipts.

Readers, get ready, because here's the punchline of this article: you will completely forget most of your restaurant meals, making them an utter waste of money. Only a select few of your dinners out--the ones with particularly special circumstances--will stick in your mind.

Moreoever, you'll get more value from your experiences by going out to eat only for really, really important occasions. Otherwise eat at home. And host lots of dinner parties. You'll spend a lot less money, and you'll probably keep more meaningful and salient memories.

What is the point of spending extra money on an experience if the odds are you'll end up forgetting all about it?

Readers, what do you think about the value of forgotten experiences?

Related Posts:
The Dinner Party: 10 Tips to Make Cooking for Company Fun and Easy
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A Recession-Proof Guide to Saving Money on Food
A Simple Way to Beat Rising Food Prices

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martha in mobile said...

The true value of a forgotten restaurant meal is: the time I spent with my family (instead of cooking); exposing my child to different cuisines (without having to master them, myself); or the time I spent doing what I wanted to do (instead of cooking). For a relatively inexpensive meal at a local ethnic restaurant, the true value can be quite high, even if the specifics of the meal aren't memorable.

Hosting a dinner party (while always memorable and usually worthwhile) can require a considerable time input at my house, between cleaning, shopping, prep, cooking, and cleaning again.

Hmmm, I think we'll go out for Indian tonight...

Wirehead said...

I remember a fairly small number of restaurant meals. I went to Morimoto's restaurant in Philly and it changed my point-of-view totally.

The problem is the midling places. Cheap ethnic places are awesome. Culinary artists are awesome. But it's that uncomfortable middle ground, where it's neither inexpensive, nor any more pleasurable than the cheap ethnic place, where money is wasted.

Daniel said...

Martha, that's an interesting insight, and I hear you. We do many "forgettable" things in order to save time that we can use in other areas of our lives. However, I grew up with a lot of vivid memories from helping my Mom in the kitchen, and I'd argue that that was extremely high-quality time. I guess it also depends on what kinds of memories are most salient to you.

Wirehead, thanks for the insightful comment on the "forgettable middle." I think you're right, that's where the most money and time is wasted and it's also where the fewest memorable experiences occur.


Julia said...

I suppose it also depends on why you go out for dinner.... If you're going out for all the reasons that Martha suggests, then the memory-factor of the meal is not as important.

And to your point, the memorable meals are so because of the people with you and the conversations shared. Perhaps you need to dine out more often with friends (in addition to Laura) to create more of that same convivial feeling that you get sharing meals with friends at home.

And to be completely cynical, how many "regular" meals at home do you remember?

Anonymous said...

We usually go out for very special occasions locally and otherwise dine while on travel although we will travel just to eat at a particular restaurant. So, I actually remember every single restaurant meal we've had to the point where I can almost exactly recreate the dishes that we've had.

Daniel said...

Hi Julia, good point. But if I had to decide between a restaurant meal that I'll forget and a meal I make at home that I'll forget, give me the meal at home every time.

The meal at home will be far healthier (mainly because I'll know exactly what goes into it), and it will cost a fraction of the restaurant meal.

Measured by the likelihood that I'll remember them, however, they are equivalent.


Daniel said...

Hi 5SF, how many dinners per year are you talking about? Curious if there's a number of outings that will yield maximum "salience"--(seven? ten? twelve restaurant meals per year?)--thus you'd get the most value for your money.

Thanks for reading!

The Diva on a Diet said...

Dan, I'm really struck by the truth of this post. Speaking as one who dines out about as much as she dines in ... a given year would yield an embarrassing stack of receipts for forgotten meals chez Diva.

In our case, we dine out often because of my husband's schedule. Its not so much a defense as it is a reality. While I prefer to dine at home, its sometimes easier to just meet out. The truth that strikes me here is how forgettable most restaurant meals are ... even in the most celebrated restaurants. This post is truly food for thought!

Holly said...

We're very careful about eating out because we're working towards two long term fitness goals: one financial and one physical. When we go out, it's to celebrate another week that we saved our pennies, cooked at home, ate healthy and counted calories. These meals are highly memorable because they are both a reward and a celebration.
I see the point of your article and I agree. I don't remember many of our meals out before we were rationing our money and calories. However, I can tell you exactly were we went and what we ate every meal out for the last three months.

Daniel said...

Diva, thanks for the feedback, and I hope I helped spur your thinking.

And Holly, you are really onto something--that's an excellent way to capture the best of all worlds.


chacha1 said...

DH and I used to eat out much more often than we do now. We still go out occasionally, mostly when we want something that is beyond us (either in skill or in fortitude) to attempt at home ... like, say, crab cakes. I made them once. Never again.

When I particularly appreciate a meal out, is when we are meeting friends and we just want to have fun. No deep conversations, just a pleasant, trifling evening out together, and no one has to cook.

Out of a year's worth of restaurant receipts I would now be able to remember every occasion. It was not always thus, though, so I think Dan makes a good point.

Daniel said...

Chacha1, I like your thinking. I guess I feel the same way with gnocchi (after a horrible example in my own kitchen by the way).