Friday, November 12, 2010

What’s for lunch? Small choices add up to big changes

When we found ourselves away from home last week at lunch time, we were faced with a decision. Should we dine at home on leftover baked macaroni and cheese and garlic-roasted cauliflower? Or should we eat out?

Our children were hungry and had overheard the lunch conversation my husband and I were having. They favored eating out and were shouting their opinions from the back of our van. We had fully intended to indulge our own desires (and theirs), when something made me rethink the decision.

To eat out, we would have driven past our home (and perfectly good leftovers waiting in our fridge), had to wrangle four squirmy, overtired children into a restaurant, and would have spent about $30 on a meal that we would have only marginally enjoyed. It didn’t exactly make sense to eat out when we considered all of these things.

So we went home and ate our leftovers, eating food we’d already paid for and that tasted better than the fare we might have driven out of our way to get. It seems so simple now, but making decisions about how and what to eat aren’t always so easy. In fact, food can be downright complicated.

We eat because we need food to survive, but the way we eat is influenced by many factors, including our habits, social circles, our lifestyles, our jobs, and our expectations. Once we start a pattern of behavior, it’s difficult to examine just why we do what we do. We just keep doing it because it’s what we’ve always done.

Maybe you are so accustomed to always being busy that it seems natural to order take-out or buy frozen lasagna. Perhaps you’ve never felt comfortable in the kitchen, so you feel it’s easier to buy convenience foods. If you’re single, it can be more palatable to eat out than to eat alone. If you have a large family, it can be overwhelming to come up with new meal ideas every day, so you rely on prepackaged foods instead.

Over the last several months, my husband and I have become increasingly aware of how we spend our food dollars. To break out of our own patterns of behavior, we had to acknowledge that we wanted to make a change. Then, we had to find the motivation to help make this change possible.

One particularly effective method for creating change has been to ask ourselves, “What if we did (x) instead of (x)?” For example, if you’re tired of eating lunch out but never seem to have the time or motivation to pack one, what if you spent an hour preparing make-ahead meals instead of watching television? Or what if you got out your slow cooker and tossed in the ingredients for a meal instead of scrambling to make dinner when you got home?

What do you really want? What choices could you make that will help you reach your goals? For example, if you made your lunch instead of buying it, how much money might you save? What else could you do with that money? Perhaps you want to build up your savings so you have an emergency fund, or you want to buy a new car or computer. Maybe you could take a vacation.

It might take months of choosing to pack your lunch instead of eating out to save enough money to reach your goal. But when you’re enjoying your car or relaxing on a sunny beach, will you regret those burgers you didn’t eat?

With thoughtful planning, the choices you make now (including eating leftovers) can pay off in satisfying ways in the future.

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