Recently, I had a face-to-face conversation with a reader (yep, this happens every once in a while; I have a few readers in my local community that I’m not close friends with, but they recognize me and seem to always have some sort of question or topic to bring up in conversation) about the idea of having “everyday meals” for the family, something I mention often as a frugal strategy.
For those unclear, an “everyday meal” is just a meal that Sarah or I can prepare quickly and easily on any given weeknight that our family really likes. You might call it a “staple meal” or a “regular meal.” For us, those meals include things like spaghetti with tomato sauce, scrambled eggs and pancakes, chili, and tuna casserole. Both Sarah and I can whip those things out in a jiffy without even a second thought; the recipes are internalized and efficient.
This reader was pretty pointed: “don’t meals like that get boring?”
My gut instinct was to tell the reader “no” without really thinking about it, but instead I said, “Hmm… I’ll give that some thought,” and suggested a post on the topic might appear soon.
Over the next few weeks, I had some conversations with my family about the topic in a roundabout way. I mostly just asked for meal suggestions and asked what meals they liked the best.
Our three children were all pretty specific on what meals they liked the best. My youngest loves any sort of pasta and cheese combination – if it has pasta and cheese, he’s in. My middle child loves taco night above all else. My oldest loves chili and enchiladas above all else. Interestingly, if I have them pick a meal that they think all three of them will like, they’ll pick pizza, whether it’s homemade or picked up somewhere. My wife listed a litany of meals she really likes.
I asked them what they thought about trying different meals and the children were all okay with it as long as their favorites remained in regular rotation and I avoided certain specific foods. My wife is more on board with trying new things, but she also still wanted a few favorites in rotation. They all said that they like to try variations on the familiar dishes, like trying a chili variant or experimenting with a pizza, than something radically different.
It turns out that I’m probably the most adventurous and experimental eater in my family, but even I enjoy our “everyday meals.” I actually like varying them a little and trying new angles on the same old things (like experimenting with cheeses for the mac and cheese) and, when I have time, making things as “from scratch” as possible, like making fresh pasta for pasta night or making from-scratch bread or making my own vegetable stock (just soaking vegetable scraps in the slow cooker).
This realization, along with some Google searching, led me to this interesting article on Food52 by Amanda Hesser entitled “I’m the Food Expert, But My Kids Love My Husband’s Cooking.”
Her experience falls right in line with my own: Her family is fine with experimentation, but they end up putting a lot of value on regular repeated family meals. They’d rather have “daddy’s pasta” (rotelle pasta “wagon wheels” with a simple sauce) than something unusual or complex, and she often would, too:
“I’m an unabashed homebody. A comforting home and stability are things I have an almost desperate need to maintain. And yet, even when I have a home that feels comforting and right, I’m always itching to iterate and improve the physical space—to paint a wall, rearrange the furniture, recover the chairs. The same thing happens in my kitchen. I may love being in the kitchen and cooking for family, but I clearly can’t help myself from exploring some new taste, technique, or idea.
This urge for newness and evolution worked for me for many years. When I was a full-time writer, whose job was to constantly discover and write about what’s next, it was like feeding candy to my pathology.
Now that I have kids, though, to whom I feel an intense responsibility to nurture a sense of security — not to mention, to establish family traditions — my searching ways floundered. The night after the podcast interview, while “joking” about it over dinner, I asked the kids what dishes of mine they liked. They paused and looked at each other. It was difficult for them to conjure up anything specific.
Kids rarely need to be direct for their message to be loud and clear. If I wanted them to remember my cooking, I had to slow down, I had to repeat, I had to make food that they could count on. Like their daddy did with pasta.
Over the past few years, I’ve done just this. I’ve stuck with dishes, and I keep a folder of recipes we like to go back to again and again — Roberta’s garlic dressing, porchetta, and Thai steak salad.”
This made me think quite a bit about my own change in food habits during my life.
When I was growing up, my family definitely had regular meals that we repeated with frequency. I’m sure, looking back, that those meals were fairly convenient for my parents to make and that doing so had become, with practice, quite easy for them. There was another factor going on, though: it provided a touchstone of shared experience. There were certain dishes that we would have frequently that I would love to smell coming in the door, not just because they were delicious, but because they made me feel things like family and safety and comfort.
When I reached adulthood, that feeling basically went away unless I was visiting family. I either viewed food simply as forgettable fuel or I purely chased novelty by eating at a wide variety of expensive restaurants or preparing really fancy things at home on occasion, like a $30 grilled steak.
For all of the expensive meals I ate in my twenties, none of them filled me with the sense of familiarity and comfort that my mother’s humble tuna casserole would make me feel, or the smell of a fried egg cooked in just a bit of butter with a lot of black pepper on it. Those things made me feel something beyond mere food – they made me feel safe and loved and comfortable.
An expensive meal might be delicious, but it’s usually a one-shot thing simply because of the financial constraints of 99.9% of Americans. Thus, it can never create those feelings of home like humble dishes eaten frequently with loved ones can create.
There’s a clip at the end of the movie Ratatouille where the hardened food critic Anton Ego takes a bit of a dish prepared by the humble hero Remy. The dish is the titular “ratatouille,” a pretty humble dish that’s basically just a casserole of sliced vegetables, and Ego initially turns up his nose at it. But when he takes a bite… well, watch for yourself:
What does this hardened critic think of when he tries the dish? His mind doesn’t consider flavors or texture. Rather, he flashes back to his grandmother’s kitchen when he was a child. He has feelings of peace and love and comfort and family.
Those feelings don’t exist the first time you try a dish or even the third or fifth or tenth. Rather, they come from a body of positive experiences over time, and they can be triggered by the most humble of things. You don’t need an expensive restaurant meal to feel those feelings; in fact, you’ll almost never feel that way unless you’re a regular at a family-owned restaurant.
On the other hand, you can get that feeling from something as simple as an egg fried in a bit of butter with a bit of black pepper on it.
We’re really talking here about two different values that are at least somewhat in opposition to each other.
Novelty comes when you try a new experience. You’re interacting with new people. You’re trying a new meal. You’re going to a new store. You’re going to a new place. Those are enjoyable experiences – our brains like novelty. Yet, at the same time, novel experiences don’t last. They don’t scratch the same itch that familiar experiences do.
Stability, on the other hand, comes when you enjoy a familiar experience of some kind. You’re enjoying time with family or close friends. You’re eating a family favorite meal. You’re hanging out at a familiar haunt. Those are also enjoyable experiences and familiarity breeds enjoyment. Such experiences fulfill us in a completely different way than novelty does.
What’s really interesting to note here is that novelty is typically more expensive than familiarity. New products come with a price premium. They require additional travel because you’re familiar with the things in your area. Restaurants you haven’t tried before are often the expensive ones because you’ve already tried all of the regularly priced ones. This is not to say novelty is always more expensive than stability, but that it’s frequently the case.
What does all of this mean in terms of our finances, then?
First of all, it’s easier to be frugal if you have an appreciation for familiar experiences. If you hold familiar experiences in disdain or if your life history has made it difficult to build up familiar experiences, it’s hard to find appeal in them and you’re going to inherently seek novelty.
Remember, the psychological benefit of novelty is much easier to enjoy than the psychological benefit of stability and familiarity. Novelty can be experienced at pretty much any moment; stability and familiarity take time and a history of positive similar experiences.
So, in a practical sense, there is a great deal of frugal value in finding simple experiences you like and repeating them (or close variations on them) until the familiarity brings additional joy.
For example, I’ve come to love sitting in the soft brown chair in our house with several windows nearby and just reading a book. It is an experience I indulge in often and I get a great amount of joy out of that experience, not just because it feels good, but because it inherently reminds me of the many moments when it felt good in the past. It feels comforting to sit there with a book in my hand.
I feel it when I’m playing a familiar board game with close friends, where we all know the rules and we all feel comfortable with each other. I feel it when I’m making a pot of chili or a homemade pizza for my family and then we gather around the table and eat it together and talk about our day. I feel that warm stability in many experiences in my life, and I’ve come to intentionally notice it and value it.
Those types of experiences, because of their repetition, almost have to be very inexpensive or free out of necessity. If there was a significant cost in such a repeated experience, it would cause a great deal of financial damage, which brings me to my second point.
Constantly chasing novel experiences is hard on the wallet. If I want to eat at a new restaurant every night, that’s going to cost a lot of money over time. If I want to simply have something new for dinner every night, the cost of all of those different ingredients is going to add up (not to mention the time invested in constantly jumping from culinary technique to culinary technique without mastering any of them).
If I want to read the latest books constantly, I’m going to have to buy them, and popping $15 to $20 for a new hardcover once or twice a week adds up fast. If I want to play the latest board games constantly, I have to routinely spend $30 to $40. If I want to watch the latest movies constantly, I have to routinely spend $10 or $15 at the theater (I’d probably buy a movie pass, but it still adds up). You get the idea. A constant stream of novel experiences is expensive.
There’s an even bigger problem…
A costly novel experience that you start to repeat until it takes on some aspects of familiarity is a road to financial disaster. Let’s say you go to a coffee shop and it’s a wonderful novel experience. You decide to go again… and again… and again. Slowly, it starts to become a familiar and stable experience. You feel a certain comfort in that routine. The problem is that the routine is expensive and engaging in it with frequency is like acid on your budget.
Another element I’ve personally noticed is that most of the really valuable stable experiences I have in my life – things like familiar family dinners, familiar experiences with friends, and so on – are incredibly inexpensive ones. The family dinners that are really successful on all cylinders are ones where we’re gathered around the table with people we love and who love us, eating a food we all enjoy and basking in the afterglow of many such dinners before us that have built a certain bond. You can get some of that while chasing novelty at the latest restaurant, but you miss some of it, too, and you’re also hammering your wallet.
None of this is to say that novelty doesn’t have value. It does have tremendous value. Many of the joys of life are held in new experiences. Yet there are many elements of life that novelty can’t bring to the table and cultivating stability often provides those elements.
If you take one message home from all of this, it’s that novelty is fine, but there’s a tremendous financial value in appreciating the positive stable experiences in life. Find the small things you actually enjoy (not things that merely pass time), whether they’re shared experiences or solo experiences, and fill your life with them.
Repeat them, so that they take on a sense of familiarity and stability. Vary them, so that they don’t become boring, either – you wouldn’t read the same book over and over or watch the same television show over and over, but you might consistently read in your favorite chair or watch a new episode of a beloved program while cuddling with your partner.
Don’t abandon novelty – that would make life dull – but don’t overlook or abandon the many values of stability and what it can bring, too. Enjoy that simple comfort food with family. Enjoy that comfortable chair and a book from the library from your favorite author. There’s incredible value to be found in that kind of stability and it won’t erode your finances.
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