Thanksgiving food not limited to family homestead

Thanksgiving is a relatively “easy” holiday: all you have to do is watch a few parades, sit down with the family, eat, make some small talk and maybe watch a football game or two. Without gift-giving or meticulous party planning to stress over, Turkey Day seems pretty hard to compete with in terms of simplicity. However, that food has to come from someone’s kitchen.

Some family members were kind enough to volunteer their time (and nerves) for the greater good, usually resulting in some degree of frustration dependent upon the size of the family being served. For these people (or person), there was no sleeping in and lazing around in their pajamas for hours: Instead, they got up early and dealt with a 20-pound bird that needed to be thawed, basted, cooked and stuffed.

While it is true that this volunteer probably enjoys and even excels at cooking, why shouldn’t Thanksgiving be a restful, worry-free day for everyone? Shouldn’t everyone get to laze around and enjoy a day off with their family without having to cook an enormous meal and make sure that their house is suitable for guests? For these reasons, eating out for Thanksgiving seems increasingly appealing.

Although my family has never hosted Thanksgiving dinner, I’ve always been awestruck by the amount of work that my aunt put in with the help of her two adult daughters to prepare a beautiful, delicious spread. I feel a little guilty knowing that although my family did have to do the traveling, we just walked right into an abundance of fresh, home cooked food awaiting us. My selfless aunt never asked much of us, except to maybe help set up and clean up, which is nothing compared to the time and effort she put into preparing an entire meal for nine.

I wonder (and cringe) at how much more stressful it would be if we had a large family twice that size. So, why can’t we all just meet at a restaurant and leave the cooking and cleaning up to the professionals? This option is growing in popularity: A survey from the National Restaurant Association shows that in 2011, 14 million Americans ate at out for Thanksgiving dinner, increasing to 33 million by 2013. Is this a result of fed-up hosts who are tired of doing all the work, an improving economy or a society that just loves to eat out? Whichever it is, having a restaurant do all the dirty work is a viable option.

Perhaps the biggest draw of a non-home-cooked Thanksgiving is the idea that everyone can sit down, eat and leave without having to do anything too stressful. For families with picky eaters, though, the options are the greatest asset. There are few things more embarrassing on Thanksgiving than having a child or sibling refuse to eat what your loved one spent hours preparing and perfectly good food hitting the trash can.

At a restaurant, Junior can order chicken nuggets or spaghetti and meatballs and spare his parents the agony of trying to convince him of the merits of stuffing. Dietary restrictions can also usually be met at a restaurant, allowing everyone to enjoy what they really want without being limited by allergies, special diets or religious restrictions that are not shared by the rest of the family. In some areas, eating out can be cheaper than cooking for the whole family.

According to USA Today, Thanksgiving dinner for a family of 10 cost $49.04 in 2013, down from previous years and expected to shrink in years to come. However, I know that my family spent a great deal more considering the inflation in their affluent Philadelphia Main Line town and the breadth of food provided.

While in most cases it is cheaper to cook at home, smaller families may benefit financially from eating out, especially in less expensive, non-metropolitan areas. Also, when eating in a restaurant, eating is the main and only attraction. If everyone arrives separately, there is no awkward obligation to stay and watch the game or chat for two more hours. If the tryptophan is setting in and you’ve had enough family gathering to get you through until the next holiday, the freedom to get in the car and go home exists.

Or, if you wish to spend more time together, it is easy for those who wish to take part to meet at someone’s home without the host having to cook, clean, or do much else besides host. For families who need a little more flexibility than the traditional celebration affords them, taking the meal to neutral ground can be almost a necessity. However, Thanksgiving should also not impede on the contentment of others, namely those in the service industry.

Working in a restaurant, whether as a cook, server, host or busser, is one of the most taxing and underpaid positions. Servers especially experience long shifts that are physically taxing and can only guarantee $2.13 an hour, forcing them to rely on tips. These people, like everyone else, would love to be spending Thanksgiving with their families, but instead are serving enormous tables without proper breaks.

For this reason, eating out at large chain restaurants is not advisable, seeing as these businesses could be closed for national holidays and experience little to no financial repercussions. Seeing as their workers are often already exploited, patronizing these businesses on Thanksgiving does not aid their cause.

There are, however, some restaurants that open on such holidays without encroaching on their staff’s holiday. My family of four spent Thanksgiving at a particular restaurant twice in a row and had an excellent experience. We were regulars at this restaurant and had come to know the owner and many of the servers, who were mostly family members who had recently immigrated, who did not celebrate Thanksgiving.

Although in an ideal world, everyone would be able to rest on our national holidays, if people choose to work because it is not a significant day for them and it supports their family business, then it is a beneficial choice for all.

Perhaps, then, it is best to seek out restaurants where the staff has chosen to work that day and profit from the food-centric holiday, which they may not choose to celebrate for various different reasons.

As the nature of families and holiday get-togethers evolve, so too may the choices we make on Thanksgiving. There are growing benefits of eating out for the traditionally home-cooked holiday, both financial and social, which can reduce stress and promote a more amicable holiday.

However, in the spirit of fairness and graciousness, it is important to remain ethical when eating out to avoid sacrificing another family’s holiday for your own. Thanksgiving dinner can be customized to fit families’ needs, and for some, that means a little less awkwardness and a little more freedom, and will likely become more apparent in years to come.

—Sophia Burns ’18 is currently undeclared.

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