Why Suze Orman is Wrong on Restaurants

Chef says her advice will hurt a struggling food industry.

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Today's guest post comes from chef and ecologist Aaron French:

As the New Year fades away and the inauguration of President Obama approaches, people are settling into the post-holiday realization that life is just as it was, only a little tougher this year. The economy is not showing any signs of turning around, and it is unclear if Obama, or anyone for that matter, has access to the right tools to quickly correct the course of the American economy.

On the personal level, we all know that we need to tighten our belts and reduce some of the excess spending that helped to get us into this mess we're in. Times like these are the perfect vehicle for the financial advice of Suze Orman, known for her "tough love" approach to reducing credit card debt and getting spending under control. Orman was recently the on Oprah discussing her "2009 Action Plan," the title of her 227 page book to guide people through these troubled waters.

At the core of her Action Plan is what she calls her Action Pledge that she wants everyone to take within one month of reading her book. Her pledge says: "Do not spend money for one day. Do not use your credit card for one week. Do not eat out at a restaurant for one month."

As a professional restaurant chef, I was floored when I heard that quoted on the radio. The restaurant industry blogs and websites have been in a panic. In the name of financial responsibility, Orman is singling out one industry as her "fall guy." Why restaurants? And why for an entire month? Does she want our entire food system to collapse as the shock waves of her very public proposals ripple through the economy?

Restaurants, and the many people and businesses that supply them with their food, are already under tremendous pressure. Restaurants are closing right and left, even without Orman's help. Suppliers are sending out half-empty trucks as people order less food, and this is affecting the farmers, ranchers, and producers farther down the chain. Hundreds of thousands of people in the food industry are struggling already - and will be even worse off if people listen to Orman and Oprah. This extreme single-mindedness is not the way to financial freedom.

So what do I propose instead? I actually have a lot of respect for Orman and her financial approach. And, I do agree that many Americans eat out too often. But while her book does discuss other ways to cut spending on cars and cell phones, entertainment and pedicures, it doesn't recommend an all out moratorium on any of these purchases...she simply asks for moderation. This is equally good advice for eating out. Let's stay within our budgets and spend consciously. Let's not completely sacrifice one industry for short term personal gain.

But I will take her recommendation one step further. Let's think twice, when we do eat out, where our money is going. Let's keep money in our communities by supporting the mom-and-pop diner on the struggling main street, perhaps forgoing the chain restaurant next to the highway. Let's take the time to use our restaurant dollars to support establishments that use quality, nourishing ingredients - let's get some real nutrition from our food budget. Might we be better off with a quality, well cooked meal at a restaurant than something shuttled from the freezer to the microwave? Certainly.

That said, there are a significant number of restaurants that don't serve quality food - restaurants that use the same freezer to microwave approach. I would say that these places don't deserve our hard earned money as much as the place next door where the chef is an artist with fresh vegetables.

As with all our buying habits during these times of recession or depression or whatever they are calling it this week, let's eat out with awareness. Let's buy what's good for our bodies, our taste buds, and our pocketbooks. And let's avoid going to extremes that will damage our businesses and economies long after this financial crisis is over.