Musings about Food & the Politics of Food.

TartQueen's Kitchen

Chain Food Nation 0

Posted on January 01, 2012 by Sahar

Happy New Year to All!  I hope it’s happy and healthy.

Speaking of healthy, I do have at least one resolution I plan on keeping.  Avoiding national chain restaurants.

Taking a peek at the Eater website recently, I found myself reading a list of America’s most popular restaurants. Needless to say, they’re all chains.  Now, I know, to be fair, many Americans don’t necessarily have to opportunity to go to an independent fine-dining restaurant.  Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and Applebees will have to suffice.

I’m admittedly guilty of eating at Denny’s myself. When I was in college and drunk. However, I noticed it’s not on the list. But, here’s a helpful list of their biggest misses.

That being said, I have a few thoughts on chain restaurants.

First, they contribute to the dumbing down of the American palate. Bland flavors, indifferent cooking, mediocre food, and forced sameness have been accepted as the norm in the most popular American restaurants. In the Eater story, the author writes that Olive Garden has to sell their pasta soft because their average customer doesn’t like their pasta al-dente. What? Overcooked pasta is a crime against nature. Along with seafood served with cheese and over-dressed salads. Both of which Olive Garden is guilty.  Most chain restaurants don’t even fully cook the food on site.  It’s made in a factory, vacuum-packed, flash-frozen, and shipped to the restaurants for final assembly, reheating and microwaving.  So, with that, the freshness factor is gone as well.

Second, they contribute to the image that Americans are gluttons.  I’m sure we’ve all seen the commercials.  Never ending pasta, bottomless soup bowls, plates loaded with enough food to feed a family of four.

Does the average person really need to eat that much?  I’ve eaten in restaurants overseas.  I can tell you they don’t serve enough to keep you fed for a week.  The portion sizes are reasonable.  You walk away feeling satisfied, not stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey.  Flat out, Americans eat way too much. Not just food, but the fat and sugar in the food.  As a country, and the West in general, we consume an average of 4000 calories per capita as compared to developing countries where about 2000 or fewer are consumed per capita (per USDA).

An excellent graph and photographic comparison from 2010, but it’s still very relevant.

Third, waste.  Too much waste is generated by these restaurants.  Over-ordering by management, waste generated at the source, customers sending back overloaded plates, and leftover food thrown away all contribute to the millions of pounds of food and millions of dollars wasted.

Are just chain restaurants guilty of these sins?  No.  I’ve eaten at Mom & Pop operations that serve steaks as big as manhole covers and vegetables so loaded with butter that I literally felt my cholesterol level going up while eating.

Restaurants, especially the national chains, are not going to change their portion sizes.  It’s seen as value for the money.  A great marketing tool.  That being said, there are a few things we as consumers can do to help with our overeating and the waste. If you know the restaurant you’re going to has huge portions, split them.  Skip the appetizer (most of those are the size of the main meal anyway).  Skip or split dessert.  Choose the healthier menu options. Go to restaurants that you know have reasonable portion sizes and enough choices to give you options.  Not everything has to have cheese or cream sauce.

Or, just cook at home.  You can control what goes into your food, the portion sizes, and, if you cook enough, you’ve got lunch for the next day.



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