I remember a box of salt while working in a restaurant a few years ago. It wasn’t just any kind of salt and it didn’t have the little girl with the umbrella on it. It was a special restaurant-quality type of salt that was crystallized in a special way to make sure that it clung to the food. On the front of the box was a picture of a giant steak sitting on a white plate. The only other thing that was on the plate was a small garnish of some kind of green leaf and a solitary cherry tomato. I remember thinking to myself what a healthy meal this was: prime quality marbled beef with a lot of salt on top.
Chain restaurants had one goal in mind when they started out in the fifties; to offer foods that tasted good and could be picked up quickly before you headed out on the road again. It was an era of Route 66 and America’s fascination with the automobile. Health wasn’t a major concern back then. There was one difference however, from what’s going on today and that was at least the portions were smaller. Coke came in 6 ounce bottles instead of giant 45 ounce plastic cups with a picture from Star Wars on them. Hamburgers were usually the size of White Castles, and an order of fries was about the same as you would get in a kid’s meal today. This bigger is better philosophy is one of the reasons that we became the fattest nation on Earth today.
Once the ball started rolling, it seemed that there was no end to the “super-size” phenomenon. Chains realized that by increasing the size you could increase the price and then the profit increased exponentially. A mysterious thing happened: what used to be a large suddenly became a medium, and what used to be a small was eliminated all together or relegated to the kid’s menu. Then the size wars came along. For the fast food chains, it was all about the beef. All the burgers became two-fisted. Then a lot of the baby boomers realized that they were getting a little older and health became a little more of a concern. Studies began to show the effects of diet. You are what you eat. Junk in, junk out. What was once thought to be in the realm of hippies eating flowers and old men living in the woods on wild hickory nuts became cool and fashionable.
Today, most all of the chains offer healthier, lower fat foods. But the consumer has to be wary of the hidden fat and calories. A salad is not all that healthy if it’s loaded with dressing that has a high fat content. A baked potato loaded with cheese, sour cream, and butter may taste good, but it’s not much better for you than a half-pound burger.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid the deep fried foods altogether and keep the portion sizes small. Don’t be afraid to ask for the “freedom of information act” of the restaurant business: the nutrition guide. Law requires these, but a lot of restaurants don’t have them or will tell you that they have run out, especially the chains. Some satisfy the law by keeping one tattered copy up by the front register or post a copy on the wall. Don’t be afraid to complain. The other option is to purchase a copy of one of the many guides that are in the bookstores. These guides have a listing of most of the national chains and listings of all of the ingredients as well as all of the nutrition information for each of the menu items. These also come in handy for people who have food allergies.
With a little extra effort, it’s possible to eat healthier at most of the chain restaurants, or you could try out one of a growing number of “green” restaurants that use fresh, healthy, and sustainable ingredients from local suppliers. Maybe it’ll catch on.