Why You Shouldn't Eat at Chain Restaurants

By Tara Struyk on 28 February 2012 28 comments
Photo: zcopley

I’ll reveal my bias upfront — I can’t stand chain restaurants. From their oversized, cheese-topped portions to the excessive use of adjectives in their menus, grabbing a bite at a big-box just doesn’t hit the spot for me. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the amount of food that people are consuming outside of their own kitchens has been growing pretty steadily since the 1970s, which may account for why chain restaurants seem to keep on multiplying. But despite their obvious popularity, I also believe that there are some sound reasons to skip them in favor of smaller local eateries. (See also: A Cheapskate's Guide to Eating Out)

There's Too Much Food

One of the top reasons that many people give for favoring chain restaurants is the portion sizes. I get it. When you go to a restaurant, you want to actually eat. I definitely don’t appreciate being presented with a pretentious morsel of an entree any more than the next girl. If that bite of food is really tasty, it’s almost worse — as if I could be satisfied by taste alone, even when my stomach is empty! At the same time, many of the top chain restaurants boast dishes that top 1,000 calories each. I mean, let’s be honest here — most people could do without those “stacked” and “stuffed” caloric monstrosities. And while many restaurants now offer lower-calorie menus, it’s pretty hard to order those calorie-labeled little offerings when the guy at the next table is ordering a steak that could feed a family of four.

The big portions are a large part of what chain restaurants have to offer, and the reason they can do it is precisely because of their size. The companies buy a lot of food, so they can pay less for it and charge less to the consumer. For these kinds of restaurants, portion size is a way to provide value.

It's Not a Unique Experience

Let’s face it — when food it sourced en-masse, shipped across the country, and prepared according to the specifications set by the restaurant corporation, it might be tasty enough, but there isn’t going to be anything special or unique about it — especially when you could probably drive a few more miles and eat nearly the same thing somewhere else. The problem with measuring value in this way is that most of us don’t need more food on our plates at all. The fact that mass production makes it cheaper only contributes to the problem by making it increasingly affordable for people to patronize a local chain rather than whip something up at home.

If you look at going to a restaurant as an experience, rather than a way to fill the hole, portion sizes become a little less important and the notion of value turns more toward the experience. Assuming that the chain restaurant is the better value assumes an equation that involves calories and money. To me, value is about the quality of the food. My philosophy is that if I’m only going to go out a few times each year, I want to eat something different that I wouldn’t  — or couldn’t — cook at home. I want to experience local ingredients chosen by someone who’s passionate about cooking them. For me, going to a restaurant is a way to celebrate good food — and maybe even life. So while I can’t afford the fanciest fare, I also don’t need a baked potato the size of a football to make me feel like I’m making a responsible choice with my money. And since I’ve brought it up, let’s get on to the topic of money, shall we?

It's Expensive

Despite how often the word “value” is thrown around in the restaurant industry, eating in a restaurant is way more expensive than eating at home. Even the dollar menu at fast-food chains can’t beat cooking your own food when it comes to cost (although it comes close). A column that appeared in the New York Times in September breaks down the common misconception that fast food is budget conscious and finds that the average order at McDonalds for a family of four costs nearly twice as much as serving roasted chicken, salad, and vegetables at home. In other words, even the top innovator of food served fast and cheap can’t beat out a home-cooked meal when it comes to cost. Eating in a restaurant, any restaurant, just isn’t cost effective, no matter how much food is piled on your plate.

It's Not Necessarily Social

I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where we all sat down to have dinner every day. I know that isn’t always possible, and I don’t think it’s always necessary. What I do know is that food and a lot of the fundamental aspects of being a social human being go together. In other words, food is (or should be) about more than just sucking grease off a paper wrapper on your way to your next appointment. Everyone needs to eat, so why not take it as an opportunity to sit down, slow down and enjoy life?

One Ingredient Short of the Real Thing

OK, OK — it's not like you can't be social at a chain restaurant, especially the sit-down kind. But I think small, local restaurants offer a sense of community that chains can't touch. I visit the small restaurants, coffee shops, and bakeries within a few blocks of where I live, and I love the fact that the business owners are on the premises greeting visitors, talking to staff, and generally running the show. Actually, I like that at least as much as I like the food, and I love the fact that I'm supporting a business that's more than a just business, but is also part of the community.

Chain restaurants are on to us. That's why they work so hard to capitalize on our desire for comfort and pitch their food as something that mom would make. Except the the food that's made by the people you love has an ingredient that chain restaurants just can't source — what's in the food is less important than who cooked it. Plus, that "homemade" apple pie at your local chain restaurant probably came straight from the freezer, and before that, the factory.

Based on the number of chain restaurants that continue to pop up just about everywhere, I don’t think they’re short of fans. But I’m not drawn to those giant neon signs. The fact that many people in Western countries get too much to eat isn’t such a bad problem to have, but all that food might come at the cost of some other things we’re pretty deficient in, and you won’t necessarily find them on your plate.

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28 discussions

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Guest's picture

I think there is value to these restaurants compared to local fare. Some of them offer 2 for $20 which includes an app and dessert...something you can't get at a local restaurant. Additionally, nothing can beat the dollar menu at a fast food restaurant. After buying the hamburger, bun, condiments, etc. its not worth the effort to go to the grocery store and cook the food...

Guest's picture

You've got to pick and choose, depending on the availability of better options. To take an example of two that are across the street from each other near me, Don Pablo's does a very good job on Mexican style, while Olive Garden has all the faults you describe. And BTW I've been to both Mexico and Italy, so I have a clue on authenticity.

Guest's picture

Worked at Pablo's, a lot of pre bagged, pre cooked, heated on a steam table products. Ala taco hell

Guest's picture

All great reasons...

Guest's picture

"It's Not a Unique Experience" -- This misunderstands the entire concept behind franchising. People go to a chain because they want predictability. Once in a while they're willing to try something new, depending on the personality type, but part of the value here is the reduced risk, known quantity. It's why Americans sometimes eat in McDonald's while overseas. Presumably they're traveling to get lots of new experiences, but that can be fatiguing. They take a break from the stress of strange menus in foreign languages presented in unpredictable fashion by going to the good old Golden Arches. This cuisine is called "comfort food" for other reasons besides portion size.

Tara Struyk's picture

OK, well you got me there. Predictability is definitely a commodity that I overlooked here. Thanks for the comment!

Guest's picture

Wow, I never would have got past #1 They make you Die.

What you are eating can barely be called food. It has more preservatives and chemicals in it than it does food. Their "sauces" are most likely dumped out of a bag or container as opposed to made, etc.

Anywhere where the food can be made or prepped by a teenager with no training, no thanks, I would rather eat at home and go to a real restaurant occasionally.

Guest's picture

I tend to avoid chain restaurants, but my boyfriend's family usually goes for them. My boyfriend and I can split an entree and both still be full, so in my opinion, chains have their place. I won't suggest them, but I won't make a fuss if that's where everyone wants to go.

Guest's picture
Drew Custer

You can actually get good deals at some chain restaurants such as meals for 2, etc. However, I definitely agree with your point about it not being unique. The food is made to the same specifications as every other joint under the same name. There's nothing different about it.

But, if you got to your local place and order their specialty dish, you (and whoever else is eating it in that restaurant) are the only person in America eating that dish. It's special, rather than a mass-produced recipe.

Pros and Cons to each, but I would choose a local place if I had to choose.

Guest's picture

"Plus, that "homemade" apple pie at your local chain restaurant probably came straight from the freezer, and before that, the factory."

This is a big one for me. Though many local eateries are certainly guilty of it too, most chains--especially those with 20 page menus--are pulling most of that food out of the freezer and slapping it in the microwave. That's how they achieve the consistency Americans crave. If I want that, I can buy Lean Cuisines 5 for $10 at my grocery store and save waiting outside for 45 min with my plastic buzzer.

Guest's picture

I have a pro-chain restaurant comment. For people with special needs, restaurants have more nutritional information.

Guest's picture

Eh, I have relatives who are very unadventurous when it comes to food and that's the kind of place where they feel comfortable. I go there to spend a meal with them, not for the food.

Guest's picture

Support your local restaurants. I can't understand why someone would spend $6 - $8 on a fast food meal (at lunch) when they could get awesome, fresh, authentic food from say a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant. I used to be one of those people who only ate at chain restaurants. I didn't know better. Now that I know better, I politely decline when someone suggests eating at a chain. EXCEPT for Subway. Certainly people have lots of choices.

Support local!

Guest's picture

I am a much bigger fan of the local restaurant not only for all the reasons above, but also because they pay more attention to your special requests (I have a dairy allergy). I have had one too many problems with chains saying stuff contains no dairy or that they will cook something different and they get it wrong. The chains just don't care like the small mom and pop do! Plus I like when the smaller restaurant's use local food!

Guest's picture

There is also the problem that the food is too salty. I usually end up eating a salad with dressing on the side on the rare occasions when we eat at chain restaurants. Sometimes I wonder if restaurants are so generous with salt because they do not want to take the time to actually marinade the food.

Meg Favreau's picture

Oof, yeah. Too much sugar sometimes, too. I remember a few years ago, I got some "healthy" fruit, nut, and yogurt thing at McDonald's, and the walnuts were coated in sugar.

Guest's picture

Love this article, great points here. Eat local!

Guest's picture

Me and my husband usually eat out once a week but lately we have been just picking up
really good semi homemade food from Trader Joes. Part of eating out is not having to prepare the food so I just buy something I can pop in the oven easily. They have tons of appetizers that are so much better than what we could get at local restaurants.
For 25-30$ you can really get a nice dinner appetizer and deserts and probably a bottle of wine too. Best of all Trader Joe's does not use GMO's or anything scary in there

Guest's picture

I disagree. I choose these restaurants when I can, because I know what I will get every time. If it is 10am or 10pm, WI or CA, the food will be the same. I have eaten at a lot of small-personal places, and it seems like they skimp on the quality of the food or its preparation, in an attempt to save money. The chain has had opportunities to fine-tune their menus and ambiance. Other than supporting a small business, eating at a non-chain restaurant is a gamble.

Guest's picture

Eating fast food because you think it's cheap is rediculous. Its not cheaper and the money you'll spend on medical bills in the future outweighs any savings. That stuff is dangerous to your health. A bi-pass surgery costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Guest's picture

If you travel the world you could count of the quality and consistency.

While individual restaurants are quite often more expensive, quality is questionable /unknown. Most of our every day process are not unique - we drink tea /coffe, brush teeth, sleep,....eat. Yes, you can diversify -> at a price. What is the gain?

Guest's picture

@Financial Independence - I agree that, at least for me, my routine tends to be similar each day. However, striving for variety is a worthwhile pursuit, and will only enrich life. I know I could follow my own advice - but articles like this provide people like me with some oomph and motivation.

Guest's picture

Ever since watching that Ryan Reynolds movie Waiting, I've avoided chain restaurants like the plague. Honestly, that movie is enough to make you want to become a macrobiotic raw vegan, or whatever Gwyneth Paltrow is.

Tara Struyk's picture

I haven't seen that one. I'll have to check it out!

Guest's picture
Guest Eve

Wonderful article! Not only am I the daughter of an organic Mango farmer, but I cooked for a Ritz-Carlton for awhile (the freakin Ritz! It's the granddaddy of luxury hotels!) and let me tell you, for most of them, the food prepared and cooked in their kitchens was unhealthy and a good portion of it was flash frozen and pre-packaged. Now imagine a Denny's for a moment
Ugh. And it is SO much more budget conscious to cook at home. Make a simple batch of lentil, vegetable and quinoa soup and freeze it. You can eat on that for days. Plus, when it comes down to it the biggest costs are your health and your community (see: local restaurants, farms and food co-ops/grocery stores) and really, who wants to sacrifice that?

Guest's picture

As for me, there is nothing wrong in eating in chain restaurants but if we do it always, that is another story, that is an unhealthy thing to do and at the same time an expensive way of eating. Although there are restaurants that offer nutritious and healthy foods but we cannot avoid to spend more money rather than making it by our selves.

Guest's picture

C'mon, if you have developed a grownup palate, you should know better than to ever think that chains are a good deal. Anyone who is already in their Mid 30s that has not began to expand their horizons is choosing to stay ignorant as far as options. Most chains are serving you the same crapola you can whip up at your own kitchen, some use exclusively pre-made, frozen and canned. Most have not a care whether they are serving foods with GMOs, pre frozen fish or steaks pumped with sodium and antibiotics.l Any resto that has ketchup, BBQ sauce (aside form a BBQ joint), is basically saying" Our steaks are so crappy, you need to cover them up with this here A1 sauce".

I am not saying you should shun them from your life, but there are 100s of better choices in going to the independently owned, mom/pop or chef run locale. The only way I am getting to eat at any chain is because of my mom and the 2 office lunches hosted by my employer (b/c the owner's assistant has a fear for good food). My mom... she never developed a fine palate and would not be able to appreciate a steak at Rathbuns'. she orders everything "well done" which is awful, so I am ok with meeting her up at her beloved Suburban "Bahama Breeze". I am partial to Pappadeaux for a brunch here and there (like 1 time a year) but otherwise, I DO NOT EAT at chains EVER, not since I turned 35 and know how to appreciate real food, and expect to try good things, not food I used to eat in my 20s, when I did not know better!

Guest's picture

I am not a fan of chain restaurants but the new local joints are not cheap in comparison. It's shocking to go to a local eatery and find for example, a normal ice cream size dish of one scoop mac n cheese and a handful of bbq pork on top for $7. And it comes with nothing else. No drink, no other side, nothing. Then there is the place with $3 pretzels and the $3 doughnuts that are smaller than even Dunkin'. I don't know about other cities but our town isn't cheap at all. We can go spend $50 at a local place or $30 at a chain. I don't need all of the guilt trip BS. The fact is it's simple economics. Having a local place that's as expensive or more than a chain makes us able to go there less. A lot of local places aren't any better than chains (why do you think the chains are successful?) and they often cost much more. (Don't get me started on how crappy it seems EVERY local diner is).