Why You Shouldn't Eat at Chain Restaurants
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?
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.