Bookmark and Share September 23, 2009 - Dave Mulder

What to eat at chain restaurants

Chain restaurants are notorious for their calorie-heavy meals, but it’s hard to completely avoid eating at them. They are a convenient food destination before heading to the theater, and an easy substitution when you don’t feel like preparing your own meal (even if that only involves tossing a frozen dinner in the microwave). Beyond that, the food tastes great and there’s a plenty of it to keep you satiated.

Like many grocery store products, appetizers and entrees prepared by chain restaurants tend to be highly processed to give it that “melt in your mouth” sensation. It’s easy to take a bite, and then another, and another, because each taste overwhelms our mind’s sensation transceiver. As we have discussed in previous articles, these precision-engineered foods take advantage of our biological imperative to seek out sugar, salt, and fat. Once you’re there with a big meal in front of you, it’s really hard not to want to eat it all.

Restaurants add fuel to our desire with seductive product names and descriptions. Scholarly work on the topic has found that we feel more satisfied after eating something with a sexy name than if it had a more standard name. Take Chili’s cajun chicken sandwich, for example. Here’s their description:

Spicy, Cajun-style grilled chicken breast with jalapeño Jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle and ancho-chile ranch dressing. Topped with crispy strings.

How could you not want to eat that? Spicy & cajun provide the salt, ancho-chile ranch adds a layer of sweetness to cool off the jalapeno’s heat. As an added bonus, it’s a chicken sandwich, and chicken has less fat than a burger would. This sandwich also comes paired with a serving of crispy, salty fries.

If your mouth is watering, you’re not alone. Chili’s, and other chain restaurants, have done a terrific job of marketing their products to play our biological drive like a fiddle.

What can we eat there?

Chain sit-downs buy generic raw material (like meat and buns) and then drizzle it with franchise-produced sauce. No one knows what goes into these concoctions, and the companies that make them are very reluctant to say. If they’re not going to tell me, I’m going to try avoiding them in the first place.

But you will go there at some point

Face it, you’re going to end up sitting down at a chain restaurant at some point, regardless of how persistently you try to avoid it. You’re going to find yourself staring down a colorful menu with exotically named sandwiches.

But it’s probably not going to be natural food. To get something that’s real, stick to the basics. Most restaurants have a simple sandwich version that comes with a smaller price tag and minus the franchise sauce.

They’re not all bad

I don’t have a very high opinion of chain restaurants, but they’re not all bad. There are some that trade on a philosophy of natural eating. Unfortunately, these establishments rarely exist beyond a local level because anything else requires central distribution and real food (the stuff that spoils) doesn’t like to travel long distances.

It’s surprisingly easy to avoid chain sit-downs altogether but don’t fret too much if you find yourself sitting down in one; there’s always something real you can buy.

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