Questions to support a more mindful approach to eating out from the costs & values perspectives.
Clearly, I have food on the mind. Yesterday, I participated in a small group chat with the C.E.O., Sonia, of Fresh Box Farms, about food safety, fresh produce, and our ideas about sourcing healthy options and sustainable farming in the South End, hosted by @FreshBoxFarms. It was a great time to gather invested groups – moms with kids in tow, entrepreneurs, medical school professors, at least one grandmother, me, and others who simply like to eat. @ChiveEvents (which also catered The W.E.L.L. Summit luncheon last year) used greens and herbs from FreshBoxFarms (which uses vertical, indoor farming) to provide some tasty, exotically-spiced refreshments.
Today, I was standing at a food establishment I rarely frequent, and it was when I looked down at the menu that the thought of this post occurred to me. Particularly, I observed that there were two options for sizes of fries to go with my sandwich, which was an add-on, instead of coming included with the (moderately priced) sandwich.
I knew I didn’t want a lot of fries – just about as much as those air-stuffed potato chip bags have, which actually take up less than 50% of the bag’s crinkly real estate.
I immediately wondered how much of a real difference did that $1 that stood in between the full and half fries actually amount to. And then, I wondered if maybe ordering a perhaps less-economical half portion might actually be helping my health or precluding the problem of food waste later on. Would I profit, would the restaurant, or would both of us?
I thought back to quick, American-fare, sit-down restaurants like TGIF, Chilis, or Applebees and their menus. Rarely going to these places over the course of my lifetime (excepting the “I’m starving and we are at the mall” moments) I can’t say I have regularly-collected data to chart the rise and fall of prices, portion sizes, or possibilities of menu offerings, but I have noticed a few patterns. Sandwiches often come with fries. Steak often comes with fries. Salads are often an option for substitution, but sometimes there is an upcharge. Sometimes restaurants don’t even allow substitutions. There are hot vegetable sides, but also a plethora of potato-based, creamy, salty, or buttery sides that are sure to fill you up along with enhancing the palate of the main foods ordered. Who determines the cash value of a salad vs. fries? How far ahead does someone calculate the costs of maintaining high quality greens for salad in-house, with fries that probably come out of a large, bulk-bought freezer bag? Does anyone in the general food and dining industry take into account the health costs of cheaper side dish offerings, for instance, or is it just someone else’s problem (consumer)? Is it right to pay $3 extra to substitute a side salad, or is it rather something you should view as an investment in your health?
Five to ten years ago, I might have gauged the nutritional standards of a quick sit-down eatery by how many of the dishes added fries on to most entrees (think: salmon with a side of fries… – I’ve seen it!). Healthy, skinny, or lean menus housed within the general offerings fixate on calorie counts as a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of the heavy, fat-swirled options. Some places even have a gluten-free section of the menu now, which is indeed a small victory for those who actually are gluten-sensitive. Today, with the awareness around food as a contributor to disease and illness, as well as how it can be an asset for prevention of disease, I see positive strides taken to offer tasty options incorporating local variety and even more sustainable means of production.
How am I adapting in this evolving food environment, which evidently still needs change? I’ve taken to planning to stretch a meal I order out for two meals; I eat half, visually cued by the white space on the plate, then save the rest. It is less about understanding my own satiety signals internally, and more an adaptive response to the way menus are designed and the options that are there. Although, I would much rather I pay greater heed to feeling like I’m satisfied with a meal, than worrying about if I’m getting my money’s worth or wasting food.
If I must pay, I suppose I’m wondering what it is I am exactly paying for.
From the fast restaurant’s perspective, do they charge $17 for an entrée with two sides so that they are insured a profit, or is that how much the food and labor are worth? What does the price indicate about quality? Is it commensurate with the quality of the greens, how organic the dairy is, or the thought that it took initially to come up with the item on the menu? Are there places where $17 means something different in terms of quality, sustainability, artistry, taste, and quantity, and if so, how can a consumer make educated decisions when they’re simply trying to quell the lower grumble of an empty tank?
How many of you have wanted to order a half portion of a dish that sounded delicious, and wished you could just pay for what you plan to eat fresh, right there, but couldn’t?
Hopefully you found a suitable option. Did you share it with someone else you were dining with? Save it for the doggy bag? Or, did you say “Yes, I’m done!” and let the server take the plate away, still laden with energy-dense, empty calorie foods? Hello, food-waste.
This makes me wonder: are we eating more than we want to because of what is given to us? How much of our eating occasions are accompanied by mindfulness? How much of this is our responsibility to moderate, and how much is easily fixable by the “powers that be” who provide us our food?
I’ve been challenged by the fact that I don’t like to waste food.
Yet, when I’m full I might keep eating because of any of these reasons:
1) the mashed potatoes were just so tasty 2) It won’t keep for reheating later 3) Although I ate the nutrient dense portions, I didn’t want to throw the rest away.
So, this is just the experience at one sector of restaurants. Take the standards up to 4.5 stars on Yelp with a locally-inspired bistro and suddenly the plate looks different. There could be more elements on the plate, but less of it is energy-dense. If there is a mash on the plate, it doesn’t take up 50% of the plate – it was created in proportion to the steak bites to be taken with it. Some Italian places I have been to offer appetizer portions or half portions of their main dishes, allowing for people to share food and try different flavors they might not have tried had they had to pay $26 for each entrée.
But, this all depends on what you value from an eating-out experience. If it is feeling satisfied and well at the end of the meal then perhaps some of this will resonate with you. Perhaps you will encourage your favorite spots to offer different size options for their dishes. Perhaps you will think a little bit longer about what sides you select to go with your dinner.
Having some particular, critical thought and mindfulness behind portion sizes and menu offerings on the part of the food industry stands to make a big impact on what and why people actually consume. It also can trigger the building of a better culture around food – present for all people, every day – which is mindful from the level of quality and quantity of food, accounting for sourcing and sustainability of ingredients, but that still delivers desired services in a way that won’t add more strain on society sourced from the healthcare costs of the accumulation of poor eating practices.
I hope this was thought-provoking – if you have expertise in the food/restaurant industry and insights into costs or healthy eating that you would like to share, chime in on the comments or on Facebook! In the meantime, enjoy this autumn photo from today’s gorgeous 80 degree (summery) day.
Until next time,