Can You Get A Healthy Meal Here?

July 8, 2011   43 Comments

Snack Girl recently visited a chain restaurant (not the one photographed above) and conducted her own thrilling investigation of healthy options.

Are Chain Restaurants Healthy?

What is the healthiest food you can eat? I think most of us would say it is fresh food made from real ingredients that are minimally processed.

When I go out to eat, I expect that a chef has cooked the meal that is served to me. That is what I am paying for, right? I am there because I don't want to cook.

At the chain restaurant I visited (to protect the waitstaff I will not name it - let's call it Mario's), I ordered minestrone soup. When it arrived it was SO salty that I decided that it was inedible and did something I never do - I complained.

When the waitress approached, I said, "This soup is REALLY salty. I know a little about food and I think the chef made a mistake."

The waitress said, "Do you love food?".

I replied in the affirmative.

"Then why are you eating here?"

This was not the answer I was expecting :)

"I can't change the soup because it is made at our headquarters and we just heat it up. I hate it when customers complain and there is nothing I can do for them."

Ummm, okayyyy.

Mario's business plan is to make a bunch of cheap food in one place and have their staff just heat up the PROCESSED food that you are served.

Try this - go to a chain restaurant where you sit down and order such as Applebee's, Chili's, Outback Steakhouse, Friendly's, Denny's, Ruby Tuesday, Houlihan's, etc. and make a wrong turn in the restaurant.

Yes, I am suggesting that you walk quickly toward the kitchen entrance (as if you need to go to the bathroom) and then spend as much time as they allow you peering into the kitchen! What do you see there?

Well, I have done this and was shocked to see very little fresh food. There was a couple microwaves, a grill, a deep fryer, and not much else. The staff wasn't cooking, it was tossing prepackaged food together to serve on your plate.

I have also watched a frozen food truck with BOXES of frozen hash browns, sausages, etc. unload into a local diner (not a chain).

Why am I paying someone to heat up CRAP that I could heat up for myself for a lot less money?

The restaurant I went to, Mario's, has this beautiful oven in the center that they use to make pizzas - so, I thought I was going to a place where they actually cook. The kitchen is open and I realized that they are just putting together pre-made dough, sauce, and cheese to make the pies.

Nothing is really fresh and even the salads have a topping of mixed lettuces while the bottom of the salad is just iceberg lettuce.

Just like Domino's! (except that I am paying a lot more for it!)

I have found restaurants in my town that do make things from scratch (thankfully) and I have made it my mission to avoid all restaurants that reheat packaged food and then serve it to me as if someone was actually cooking.

I can't believe I am writing this - but go find restaurants with chefs that actually COOK when you go out to eat. I am sure that food will be tastier, fresher, and healthier.

What do you think of chain restaurants?

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ı love you

Great idea to walk into the restaurant kitchen!

There used to be a website - that had over-the-top food items. While not its intention, the site helped me change my diet/lifestyle.

So...I noticed, while watching NFL games, that the food on the commercials looked a lot like that website. So ... I decided to take snapshots ... take a peak and see what you think

BTW, the Western diet and be hysterical ... here's the proof ... You'll be ROTFL after watching these.

Ken Leebow

My husband is a pest control specialist, and as a result, he spends much of his time in local restaurant kitchens. I have to say, since he started his job, the number of restaurants we eat in locally has declined in dramatically, both because of the lack of cleanness in kitchens and because of the very issue you noted!

Have you noticed a trend in commercials lately (specifically Sonic and Papa John's) that brag that they are proud to announce they are now using REAL food in their dishes? Papa John's brags that while other chains can't say this, he uses REAL sausage (um, as apposed to WHAT??) and Sonic is bragging that they are now using real ice cream in their desserts. What the heck were they using before?!? This is very alarming to me, has anyone else noticed that? Apparently, using fake chemicals is so prevalent that they now get to brag for using the stuff I thought they were using the whole time.

I saw that papa johns commercial too and was weirded out! I was never under the impression that most restaurants (especially chains) actually have a "chef". Restaurants like that are usually expensive.

My husband and I have a mental list of places we will never eat at again. Many of the places you mentioned are on that list.

We make an exception for wings though.

I stopped going out to eat a long time ago. It is almost impossible to find healthy food out there. I will occassionally enjoy Panera salads but yes these chain restaurants are known for reheating. Yuck to them all!

Most daycares/schools/fast-food/chain restaurants ect use processed pre packaged foods. Things like beef crumbles are mostly soy, salt, and seasonings, cheese us the cheapest they can get, fruit is canned in heavy syrup and veggies canned. They toss so much of the product anyway, and the idea is for it to be simple and fast to put together and serve.

Papa Johns pizza is horrible. I even have to persuade family members sometimes from ordering it, insisting on this reliable local joint up the road that actually makes pizza that tastes REAL and fresh. Making your own food is fifty times better for you, I've been good with that the past few years, although I am guilty of getting lazy once in a while and heading to a chain like Outback for a steak and beer on the weekends...

I learened this lesson from the Chefs at our Culinary School (where I teach in another area of the University). I was stunned that some of my favorite places, who proclaim to have such "fresh" and "healthy" choices actually are misleading the customers! Thanks for pointing this out to your readers...we truly do have to be careful!

Really good question! I gained quite a few pounds at Chili's.

I met friends at a local restaurant where the real live human chef makes really good food (with local ingredients where possible) from scratch so we were surprised when the kid's menu "chicken fingers" were prepackaged nugget thingies. The kid at our table is used to real food and we ended up sending them back for a good grilled cheese (local cheddar on homemade bread) instead. But the waiter said most kids balk at real chicken strips so they went to the "fast food" type for the kids menu. It gave us all something to think about....

I have to agree with megrcam51. I've always laughed when I see foods at the grocery store that say "Now made with real cheese!" Oh, well I just assumed that as this is a cheese product you were always using real cheese! Silly me!

I also laugh when I see commercials for Burger King's 'flame-broiled hamburgers.' I guess it's possible (though I'm betting on unlikely) that they were flame-broiled at one time, but everything at BK is nuked in the microwave. I know because I worked there in high school (not that long ago) and I seriously doubt that things have IMPROVED since then.

On another note, my husband works at a barbeque restaurant. It's not really a chain, but it has 5 stores in Oklahoma. They smoke all their meats and actually use the grill. They buy bread pre-made, and their desserts are made but not cooked so they do have to bake them. Anyways, it's not perfect but it's the closest thing I've seen to 'homemade' food at a restaurant. It's hard to find the small diner-types around here, and I can't think of any chain or fast-food that does anything close to that much actual work.

that's one of the many reasons I prefer to eat at home...I can prepare food how I want it, it's healthier, and of course cheaper :)

I have a firm rule not to eat at chain restaurants. Support local business' like snack girl said that cooks their own food...

Snackgirl, this is actually a shocking discovery. You should write an article for a national newspaper on this - what a travesty.

Its funny you say that! I live in Melbourne Fl and found a great Italian place called Amici's (friends). When I had the food it was just like I had cooked it myself but better!! The thing is you know when you are eating good freshly prepared food. You just can't mistake the quality you know?

@Sammy....I agree. I used to do phone installs and the demark is usually in the kitchen. I, too, made a list of places I no longer wanted to eat. People laugh at me and call me weird for thinking the way I do but that was when I really started examining where I would get my food and "dine" out. Guys who want to date are generally knocked for a loop when going to a restaurant doesn't interest me. It makes them have to work a little harder because they will not be getting away with a cheap meal at Chili's or Applebee's. I don't even darken the doorstep of those places. 90% of these restaurants get their food from the same suppliers. It smells the same, tastes the same and is the same bad for you. The only difference is one restaurant has red sauce made from a chemical concoction of flavors while the other restaurant has a white or yellow sauce from a different concoction. It's all very boring and a waste of time and money.

Wonderful post! **applause**

I am so lucky to live in an area that has dozens of restaurants that serve local, clean fod with lots of veggie and healthy options. If you're ever in Asheville, please check out Homegrown:

Just one example of the slow food movement we have going on around here. What's funny to me is that even being surrounded by healthy choices doesn't stop people from eating at the crappy chains. Every time I drive by Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Chili's, they're parking lots are packed! I for one am willing to spend a little more and wait a littel longer for fresh, tasty REAL food!

Ooooh forgive my spelling errors!

My aunt and uncle ran the local Dairy Queen from the early 50s to the late 80s. They made their own fish and chips, tartar sauce, potato salad, and deep fried locally grown chicken. They were the last independent(that I heard)D.Q. franchise in the US. Now, they're totally dependent on the DQ products. A tavern near us cooks up local fish,oysters, and clams, though the fries are frozen(like eating starchy flavored airpuffs). In Astoria, OR, the town has several restaurants with local grown food.

I knew McDonalds, and Burger King does things like this, but diners and such, I just think they should make their own food! I'm going to a buffet tonight, and the best part, is that you can actually see the workers actually cook. I just hope it's not pre-made food.... I'm just sad that in America, we have to rely on food like this. This is why I started cooking my own food. The amazing thing: I'm 12 years old.

I just resisted the urge to eat out and heated up a cedar lane burrito, topped it with .5 cup of bush's black beans and 1/8 cup of shredded cheese, a little salsa, oh and a 4 oz glass of red wine, total calories 534; less than half that I would have eaten in a mexican restaurant and I'll bet this nice quiet meal at home tastes better too!

Sort of embarrassing to admit..but most of time I choose these types of chains is becuase the post their nutritional info. I hate guessing when I go out to eat how many calories etc I'm taking in. I wish more places would include calories on thier menus.

Preach it sista! I couldn't agree more. Trying to pass this info onto my 4 children. Last week my 14yod invited 2 of her friends over and they made homemade pizza (which my daughter has been doing since she was a toddler). The girls were amazed and couldn't believe how fun and easy it was to make fresh dough with fresh toppings. Real food lovers unite!

Several years ago I dated a man who worked for a well known national food supply company. He sure burst my bubble about food and restaurants. I would name a food I loved and he would look it up in his supply book. "What! Kentucky Pie, isn't made from scratch in Cattle Baron's Kitchen!!" He also told me about one of local family owned diner's that serves "homemade tamales". Uh....not so much, he delivers them! I have known this little secret for years and it STILL shocks me.

It is quite frightening really - convenience and fast food have moved up a gear. I'd be very surprised if there any chain restaurants that don't do this. They have no choice, its far too expensive to prepare fresh food on site to serve to customers at a reasonable price. It is such a shame.

The thing that does bother me most is the amount of salt and processed sugar and hydrogenated fats in our diets today. Obese people get a hard time for eating too much but really our modern western diet must be huge contributor to obesity issues because everything is processed, preserved and stuffed with additives to make food taste good.

Eating healthily does take time, effort and some knowledge and I really don't think we can ever rely on chain restaurants to really help us do that.

You can't group all chain restaurants together for this post. You specifically mention Outback Steakhouse and this is not at all how they operate. I worked there for years in college and their food is prepped and made fresh daily. They use a lot of butter, oil and salt (so I wouldn't say your getting a low fat, low cal meal) but the majority of their menu is made fresh. If you walk into the kitchen during restaurant hours, it may appear that there is no "cooking" going on but that is because everything is prepped and sectioned out during the day, while they aren't open, for faster cook times. Take a look in their refrigerator and you will find a plethora of fruits and veggies and raw ingredients.

I am sure there are plenty of restaurants who do thaw out processed foods and serve them, but not all chain restaurants operate this way. So, if you are that and ask before you go.

If I chose to never eat at a chain restaurant, my social life would be pretty lacking. I try to eat the majority of my meals at home...but what's the big deal if you meet friends out for dinner on the weekend and not stress about the food that your eating. My life has a lot of other things to stress about than the one meal a week that I don't prepare.

I'm suprised no one has brought up Chipotle. All of the pork is free range and all of the meat is antibiotic and growth hormone free. 90% of the food is cooked in house in the same way you would cook at home. If you avoid the cheese and sour cream(which come from healthy happy cows), it's suprisingly healthy. Steve Ells is a genius. If the fine dining restuarants I work in served burritos and tacos the ingredient list would look very simular to Chipotle.

Having worked a bit in the restaurant industry, I have learned that it is best to skip the chains and frequent the local fare. Once the restaurant goes over 5 locations, I have to really think hard about dining there anymore.

I dislike chain restaurants. Where I live in NC, we have a lot of good "mom and pop" restaurants that have fresh vegetables and meats. One in particular closes for a few days, and the owners go fishing and bring back fresh seafood to offer as a special during the next week. SO GOOD! They also have fresh fruit that is in season, and buy vegetables from local growers. Why go anywhere else!

Ha!! I knew it! Wait till I tell my boyfriend!

The only place you can get preservative-free soups, by the way, is Panera Bread. I used to work there, and took plenty of time to read the nutrition info on the actual packages...

They're still shipped to the stores, but they are flash-frozen, and do not contain preservatives...that's why the store-bought kind people have been finding at Cosco and Sam's taste different--they have preservatives!

Oh, yes,the chain restaurants do have some fresh items, but a good portion of their menu selections are made by a company and reheated -- especially their appetizers. I always wondered why the staff at these places would heat up appetizers made by a company when you can save some $$$$ by staying home and heating up Farm Rich frozen snacks or Tyson's Any'tizers and be esting basically the same thing?

Why do "foodies" continue to harp on chain restaurants? I just don't get it...

People (including myself) eat at places like Chili's for the atmosphere and experience rather than the having quality food (which most of us know we are not getting). Why is that so hard to understand for you people?

Eating at home is undoubtedly cheaper and healthier, but eating by yourself or with a couple family members is not exactly the most exciting option on a Friday night after work. I'd rather be eating out at a place where the atmosphere is easy going, and people are happy and content. When I go to places like Chili's or Olive Garden with a couple of friends, we're having a great time together. Not only are we enjoying themselves, but people around us are enjoying themselves as well. It is the atmosphere and low quality (albeit good tasting) food we go for.

I am not some overweight tub of lard either. I manage to keep myself in good shape by exercising regularly and eating out only a few times a month. When it's time to eat out, I choose a good chain restaurant because they are designed for having a good time. Seriously. These companies invest millions into their restaurants to make them enjoyable for people. Everything from decor, to layout, to wait staff training etc.

This is the way it is. Foodies need to get over their immoderate hatred towards chain restaurants. Live a little.

My life is just fine. I choose not eating at chain restaurants. Low cholesterol, great blood pressure, wonderful energy, no allergies are just a few of the benefits. There's no rule that says I can't enjoy life unless I eat at a chain restaurant.

Fixed a typo:

Oh, yes,the chain restaurants do have some fresh items, but a good portion of their menu selections are made by a company and reheated -- especially their appetizers. I always wondered why the staff at these places would heat up appetizers made by a company when you can save some $$$$ by staying home and heating up Farm Rich frozen snacks or Tyson's Any'tizers and be eating basically the same thing?


a -- You can have an enjoyable dining experience eating good, fresh, tasty well-prepared food rather than mass-produced goop.

b -- that "overweight tub of lard" remark is name-calling and an insult to those people who are of abundant body contour

I realize I am commenting on this post VERY late (like, almost a year late), but I just came across it. I worked at one of these chain restaurants in college, and almost everything is pre-made. You couldn't even modify sandwiches because they came in pre-assembled. The only things we really made from scratch were the side salads.

I agree with all the posts, but I will have to say that chinese food is prepared fresh. I really can't say that I have anything pre packaged in our chinese restaurant. Snack girl you are awesome wish you and hungry girl were on a websit together. You are both so informative.

I also stopped eating at most restaurants because of the unhealthy options. Does anyone have an opinion about Chipotle?

@Kate - I think Chipotle is a great place if you order correctly. see:

Thanks for your question!

What's your take on bob evans? I don't llike it much but went there today and remembered this post. i got the fit breakfast with egg white with veggies, multigrain sidecakes & fruit

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