Reason #22: Your Health

Recently, the New York City Board of Health passed a law requiring restaurants with more than fifteen locations to publish the calorie count of their menu offerings for customers to see. I commend this, and applaud those restaurants who’ve already complied, as begrudgingly as some may have done so. I wouldn’t want to have to go through the extra work to find out what the exact nutritional toll of the recipes on this blog might be, for whatever reason. And personally, I’d be pretty embarrassed if I found out that my recent cupcake recipe, for instance, amounted to 780 calories and 36 grams of fat a pop, like those at the beloved bakery Crumbs.

But then, would they ever be — really?

Even if I tried really, really hard? I doubt it. There are many differences between home cooking and professional cooking, first and foremost being level of skill. But as a commercial enterprise, the bottom line in a restaurant kitchen is to consistently create memorable, really good-tasting food that you’ll want to come back for again.

There are plenty of restaurants that pride themselves on the overall healthfulness of its dishes, but New York is not a culinary capital shy of fat.

Let’s take a quick stroll through nutritional fact land:

-1 sesame bagel with plain cream cheese from Dunkin’ Donuts: 25 grams of fat, 220 calories.

-1 slice of cheese pizza from NYC chain Ray’s Pizza: 25 grams of fat, 613 calories.

-1 chicken burrito with rice, beans, cheese and sour cream from Chipotle: 39 grams of fat, 918 calories

-1 Wendy’s Classic Double with everything and cheese: 40 grams of fat, 710 calories.

-Cosi Signature Salad with Shallot Sherry Vinaigrette (not including the free bread): 52 grams of fat, 683 calories.

That last meal was what an old co-worker of mine used to eat just about every day for lunch — including the free bread. It has no meat, and the dressing really is a vinaigrette. Most people would call this a healthy, light lunch. New York Magazine’s Grub Street editor Josh Ozersky, on Dateline (watch here via Serious Eats), would call it a “sucker salad.”

So how does this enormous fat toll happen?

I call it restaurant magic. Well, for one thing, looks can be deceptive. Not to rat on Cosi or any of the above restaurants in particular, but that salad had its share of cheese and nuts, stuff that, while beneficial in some ways, you’ll want to eat in moderation. But in general, both fast-food and high-brow, chain and boutique restaurants just use a whole lot more oil, butter and fat than one would suppose. The difference between when a home cook makes risotto and when a professional chef does is that at the end of the process, two sticks of butter are missing when the chef makes it. Where did they go?? Magic. There are also not-so-secretive maneuvers, such as when you ask for your morning bagel “lightly buttered,” and it comes with a smear the size of sandwich fillings. A friend of mine once found a glob of unmelted butter in his bowl of (not even cream-based) soup and was so horrified and disgusted that he couldn’t eat anymore.

It seems to me it’s much easier to eat less fattening food when cooking for yourself because for one thing, it’s cheaper, and it doesn’t occur to home cooks to hide a half stick of butter inside soup, or use up half their bottle of expensive olive oil on one night’s pasta. When you pay for the luxury of eating at a restaurant, you’re paying for the extra douses of oil and fat because, after all, they give flavor to foods.

So, even if it might seem obvious that when a person orders a cupcake or brownie, they couldn’t give a hoot how healthful it is, and even now that chain restaurants (only, so far at least) will label calorie counts, the fact is, it can be really hard to tell how healthy your meal is when you’re not cooking it. It’s impossible, really. This is a completely fictional anecdote, but who can forget the Seinfeld episode when Elaine puts on pounds after gorging on fat-free frozen yogurt that wasn’t?

Now, I’m no poster child of healthy living. I have more than a few bad health habits which I won’t go into detail here too much. But just last night, I drank tequila shots, danced barefoot after breaking glass on the floor and chugged home on my bike eating a bag of Combos, if you get the picture. (It wasn’t a pretty one.) But when I’m not under the unstoppable force of tequila (or other, highly stoppable ones), I get a really good kick out of feeling healthy. And that’s the way I prefer to be during and after a meal. I can’t stand the slump of post-greasy meal consumption, and who wants to hang out with someone suffering a big twisted bellyache? At least when I inflict that kind of anguish on myself with something I made, I have no one else to blame.

This also relates to Reason #2: Mystery Illnesses, the unpleasant experience of food poisoning or other unpleasantries due to eating that which is not entirely known from a restaurant, as well as serve a footnote to Reason #18: When you do eat out, things are different… Essentially, what you order and its calories or fat count or bellyache you get in return isn’t always a straightforward transaction, or make common sense.

Yes, this could just as easily happen if I were to cook up a big, huge, greasy slopburger on my stovetop and call it a weeknight’s treat. But… seriously? I’ll stick to occasional weeknight tequila dancing for now, thank you very much.

11 Responses

  1. Sarah

    I love all your reasons for not eating out. I work in midtown and bring my meals with me every day. Saves me loads of money, and I know EXACTLY what I’m putting into my bod.

  2. Judith

    Aw man, you just ruined eating at Ray’s for me. 😉

    But even you eat out while on vacation, so I maintain that one slice twice a year won’t kill me. If I get the New York fellowship I’m applying for, I’ll give it up.

  3. anna

    Great reason, and I love the timeliness w/r/t restaurant calorie listings!

    I also rarely eat out, and especially when it comes to lunch, I get the third degree from my coworkers/friends about how I possibly have the time to make my own lunch. “Money and health,” I tell them. And while there are those who actually believe that cooking at home is more expensive than eating out (??), most just don’t understand why eating e.g. a “healthy” salad at Chop’t isn’t viable for everyday eating.

    The good thing about never going out is that when you do, you can order your favorite thing on the menu (e.g. potato pancakes from Veselka) and not worry about the one zillion fat grams, because you know how much fat, calories, etc., you’ve been eating otherwise.

  4. andrew

    whoa! Ihop started with the calories also. scary stuff. I think I have to find a new weekend indulgence.

  5. Jess

    I was hoping you’d have a post about this!

    The best argument for the calorie postings is not better choices, but more conscious choices–now knowing that a Chipotle burrito is over half of the calories I need each day, I’ll either abstain or sacrifice from other meals that day. (Lord knows it feeds you plenty–the thing is the size of a small infant!)

  6. baconbit

    The main thing, I always feel, is to remember that I need to eat around 1800 calories today and then look at what I’m eating out and decide how that fits in with the rest.

  7. CasseroleCrazy

    Damn! I love that Signature Salad. It’s one of my favorite eating out salads. That and the Cobb at Ella Cafe which has all that thick cut bacon, eggs and, yup, real Vinaigrette. Even though I order it without avocado, it’s probably way, way up there.

  8. akahn

    I agree with the message of this point.

    I watched the Dateline video, however, and I think it’s pretty misleading the way they focus almost exclusively on calories. For example, at TGIF (not that I’d ever eat there!), they are talking about a salad that has 1300 or so calories, and that one can eat 3 Big Macs and have the same amount of calories. Sure, but that doesn’t mean they are nutritionally equivalent or equally healthy! Even with similar calorie levels, the salad is much better for you.

    That may not be a very healthy salad, but I wouldn’t call it a sucker salad. It’s very closely related to a ‘meal salad,’ but on the excessive side. But that’s what you get for going to TGI Friday’s.

  9. cathy

    That is such a good point, akahn. Thanks!

  10. Kath

    hey – totally just found your site two steps from Apartment Therapy and can I just say that I’m fascinated! I’m eating my third bland Hale & Hearty midtown soup of the week and am thrilled to have found you. all the best!

  11. Irina

    I have to agree! I ate out regularly until this spring, and over the summer have been almost exclusively cooking my own food. I lost over 10 lbs without even trying! I think it not only has to do with the extra fat and other additives, but with the portion size. If I have too much at home, I know I can put it in the fridge and eat it later — in a restaurant, I tend to want to eat it all there, since I’ve paid for it, and since I know it won’t keep that well.

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