- First in show. You are more likely to order the first item on a list in a given section of the menu (such as the "chicken" or "beef" section.) That's where many restaurants place the most profitable dish of that type.
- Menu Siberia. Unprofitable dishes, on the other hand, tend to get banished to a corner that's less noticeable.
- Visual aids. Many menus box off something they want to promote, because if you draw a line around it, people will order it. Photos also sell dishes.
- Package deals. Even if only a small percentage of the McDonald's customers spend some extra dollars on a meal package, that translates to millions in additional revenue.
- Dollar-sign avoidance. Some menus avoid dollar signs and decimals -- keeping money abstract makes spending less threatening.
- The small plate-large plate conundrum. A restaurant may offer two sizes of the same dish; that price differential is almost pure profit.
- Ingredient embroidery. If the menu makes each ingredient sound ultra-special, it will sell better; it may be the same dish you would get anywhere else, but you'll start to think you can only get it there.
You probably never think about this, but restaurant menus aren't necessarily designed to bring your attention to the restaurant's best dishes, but rather their most profitable ones. As discussed in the featured article, a menu is a sales device, and when it comes to sales, it is important to remember that the primary motivating and compelling reason for most businesses is to maximize their profits.
Naturally, there's nothing inherently wrong about this practice, but knowing how it's done may help you make selections that are in YOUR best interest, as opposed to simply falling for an obvious sales tactic designed to sell inexpensive food with the highest profit margin.
What is Menu Engineering?
Similar to the way grocery stores pack the most visible shelves with the most profitable (and typically least healthful) foods, restaurant dishes that earn the most profit are always located in the most eye-catching spot on the menu.
These tactics have absolutely nothing to do with quality.
According to the featured article, restaurant dishes can be divided into four general groups, based on their profitability:
- "Stars"-- Popular items with high profit margin, such as penne with vodka sauce
- "Plowhorses"-- Popular but less profitable items, such as steak
- "Puzzlers"-- Less popular, high-profit items like sweetbread
- "Dogs"—Less popular items with low profit margins
So-called menu engineering is the strategy to steer you toward the "stars" and "puzzlers" items, which the restaurant makes the most amount of profit from.
The featured article also points out a number of other tricks, such as offering package deals, or different sizes (the upgrades being mostly all profit for the restaurant), or describing the ingredients in flowery verbage meant to trick you into thinking it's more special than it really is.
Other tricks of the restaurant trade not specifically mentioned above include passing off inexpensive fish such as pollack as something more expensive, like cod. Or, Maryland-style crab cakes made from crab that came from Vietnam... (Most fish in restaurants is also farm-raised, which you definitely want to avoid.)
Further, daily specials are not always "the chef's inspiration of the day." Instead, daily specials are often dishes prepared specifically to get rid of ingredients nearing the end of their shelf life. To spot these iffy "specials," look out for expensive items used in a way that minimizes their flavor, such as cut and braised lamb chops playing second fiddle in a dish.
Remember -- Nearly All Restaurant Food is Far from Optimal...
I'm not a big fan of eating out and typically eat a meal away from my home less than once a week. My primary concern is a lack of assurance in the quality of the food or how it is prepared. Toxic unknowns like high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives and MSG can lurk in food from even the finest of restaurants.
Many restaurants actually buy processed frozen foods that are simply heated or cooked in the microwave, and then passed off as "home cooked." This is something you'd expect from a cafeteria or fast-food joint, but it occurs even at five-star eateries.
Additionally, even the healthiest restaurant meals are typically loaded with excess calories. According to a registered dietician and representative for the American Dietetic Association, restaurant meals average between 1,000 to 1,500 calories, and because they're served in gigantic portions, you're likely to eat more than you would at home.
The end result is that eating out often means you're typically eating low-quality food at a premium price—a lose-lose situation for both your health and your bank account.
So What Foods Do I Eat?
I personally don't eat much meat. I do enjoy a whole organic chicken boiled to make chicken soup. And a few times a year I crave a good steak or hamburger with the works. But I also enjoy duck and lamb when dining out.
Raw food restaurants tend to be my choice when traveling when I am close to one. They are typically highly conscious about the types of food they offer and it is nearly all organic and locally grown. My favorite commercial chain by far is Seasons 52 whenever they are available. Fortunately I live only a few miles from one. Many restaurants have their menus online and it can be helpful to identify what you want to eat before you go to the restaurant.
My primary source of animal protein is eggs and I consume three or four most days, very lightly poached over a bed of vegetable pulp left over from my quart of organic green vegetable juice. I also have wild Alaskan salmon cooked in organic raw butter, taken with chlorella to address mercury. I use organic raw almonds, whey protein bars, and organic raw milk cheese as snacks.
I also use two scoops of organic whey protein once or twice after every daily workout. I consider high quality whey protein concentrate one of the hidden secrets of achieving high level fitness, and view it as one of my most important food sources.
I'll be 57 in July and have never felt more fit or healthier my entire life. It has been a great journey to learn how to optimize my own heath and then share those principles with others so that they can benefit as well.
How Can You Determine the Quality of a Restaurant Meal?
Some restaurant chains, such as Seasons 52, are well-known for their high quality standards, and since their menu is based on foods that are in season, you're far more likely to get foods that are at their peak. Their menu changes with the seasons.
Ideally, you'd want to opt for wholly organic- or raw food restaurants, but they can be few and far in between… Barring those options, how can you ensure you're getting high quality food without potentially health-harming additives?
Some questions to ask would include:
- Do they use MSG?
- Does the sauce (or any other condiment) contain high fructose corn syrup?
- Do they use genetically modified (GM) ingredients? (Remember, typically anything containing corn, soy, canola, or any of their derivatives are GM varieties UNLESS certified organic)
- Is the beef grass-fed?
- Do they use organically-raised, free-range chicken?
- Is the fish wild-caught? (If not, you may as well pass. There's nothing healthy about farm-raised fish)
Think out of the Box and Create Solutions!
I have outlined some of my primary concerns with most conventional restaurants and why you need to limit your use of them. However this does not mean that all restaurants are bad.
There are plenty of good ones that prepare outstanding meals. Most raw food restaurants would fall into this category as the owners are typically obsessed with health and would never compromise the quality of the food they serve as it is really more of a life mission for them rather than a profit venture.
My office in Chicago is not close to any high quality restaurant like this. So I contacted the highest quality local restaurant and sat down with the owner and had a long discussion with him about my concerns. We eventually agreed to prepare about 50-60 lunches every day for our staff that are brought to our office. The meals are made from the highest quality organic foods and prepared in a healthy fashion.
Needless to say my staff is very happy with this arrangement as it solved a major problem for everyone. I firmly believe in the importance of using food as a tool to nourish our staff and help improve their ability to serve you better.
So if you truly believe in the importance of food then you can think outside the box and perhaps come up with a similar creative solution in your area. Remember nothing is written in stone, and many local businesses would be glad to work with you to come up with a similar arrangement.
Restaurant Lemon Wedges—A Little-Known Health Hazard
Another thing to keep in mind when eating out is the potential for food poisoning. While ANY food could cause a problem, some items are more prone to disease-causing contamination than others.
High on the list is meat from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), but did you know lemon wedges are another common culprit?
Yes, in one study published in the Journal of Environmental Health four years ago, two out of every three restaurant lemon wedges tested were covered in disease-causing bacteria -- including fecal bacteria. A total of 25 different, and potentially dangerous, microorganisms were discovered on the wedges.
This is why it's so important for restaurant workers to wash their hands!
Unfortunately, even the most well-run, health-minded restaurants probably have disease-causing bacteria crawling all over places it shouldn't be. Does that mean you should boycott all restaurant lemon wedges, because sooner or later you will get one that will make you sick?
However, if you have a compromised immune system, are elderly, or are referring to a small child, then perhaps it would be prudent, as these are the people who are most likely to get seriously sickened.
If your immune system is strong however, you really shouldn't have a problem. After all, you're exposed to disease-causing bacteria everywhere—in fact, one of the MOST heavily contaminated places is the handle of your grocery cart!
Besides, considering that over 65 percent of colds, 50 percent of all cases of diarrhea and 50 percent to 80 percent of food-borne illnesses are caught not in restaurants but in your own home, it may be more important to keep your own kitchen clean. For example, studies have actually shown that there could be up to 200 times more fecal bacteria on your kitchen cutting board than on your toilet seat.
A Better Choice for Your Meals
I have long stated that if you want to be optimally healthy, you or someone you hire needs to take the time to prepare your meals from scratch. This way, you can be sure you're getting unprocessed, high-quality food.
I am also fond of saying that if you fail to plan you are planning to fail, so each night before bed, plan what you're going to eat the following day so you can avoid having to rely on purchasing unhealthy meals. Alternatively, make a meal plan each weekend, and buy all the ingredients you need for that week's meals.
For help getting started, read my 14 tips to eat healthy on a tight budget along with the quick, home-cooking tips in the article How to Cook Whole Food From Scratch--and Keep Your Day Job!
It takes a bit of planning on your part, but please make an effort to eat the majority of your meals at home -- and rely on dining out only for the rare occasion. Additionally, this last section is a must-read as it offers powerful evidence of just how much poison you ingest from pre-packaged processed food, and how easy it can be to reduce your exposure.
How to Easily Avoid BPA, a Common Food Contaminant
Yes, last but certainly not least, I want to give you even more incentive to really cook from scratch, using whole foods rather than processed packaged foods.
In a recent landmark human study, published in the Environmental Health Perspectives, five families got rid of all packaged foods from their diet for three days, during which time they ate only fresh organic foods stored in either glass or stainless steel containers.
The researchers evaluated each family member's urine to see if abstaining from packaged foods would measurably alter their levels of bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates —two pervasive chemicals commonly found in plastic containers, the lining of metal cans, and a variety of other food wrappings.
And did it ever!
During their three-day organic-only stint, their BPA levels dropped by an average of 60 percent! Levels of DEHP (a phthalate used in food packaging) dropped by an average of 50 percent, and the highest exposures decreased a whopping 90 percent!
When the families returned to their normal processed food habits, their levels rose back to their original levels...These findings are incredibly important because it clearly shows what a tremendous impact you can have on your toxic exposure simply by avoiding processed pre-packaged foods!
Remember, those reductions were observable in just THREE DAYS of abstinence!
Pregnant women in particular should heed to this advice, as it's now both well-known and well-accepted that plasticizing chemicals such as BPA and phthalates are a serious threat to infant health. (Also remember to make sure any baby bottles you use are BPA-free, as heating can release up to 55 percent more BPA.)
Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have linked BPA to a long list of health problems, including:
Developmental problems Birth defects Breast and prostate cancer Early puberty Infertility Obesity Chromosome and reproductive abnormalities Diabetes Heart disease Neurobehavioral problems
According to lead researcher Ruthann Rudell:
"Our study provides clear and compelling evidence that food packaging is the major source of exposure to BPA and DEHP," and "that a fresh-food diet reduces levels of these chemicals in children and adults by half, after just three days."