Donor: Anna Taylor, MS, RD, LD, CDE
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When you go out to a restaurant, do you know the signs that the food is mostly prepared in advance?
Most restaurant dishes contain pre-made ingredients. This allows food to be prepared quickly and consistently, which appeals to people who want fast service and low prices while expecting their meals to taste the same on every visit.
Restaurants can use prepared sauces and condiments, canned soup mixes and broths, and even pre-breaded or fried chicken / fish or pre-seasoned meats.
At the very least, behind every famous fried chicken restaurant is a batter mix (as well as a bagged sauce made with water). Many of these âfreshâ pastries weren’t made in the restaurant, but instead shipped there from a supplier – perhaps even after they had already been baked.
We all eat out sometimes, so it’s good to be careful what you order (as some foods are more likely to be fresh than others).
5 telltale signs your food is pre-made
You may not be able to tell that your meal was mostly prepared by the time the food arrives at your table. Restaurants are adept at providing meals that see fresh – even if they are not. It may have been assembled from pre-made ingredients by expert hands, but that doesn’t mean the ingredients were combined from scratch in-house.
Here are a few ways to spot foods prepared at your favorite restaurant:
- If it still tastes the same every time you eat it.
- If your entrees never take more than 10 minutes to make.
- Whether it is a fast food or a fast casual restaurant.
- If the restaurant does not employ a chef with culinary training.
- If your server is unsure of how the restaurant prepares the dish (and can’t find the answer easily).
How to order fresher food
Here are some tips to help you take back control of your restaurant choices.
Strategy # 1: Choose simply prepared foods that are less likely to be prepared ahead of time.
A few simple exchanges can help. Here are some examples:
- A baked potato with butter and sour cream on the side (if using) instead of mashed potatoes.
- Scrambled eggs and a slice of whole grain toast instead of a piece of quiche.
- Garden salad instead of vegetable soup.
Strategy # 2: Look up nutritional information on restaurant foods, including ingredient lists.
Nutrition information is generally available online for chain restaurants. Make sure to check out your favorite entrees at your favorite restaurants. Look at what the ingredients actually are, not just how many are listed.
Strategy # 3: Limit restaurant food and how often you go.
Shoot to go to a restaurant no more than 1 to 2 times / week. Also focus on limiting the portion you consume, as restaurant portions are almost always too much food.
Is premade less nutritious?
The trend in restaurants to use pre-made ingredients can lead to undesirable nutritional side effects, such as extra sodium, sugar, and fat added to foods during processing.
In general, the more a food is processed, the less actual nutrients it contains.
Plus, it’s much more difficult to ask restaurants to adjust a dish to meet your dietary needs when the kitchen doesn’t make every dish âto orderâ.
Example: Want a piece of baked chicken with no added salt? Well, the kitchen may not add salt to it, depending on your request, but even line cooks may not realize that the chicken was probably already salty before it arrived at the restaurant.
One of my personal pet peeves of the prefabricated ingredient phenomenon is simply the consumer ignorance of what’s in their food. How can people make a good nutritional choice if they have no way of knowing what they are eating?
It’s rare to find a restaurant that purchases the vast majority of its ingredients as whole foods (straight from the farm, for example). Usually restaurants use food distributors to source their ingredients, which can mean a lot of frozen, canned and jarred processed foods.
Ask the question: is it done internally?
When you go to a restaurant, arm yourself with knowledge. If you work hard to eat in a healthy, weight-conscious way, don’t let prepared foods derail you.
Keep in mind that if you are unsure of a particular menu item, you can always ask your server if it is done in-house.