Reaching the Promised Land: Home-Style or Restaurant-Style?

Sep 28, 2009 by

 This post was featured in Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday on Dec. 18, 2009.


“This is as good as a restaurant!” a young guest at my table once complimented me on a dinner I made for her.

I took the comment in the spirit it was intended, but what struck me behind the compliment is the acceptance of restaurant fare as the gold standard for good eating.  

It’s a study of contrast in mindsets. It reminds me of the extremes in the unspoken reactions to my French husband:  some seem to think he’s inferior (a lowlife immigrant, a stupid foreigner, speaks with an accent, limited in professional prospects); others, that he’s superior (a sophisticated European, multilingual, cultured, educated, suave and debonair). It all depends on your viewpoint and prejudices.

While some home cooks take pride and confidence in their ability to feed their children top-notch, tasty and nutritious meals, too many others seem to assume that creating the most desirable food is beyond their abilities.

Stuck cooking at home

In today’s economy many families can no longer afford frequent eating out, so they’re turning to more home cooking. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re taking the opportunity to embrace fresh whole foods and exciting new gourmet recipes, especially if that’s something they have never experienced.

Some of these reluctantly liberated home cooks may be like the children of Israel, who having escaped slavery in Egypt—a comfort zone in its own way—are faced with getting themselves through the wilderness and to the far-off Promised Land.  Many are still casting a longing eye behind them upon the empty starches, deep fried breading, free soda refills, and melted processed cheeses of Egypt.   

According to an analysis of American food buying patterns over the past year in this month’s Advertising Age, one of the main challenges cash-strapped moms report facing in the current economy is the “necessity of creating restaurant-style meals at home” —as if that were truly necessary and something worth aspiring to.

How to make home cooked that’s more like restaurant food?

 The processed food industry has been quick to see a golden opportunity in the thinking of these apprehensive home cooks in the biggest decline in food spending in 60 years. Their research has revealed a strategy to keep home cooks wandering in the wilderness of poor eating and poor self-image while diverting what’s left of our restaurant budgets into their own coffers. 

Campbell’s, for example, banking on the common belief that the food professionals do it best, is proposing packaged foodstuffs for make-at-home meals that answer our cravings for the Alfredo pasta and juicy burgers of Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s.

I suspect these manufactured concoctions that play on our feelings of inadequacy as cooks as well as food addictions may be as loaded with sugar, salt, fat and starch as the restaurant meals themselves.

A study earlier this year shows that 86 of 102 chain restaurant meals tested included over a day’s worth of sodium, some up to four times the daily allowance.   

“Who knows how many Americans have been pushed prematurely into their graves thanks to sodium levels like those found in Olive Garden, Chili’s, and Red Lobster?” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which conducted the study. “These chains are sabotaging the food supply.”

The chain gang 

It’s easier to let the factories and chains feed us than to be in charge of our own eating. It’s more convenient and safer to open packets than to cook from scratch. No question it’s enjoyable to choose from a menu, sit back and be served without effort, and to walk off and leave the dirty dishes on the table. But the food itself? If we look at it from another point of view, it leaves much to be desired.

Many dishes on the menus of our favorite chain restaurants are certainly addictive, with their greasy crunchiness, creamy dressings, over-the-top sugary sauces, the warm white rolls, the indulgent desserts, the massive quantities that aim to compensate for quality.

But unless we are talking about a fine restaurant where you’ll pay at least $30 per person, where the chef is highly skilled and famous for creative, sophisticated, extraordinarily fresh, high quality dishes that the untrained cook really wouldn’t be capable of making at home, it’s just not that hard to beat.

Our family eats in chains only when we have a gift certificate, or are on the road. It’s generally disappointing. We usually feel crummy after eating in these places. Those who once get a taste of doing better themselves lose interest in making that same stuff at home.

The average restaurant meal is a step down, even a big step down, from what an average home cook who sets her or his mind to it can achieve at home, in flavor, quality and nutrition for the same price or less, if we can only step out in faith and believe it.

Better than a restaurant

Why compete with restaurants?  You can do better than that. We normal adults are capable of making really good, really nourishing real foods in our own kitchens, with speed and ease. The health benefits alone are reason enough. The savings alone are worth it.  The better quality alone is worth it.

A good cook book with uncomplicated, flavorful recipes is all anybody needs. Bon Appétit magazine and cookbooks are some of the most consistently good sources I’ve found. No special skills are needed, but you might find yourself not only picking up a few but enjoying it.

Since we’re forced to give up the restaurant meals, we might as well eat better while we’re at it, rather than returning like the proverbial dog to our own vomit.

It’s at home we can use carefully chosen fresh ingredients, personally select our recipes, lovingly prepare human-size quantities, experiment with endless variety and novelty, and bring our young eaters into the process of growing, selecting, preparing. Going to a restaurant is comfortable, familiar and easy. But cooking a great home meal is a Promised Land within your grasp to be experienced with pride and without apology.  


For recipes for some quick, easy, nutritious and delicious meals for kids, see the category on this blog called “Recipes and other shortcuts to becoming the cook you want to be.”

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 27 September 2009 / All rights reserved