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

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Kate, nice to hear from you again! I’m glad you decided to make the best of a lack of funds and cook really good food instead of being reluctant and trying to recreate junky restaurant meals until you could afford to start eating out. My daughter often comments about how she feels the difference when she doesn’t eat at home. I tell her that her body is a finely tuned machine now and it perceives anything out of balance. I think many people are so used to feeling bad all the time from poor nutrition that they consider it normal. If you’re used to high quality foods and generally feel good you can’t get away with eating junk without the body clearly complaining. The “pronoun guy” is an old friend of mine, good heartedly looking for something to chide me about. J


I love to cook. I grew up in a home, where mother was a sad cook. We ate out several times a week. So I thought that was the norm. Then I got married and had children. We could not afford eating out. I learned to cook and cook well. Now when we eat out we are always disappointed by the lack of flavor. We also end up with upset stomachs and head aches. I'd rather eat my own cooking. Only then will I know what is in it and can make it taste divine. I say the pronoun guy ought to get over himself.

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Thanks for writing! We all feel the same way about eating out vs. home. Also having worked in restaurants at times, my experience doesn’t help me feel better about eating in those places. I have to kind of suspend my distrust in order to even eat. Sure it’s easy, sure it’s fun, but I hope more people will be inspired to start enjoying the home-cooking experience even more, for so many reasons.

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Thanks for your comments. I’m very interested to hear what you have to say, as I have been wondering about the differences between the two and have questions in my mind. I guess I need to look into the question further. I will look for her review on Cordain’s book as I think I have only seen small excerpts of it. I am not an expert in science. Do you think that Fallon’s prescriptions for eating dairy, grains and legumes are worth following, or do you think it’s better to stick to the paleo diet? I tend to think the paleo is better but like the idea of eating a wider range of foods. The fossil record on the Paleolithic man vs the Neolithic show the paleos had it right, even with lacto-fermentation and all.

I note your review of Sally Fallon's book. She doesn't actually "pick up where Cordain leaves off" as Cordain brings the latest science to bear on the issue and Fallon does not. Her attack on Cordain's book The Paleo Diet when it came out was absolutely outrageous and filled with non-sequitur arguments and ad hominem (ie personal) attacks. It smelt badly of professional jealousy or, alternatively, she couldn't stand to see someone with real scientific qualifications and actual research stepping on some of her long-held sacred cow beliefs (such as saturated fat). I lost all respect for her after that event. Peter.


Yeah, I have to say-- to me, restaurant food is nothing to write home about. I don't even care to go to restaurants when I (rarely) have the opportunity. I'm always disappointed (except for the very few times in my life where I have eaten the food of a very good chef). Since we started eating traditional, high-quality foods, my family has found that we feel very unwell after eating out of the house. When it comes to treats and "dates", I'd rather they be homemade!

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Dear Slack Jawd Yokel, thanks for your comment! I also like your handle. It took me a minute to figure out I knew you! I sort of knew I was doing the wrong thing with that “she.” Yet I did it anyway. I will go do something about that right now. I won’t use “their” without changing the antecedent, though, because “their” is plural.

Slack Jawd Yokel
Slack Jawd Yokel

What an interesting and thought provoking article. I agree, it's interesting that restaurants used to claim "like home cooking" but now it's the opposite. I would like to express my disapproval of the pronoun "she" in paragraph 17, where the inclusive "their" could have been used. As a single parent (yet male) I too have had to cook, perhaps if I were a woman it would have been a better experience for all concerned. Having married a cultured foreigner I would assume you could have elevated yourself above such obvious (American) pettiness. Classlessness aside, well said!