Tuesday, November 29, 2011

REVIEW: Chain Casual Dining Restaurants (UPDATE)

Chain restaurants that fall into the "casual dining" market bracket have, over the course of the last twenty-odd years, come to dominate the landscape. They have been the catalyst to a nearly complete reorganizing of the target markets, have nearly killed the previously booming haute-cuisine industry in the US, have increased the amount many people are spending on food by multiple times, and have likely played a major part in the increasingly alarming size of the American waistline. They have, in a very literal way, redefined food in America.

I could write an entire book on the effects of casual dining has had on our fine country, but instead, for the more limited scope of this article, I will write mini-reviews of each one. I won't bother much addressing service, atmosphere, or design, since all of them seem to subscribe to the exact same philosophy. Also, I won't assign a $-rating to them since their prices are all similar. Instead, I will talk primarily about the food with brief mention of price. Again, the star ratings are based on my traditional ratings system and not in exclusive comparison to other casual dining restaurants.

My reviews are limited to what I have nearby, but living in the northeast, nestled between Boston and New York, provides me with access to nearly every major chain in the country.

An issue that I generally had with many of these places is that the menus are laughably similar, and they all followed the same strategies to hide poor ingredients. Cheesecake Factory is one of the worst, with nearly everything on the menu tasting heavy, greasy, and cheap.

UPDATE: Added Johnny Rockets to the list.
UPDATE: Added Five Guys to the list. Edited Johny Rockets entry from *** to **1/2. Reduced Bertucci's from **1/2 to **.

Chili's- **1/2
Chili's is one of the "junk wall" trio, the other two being Applebee's and TGI Fridays. They have the same personality, the same menu, and the same goddamned "junk wall" aesthetic that was done three minutes after it started. Chili's is the most muted of the three, and as time has gone on, they have moved away from this design, but bits of it remain. Much like TGI Friday's, the food is mostly decent. Anything that is grilled is good. Avoid all of the fried foods because, one, they are ungodly bad for you, and two, frying hides bad ingredients.

Applebee's- **
Applebee's is the second of the trio, the largest, and also the worst. I've never had bad food at an Applebee's. Quality control is obviously high, and unlike some other restaurants, like Olive Garden, they don't overreach the quality of their ingredients in their recipes. But that also means that all of the recipes are either quite bland or taste like something that I bought at Stop & Shop and microwaved. The menu is borderline identical with both Chile's and TGIF, the only difference being inferior recipes.

TGI Friday's- **1/2
The third and final member of the "junk wall" trio is also the worst when it comes to bolting crap to the wall. I hated it the moment I saw it. As far as food is concerned, it has the genuinely good Jack Daniel's menu, and anything that is grilled is rather tasty. Ingredients are of acceptable quality. Chicken has good, meaty texture, and the steak, while a bit tough, is flavorful. It is in many of the other recipes where it falls down. Salads are literally DRENCHED in dressing unless you ask for it on the side. Fried foods are overwhelmingly greasy and heavy, as is the pasta. Still, it's a tasty, fairly-priced restaurant that can handle massive crowds, so there is rarely a wait. I generally don't go to TGI Friday's, but if friends were going, I wouldn't complain.

IHOP- **1/2
IHOP makes mostly acceptable food, with a few things that are legitimately tasty. Unlike Denny's, they do not totally screw up basic breakfast food. French toast, eggs, and other simple things are always cooked well. When you venture into more complex territory, such as omlettes, the menu becomes a bit more disappointing. Things like steak and other such dinner items are not terribly good, but nor are they bad. If I was in a bind, I would have no issues eating an an IHOP. Given the choice, though, I would always opt for someplace better, like T's.

Denny's- *1/2
How one screws up eggs and toast is beyond me, but Denny's manages it. The eggs are flavorless, the toast tastes like wonderbread, and the bacon is rubbery and overly greasy. Why anyone would pay to have this prepared when they could screw it up at home for less money is a mystery. The sweet stuff, a standby for both IHOP and Denny's, is cloying and simplistic, with the absolute pinnacle being their Sweet Ride nachos, which were fried tortillas covered in crappy chocolate syrup and aerated whipped cream from a can. I have never had anything even remotely tasty at a Denny's. The best that I can say is that I have never been poisoned. On the bright side, service is usually good, even though someone gets arrested at every Denny's location in the country at least once per day, and Denny's are always very clean. Every time I enter a Denny's, it is against my will.

Cheescake Factory- **
I have never had a fully satisfactory meal at the Cheesecake Factory. I don't want to go so far as to call it bad, but the food is always fatty, greasy, sugary, breaded, dipped, and slathered in sauce. Their website says:

"The Cheesecake Factory menu features more than 200 menu selections made fresh from scratch each day — using only the highest quality ingredients — which combines to create our remarkable tastes."

If by remarkable tastes they mean remarkably average, then they are right on the money. The bit about highest quality ingredients is laughable. Chicken is gummy. Steak is tough. There are a number of recipes that are very good. It depends on if the ingredients for that item are naturally cheap. I suspect that much of the poor quality has to do with with offering over two hundred items. Two hundred?! No kitchen can produce two hundred items and keep quality at the utmost. It would be the size of a warehouse.

Cheesecake Factory also holds the distinction of being the Worst Restaurant in America, according to Men's Health Magazine. They say that "No establishment better represents the confluence of factors that have saddled America with an ever-worsening obesity crisis." Would you want to eat there?

California Pizza Kitchen- ***
The food is a mixed bag at CPK. Pasta is too salty, which is a common problem at these chain restaurants. Salads are, likewise, covered in dressings and toppings, turning what should be light and flavorful into something that is heavy and fatty. The pizzas are good enough to lift this place up to a full three stars, though. The topping selection is unique, prices are fair, and the quality is good. While I would always opt to make my own pizza at home (it's SO easy), this place beats out the legions of crappy little local joints that are named after some guy quite easily.

Red Robin- ***
Red Robin is another place that does what it does and does it well. They don't overreach their ingredient quality with their recipes. Their toppings are fresh, prices are little on the high side, but still fair. Some of their recipes, such as their chicken sandwiches, are light on the herbs and spices and lean toward bland, but nothing is bad. The design is a bit garish, with strong Junkwall aspirations inside, but they seem to be aiming Red Robin at the child market, and it works well for that. This is a great place to bring kids for a treat. But for the adults, avoid this place during kid-friendly hours like the plague. Everyone has kids. All of the kids are little psychos. And the noise combined with an aesthetic that looks like Pee Wee Herman's nightmare will drive you away such that you will never want to return.

Johnny Rockets- **1/2

Recently, I have been to both the Providence and Cranston locations and been shocked by the poor service. I'm absolutely not one to complain — I commiserate with all food service people — but I have been left with no service for, on one occasion, nearly twenty minutes. No menus. No water. No hellos. The waiter arrived less than thirty seconds before we were about to get up to leave. I stress that this has happened on multiple occasions and at two different locations.

I do not blame the employees. Because to me, this speaks of corporate fuckery. To me, this speaks of employees being treated poorly and paid crappy wages. Most importantly, this speaks of corporate fuckery because service wasn't always like this. Service was previously excellent and then, quiet suddenly, hit the skids. This indicates some idiot with an MBA coming in and finding "inefficiencies." For most idiots with MBAs, this usually involves cutting pay to lower-level employees (Just look at how well that worked for Circuit City). The person who made this decision is almost undoubtedly white, male, and a libertarian. I do not find it surprising that during this period of drastic service quality loss, Johnny Rockets changed hands between investment groups twice: in 2007 and in 2013.

My father has an interesting phrase that I have adopted: grass in the parking lot. This is a term applied to anything in business that has been visibly left to degrade. This is indicative of both bad management and poor business. It is a sign of dying. With that phrase in mind, I don't know of any locations that have their jukeboxes actually functioning, and this has been the case for some time. Coincidentally, since about 2007. It's not surprising that the current owner of Johnny Rockets, Sun Capital, also owns other struggling restaurant chains, including the foundering Friendly's and Boston Market, the latter of which was recently lampooned by The Onion. Boston Market's CEO was featured on Undercover Boss where a shift manager was fired for complaining about customers. Well, instead of getting angry, how about paying your employees more than shit? Oh right. I forgot. CEOs are good at getting self-righteous on camera, but when it comes to putting money where their mouth is, pissed off employees are just fine.

That was something of a tangent. So back to the point, I suspect that Johnny Rockets is dying. We don't know this because the revenue figures are hidden in the earnings of investment group figure sheets, but when the amount of grass that I see in their parking lot is growing, it's the only conclusion to reach.

All that said, the food is still alright. The 1950's kitsch isn't overwhelming and doesn't seem bolted on, since the whole concept of a Golden Age diner is woven into the company's DNA. Most burgers are in the $6-$7, which places them just below the burgers at places like Red Robin and Smokey Bones, and just above the burgers at Five Guys. That's a tough spot, and with their service so bad, an untenable spot.

Johnny Rockets is not bad, but I would still never again go there.

Five Guys Burger and Fries- ***1/2 (Read my full review)
Five Guys is growing like a weed. It went from a single location about a decade ago to hundreds scattered across the country. Rhode Island went from zero to five in two years. This isn't corporate-driven growth, either; this is desire. Five Guys is beloved by all who love burgers, and with good reason. I have not yet had Smashburger or In & Out, so I am perhaps not qualified to declare Five Guys the best, but others who have eaten at all the requisite places have declared them the best. When your competition includes Shake Shack, that's one hell of an achievement. The burgers are affordable, all toppings are included in the price, and service is a well-oiled machine.

The downside is the inevitable result of all of its upsides: children. Tons of them. Cheap, high-quality burgers can fill the bellies of an entire minivan of screaming, human larvae and parents all across the land take Five Guys up on its offer. Weekends around dinner time are BEDLAM. The noise level whittles away any emotional energy you have as the employees work diligently to clean up the spills that happen every five minutes. This period of chaos is short, though, and going during off hours is pleasant. The store is almost always busy, but only during those crush hours is it nigh-intolerable.

All things considered, Five Guys is the burger joint to hit up for a quick, cheap, delicious burger. Forget McDonald's. Forget Burger King. Forget Wendy's. Unless your alternatives are hidden, local, diamonds in the rough like Beef Barn, Go to Five Guys.

Cracker Barrel- **
I hate absolutely everything about Cracker Barrel. I hate its kitsch. I hate its ambiance. I hate its decor. I hate its religious foundations. I hate that they make you wait in a "country store" for your table. Even if the food was amazing, I would never visit. Unfortunately for them, the food isn't amazing. It's greasy, overly salty, and poorly cooked. They have a good breakfast selection, but their food is no better or worse than IHOP. Like many chain places, nothing at Cracker Barrel is bad. But if it doesn't stand out in some fundamental way, why go? I see no reason, and as such, I don't.

Olive Garden- *1/2
How something like this succeeds in a state where half of the population is Italian leaves me baffled. First, the good: the salads are all acceptable, and the pasta is decent. The sauce is entirely unremarkable and herbs and spices seem to be something to which the chefs have never been properly introduced. The pathetically weak flavor is indicative of freeze-dried herbs used across the boards. Ingredient quality is noticeably poor. Chicken, something that is generally seen as bulletproof, is 100% borked at The Olive Garden. It is always rubbery, flavorless, and fatty on the palate. Steak is never cooked correctly, but not like it matters. The meat is very cheap. Olive Garden also holds the distinction of using my most hated advertising tagline in history: "When You're Here, You're Family." Fuck you. No I'm not. If I was family, you wouldn't be charging me.

Ruby Tuesday- ***
I remember Ruby Tuesday as being a Junkwall restaurant. They may have been, but they certainly aren't now, at least, which is great. Their menu is similar to the Junkwall Trio, but everything seems to be a notch above. There are no glaring piles of fried apocalypse, and few tricks to hide poor ingredients. Their salad bar is a true deal, and their more expensive meals are of high quality.

Longhorn Steakhouse- ***
This is the reason why the meat at Olive Garden, the Junk Wall Trio, and Cheesecake Factory have crappy meat: it costs a lot! Outback Steakhouse is a chain, but all of their meat is of rather high quality, and, big shock, their steaks cost almost as much as many singular steak houses. As long as you stick to their steak creations, the food is good. Their sandwiches and salads frequently underwhelm, with bland flavors and no inventiveness. Longhorn has significantly toned down their kitsch in recent years, and the dining room is much more pleasant for it.

Outback Steakhouse- ***
Outback is like Longhorn's little brother. They are quite a bit cheaper across the board, but their quality is also noticeably lower. I've had a number of tough steaks, with more fat than there should be. Everything has always been flavorful, and their menu is much wider than Longhorn. For example, Longhorn has two sandwiches on the menu, Outback has six. Outback also follows the Junkwall aesthetic a bit, with weird shit nailed to the wall, but it's not too bad.

Bertucci's- **
Bertucci's pizza is very good. They also have a gigantic array of available toppings. Their prices are just this side of insane, though. You are undoubtedly better off trying local pizza places until you find a good one. Either that or make pizza at home; it's very, very easy. Their pasta is universally too salty. They must honestly cook it in sea water. Their red sauce is watery and bland, with zero body and no punch. There are quite a few jarred sauces that are significantly better. Seafood quality is low, but not terrible. If I wanted non-pizza Italian food, the only place that I would prefer less is The Olive Garden.

Ted's Montana Grill- ***
Ted's has one of the best interiors of all of the chain restaurants. It still has the fundamental aesthetic of a designed restaurant, with large open spaces filled with tables. But the muted wood tones, large, impressive prints of paintings showing the wide open spaces of the Old West, and rustic design touches provide a genuine sense of splendor and charm. All of this is made hilarious when you find out that the restaurant has nothing to do with Montana, farms, or cowboys, and the eponymous Ted is actually Ted Turner... who just wanted to make a steak house.

Everything is of very high quality. Recipes are austere. The centerpiece of the menu is their selection of bison meat, of which I'm not the biggest fan. The only major knock against them is that their prices are quite high. Where most places sell burgers for $8-$10, Ted's starts at $10 for a naked burger, and gets as high as $15. Bison meat adds $3 to each burger. That is a pricey burger. With that in mind, Ted's is still a very good restaurant. You will enjoy your food.

Smokey Bones: ***1/2
Smokey Bones is great. They have a large, dynamic menu of high-quality food. Their BBQ options are all excellent. Their pulled pork is hands-down the best that you can buy at any chain. Their prices are fully competitive. Their kitsch is more than a little off-putting, and since they changed owners and were rebranded a "fire grill," whatever the hell that is, they have bits of "wisdom" posted around the place that read like something out of The Man Show scripts. It's almost enough to ruin the excellent food, but not quite. If you want BBQ, I would recommend Smokey Bones over every other chain, and even most local places.

Carrabba's- ***1/2
This is one of my favorite chain restaurants. I very much enjoy eating at Carrabba's. Recipes are always thoughtful, decently-sized, and ingredient quality is good across the board. This is what Olive Garden should be.The dining room has little kitsch. Aside from the requisite fake wood texture, the bulk of the things on the wall are prints of old photos of the founders' mother. The whole restaurant is a bit dim, which is annoying, but the quality of the food more than compensates. Herbs and spices are present and they don't taste freeze-dried. The oil that comes with bread is a legitimate replacement for butter. And the dessert selection is among the best of all chains.

Texas Roadhouse- ***
I like Texas Roadhouse. It has good quality meats and recipes. I cannot stand the character or decor. You can eat peanuts as you wait for your table. Do not look for a garbage can in which to place your shells, though. There isn't one. They do this on purpose because they want you to throw your shells on the ground to really drive home how down-fucking-home quaint their restaurant is. It's practically a local bar down in Texas, h'yuk!!! Fuck you. This is forced charm. It is kitsch. When what makes your place charming is part of a corporate plan, it is not charming. It is annoying. Give me a damned garbage can.

Birthday celebrations are the most obnoxious of all restaurants in the entirety of the galaxy. They wheel out a saddle, scream, holler, and point a light in the face of the subject like they want information. Worse, people actually seem to enjoy this, because no less than nine hundred birthdays will happen while you are there. This horrifying show is enough to keep me away for ever.


I have a love-hate relationship with chain restaurants. On the one hand, they are an economic force that is causing local restaurants to either step up their game or go out of business. This is a good thing because local places have a tendency to simply do the same thing, and do that same thing, at times, poorly. The chains come in with brutal efficiency, marketing, style, cheap prices, and the ability to handle massive crowds.

It is also a bad thing because they force conformity upon the general market. Local restaurants will simply fall in line, and before you know it, all of the restaurants in the area are serving the same damned food. Unless you live in an urban center, your selections are very limited because of these restaurants.

Moreover, since the restaurants are usually not run by people who want to own restaurants, profit is the deciding factor in recipes and ingredient choices. Obviously, profit is always important, but most local places are run by people that simply enjoy running a restaurant. But since they have less to save by switching to lower-quality materials, as they are serving fewer meals, they are less inclined to do so. Compare this to the horrible quality frequently seen at chains. Because saving $0.25 per meal equals huge profits when your restaurant is pumping out fifty million meals per year.

That said, there are quite a few places out there that are truly a cut above. Restaurants like Carrabba's, Smokey Bones, and Ted's show that even a major chain can be a legitimate destination. They can be such because they don't shoot for generic food. Their menus have unique, identifiable character. There is quality out there in the din. Sometimes it is hard to find, but the quest is, without doubt, worthwhile.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Funny Corn Syrup Video

I have a tolerate/hate relationship with the corn syrup ads that ran on television over the past few years. I can respect the corn industry's desire to protect public opinion of their product, but at the same time, they have to know that what they are selling is bad.

Bad because it tastes inferior to sugar,1 bad because it's the final step in a massive government subsidy clusterfuck, and bad because the body might process HFCS differently from ordinary corn syrup and sugar.2 That is something that they happily ignored in those television ads, in their twisted Socratic dialogue, with an interlocutor character who is plainly retarded.

I had to opt to embed a low-quality version that a YouTube user uploaded since the official versions forbid embedding and moderate the comments. You can find the second official video here. Some inventive spoofs on these ads were created that deserve posting.

High-fructose corn syrup should always be avoided. If a product has it in it, don't buy it. It is that simple. Do. Not. Buy. It. Not because it may be bad for you in some physiologically obscure way. Not because you only want to buy organic crap. But because it is indicative of a company that is cutting culinary corners. This eliminates basically the entire cookie aisle, I'll admit, and pretty much everything that your children want, but that's a good thing. HFCS is the Boy Scout badge of a bad dietary life.

At the same time, I do not like to treat HFCS as some bugbear that is the cause of our obesity problem. It is absolutely not. If that were the case, countries without significant HFCS consumption like those in Europe or Asia, would not be seeing large weight increases. They are. Everyone in the Western world is getting fatter, the problem is just more apparent in the US. This is most likely because we were the only Western Nation not obliterated by World War II. Thus, we were able to get down to the important business of consumption directly after the war ended.

No, it is our overall lifestyle that is causing obesity. And while the emergence of HFCS might have encouraged our increasing desire for sweetness in the food that we buy, it is not the cause. That does not mean that we all should not be aware of how our food is made and from whence elements of our diet come. Truly, the more aware we are, the more likely we are to make overall better decisions. Not because we are terrified of HFCS or some other dietary boogeyman, but because we recognize that good diet has as little sugar in it as possible.

There is some evidence to indicate that this happening. According to the USDA, from a peak in the year 1999, overall sugar consumption in the US is on a downward trend. It may even get back to pre-1980 levels within the next five years.

This is obviously not the only piece in the puzzle as US obesity rates are continuing the rise. The reasons for this may be very bad, indeed.

I fear that the reduction in sugar with a corresponding continued rise in obesity evinces the growing divide between the dietary haves and have-nots. Sugar consumption is going down, but only among those in the middle and upper areas of the Socioeconomic Status scale. As this chart shows, overweight levels have remained flat since the late 1980's, and saw a downward trend in 2005/2006.

 This next chart shows that overweight levels have actually remained flat for the past four decades. This indicates that the bulk of weight gain has happened in those genetically susceptible to weight gain and those too poor to buy better food. As the quality of cheap food has taken a nose-dive, as has the diet of those who will be attracted to ever-cheaper products.

Is HFCS worse for you than sugar? Maybe, but if there is a difference, it is likely small. But that doesn't mean that those inane corn syrup advertisements are correct. They ignore the fact that as HFCS consumption has gone up, obesity levels have gone up. They ignore the fact that the cheapest food is the only food loaded with HFCS. That does not indicate a causal connection, but it does indicate that they are likely somehow linked. If you care about your diet, you should avoid HFCS as much as possible. And as I have discovered, as much as possible means never eating it at all. Well, except for the occasional Milano.

1: In multiple semi-scientific studies, people are frequently able to tell the difference, but many actually prefer the flavor of HFCS-sweetened drinks to the sugar-sweetened varieties. I think that it is because the HFCS versions are sweeter. Just look at the Pepsi Challenge, where Pepsi was preferred by a majority of people. This was explicitly because Pepsi is sweeter than Coke.

2: This is a problematic aspect of the debate. A few studies have shown some connection, with one very strong study done at Princeton University being widely criticized. Other studies have shown no unique link between HFCS and health issues. I think that the debate is something of a canard. Sugar is bad in excess. HFCS is indicative of cheap, poorly-made products. So why would you want to eat sugar in excess in cheap, poorly-made products?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pies, Pies, The Musical Fruit

As with every holiday, pies are on the menu. There's just something about them. I recommend making your pies because, first, it's incredibly easy, and second, there's nothing like a pie straight from the oven. If you don't have time, though, Rhode Island has two excellent locations to get top-flight pies made-to-order.

My number-one choice is, no surprise, my favorite bakery in Rhode Island, The Village Hearth, in Jamestown. Their crust is ultra-buttery, crisp, airy, and the pies are filled with immaculately prepared fruits and fillings. If I was to pick the best pies in RI, it would be them.

My second pick is, again no shock, Pastiche, in Providence. This choice also works much better for those in the Northern part of RI and on into Massachusetts. While I prefer the more provincial pies at Village Hearth, Pastiche's Dutch Apple Pie, Pecan Tart, and Pumpkin Praline Tart have their own merits. And, importantly, you won't find anything better for a good thirty-mile radius around Federal Hill.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Some Random Good Diet Tips

I have been slowly performing a complete overhaul of my diet over the course of the last year. I've been actively increasing my vegetable intake, I've been carefully crafting more meals at home, and all along the way I have been choosing options that take up as little time as possible.

That is one of the biggest issues for people who have become acclimated to the high-speed lifestyle allowed by eating out. You never have to worry your pretty little head about timing, or preparation, or cleanup, NO! You simply walk in, receive food, consume food, walk out.

Eventually, one's social life grows adapted to this. It ultimately becomes a chore to eat. You don't want to eat, you want to do other things. The timing calculations that we perform to determine trips to and from work, whether we say yes or no to an impromptu night at the movies, or whether we consider hanging out to even be an option in any setting, all of them become dependent on the assumption that food will take very little time.

The state of our economy makes the 1950's Golden Age ideal of dinner on the table every night nearly an impossibility. Very few households have a single income anymore, meaning that very few households have their own, private chef in the form of a stay-at-home parent. At-home gourmet food is basically impossible except for those who treat cooking as a hobby or passion. This state of affairs might help to explain the rise of food porn, celebrity chefs, and FoodNetwork.

So we are left with at-home meals that impinge upon our lives, an imposition toward which business society is becoming increasingly antagonistic, or restaurant meals that cost a lot and absolutely destroy our waistlines. This is not a tenable situation. We must either, as a nation, accept radically different dietary standards, or change the direction of our economy.

Faced with this reality, I have spent the last year trying to find a happy medium. I want healthy foods that I can prepare in under thirty minutes. I don't really consider money since simply shooting for health and speed results in reduced cost. That is unless you frequent pre-made meals from the store or fast food joints. But as I discovered, even the oft-cited bastions of poor diet like Wal-Mart can be treasure troves of healthy food, just so long as you know where to look.

Tip #1: Buy frozen vegetables.

Target especially has an enormous selection of store-brand vegetable mixes that are surprisingly tasty. The vegetables used are of good quality, and if you prepare them carefully, they end up being fantastic. It is unfortunate that nearly all of the pre-made mixes use either palm oil or hydrogenated oils of some type or another, but the amounts used are small, and I think that the benefits of increased vegetables in the diet outweigh any amount of trans-fats ingested.

That criticism only applies to the mixes, of course. The raw vegetables are just that, raw. They are the very embodiment of health in an easy-use package. They microwave in minutes, go well in groups, and can be kicked up a notch with herbs and spices.

Canned vegetables are useful if you don't have the freezer space, and a great option for canned beans of all shapes and sizes. The only problem with canned veggies is the salt content. They, and by they I mean the secret alien overlords, frequently can veggies in salt as both a flavor enhancer and also a preservative. Give canned vegetables a wash under cold water before cooking or serving them to get rid of most of the salt.

Other than that, you should be storing enough frozen vegetables to require a small chest freezer in your basement. They are cheap, can be prepared lightning-quick, and provide a panoply of flavors for your enjoyment. The final great thing is that frozen vegetables are available at Wal-Marts and Targets across the country.

Tip #2: Buy meat and freeze it.

Meat is fantastically healthy for you, just so long as you take it easy. A solid pound of ground beef every day is not the best course towards full-body health. But used in moderation, it is protein-dense, filling, and lower-calorie than a large serving of bread or pasta. For example, a 6oz steak contains about 300 calories. A flour burrito tortilla, just the tortilla, is 220 calories.

There are huge advantages not just associated with price or health. Restaurants will frequently use lower-quality meat with a higher fat content. When buying for the home, you can seek out the highest quality beef, pork, and chicken. Remember, always shoot for the leanest ground beef that you find; look for light, evenly distributed marbling of fat in steaks; and always buy chicken that has a deep, golden color to it. Avoid the pale chicken because it has a wildly higher fat content than the high-quality stuff. A good starting point is Purdue. It's not the best, but it's far from the worst. If you have a Trader Joe's nearby, they have excellent chicken. Buy your Purdue at Wal-Mart to get it for hilariously cheap. I'm talking $3 per pound.

Target maintains a great selection of pre-frozen fish steaks: tilapia, salmon, cod, and others are all available under their Market Pantry and Archer Farms brands. With these, you can maintain a constant selection of over a dozen meats, all ready to be cooked in under 30 minutes.

If you choose to buy in bulk and freeze like I do, you can regain much of the good texture from using unfrozen meat by thawing and cooking slowly. But since the goal of this is to be fast, a boneless chicken breast thaws in five minutes or less in a microwave, then cooks on a cast iron pan in about 15 minutes. You can always cover it in herbs and spices, olive oil, throw in some fresh veggies, and broil it in that same pan for about 25 minutes. That will result in better texture. If cooking meat quickly on a hot iron skillet, set the temperature high and flip the meat frequently; every 2-4 minutes or so.

Maintaining a collection of various meats and frozen veggies, when combined, results in a nearly limitless variety of meals. Meat is your friend.

Tip #3: Maintain a massive spice cabinet.

Herbs and spices are essentially zero-calorie. They are free flavor. Use them on your veggies. Use them on your meat. You will discover that when using actual flavor, you become much more sensitive to salt levels in your food. Salt is fantastic as a flavor enhancer, meaning that it is best in extreme moderation.

Tip #4: Learn to love sandwiches.

I do not snack very much. If I am feeling a little peckish, I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Or I have a deli sandwich. They are utterly fantastic little meals that you can easily get under 400 calories and come loaded with flavor. The complex mix of ingredients is also more likely to fill you up and provide better fuel for a longer time. Finally, make your sandwiches with high-fiber bread to get 50% or more of your daily value for fiber. Just remember to avoid mayo or any form of liquid calories like dressing. These can push a sandwich into gut-busting calorie territory very quickly and it's hard to measure and regulate the amount applied.

Tip #5: Add Metamucil to everything.

It was previously called FiberSure, but it is now called Metamucil Clear & Natural. It is a powder, it contains 50/50 soluble and insoluble fiber, and it dissolves in anything. You could dissolve half-a-cup of this into a glass of milk and barely notice it.

Tip #6: Don't worry about calories from the stuff that Grandma would like.

By this, I mean the things that frequently get hated on for being high calorie but have been staples of the American diet for a hundred years. Whole milk? There is no evidence that it causes weight gain, and there is a small amount of evidence to indicate that it's better for you than 1% or skim.

I think the focus on these things come from dieticians desperately trying to find anything and everything in the environment that could be causing the weight gain that we see in the population. As such, they say to avoid juice, milk, and even fruit! Ignore this advice. If you are fat, you are not fat from orange juice, milk, and eggs. You are fat from snacking, pre-packaged foods, and eating out too often.

There is an extensive proviso to this tip, though.

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After World War II, the biggest problems that we as a society had weren't nutrition or weight, but calories. Many people simply were not getting enough. Hunger remained an extensive problem in Europe into the 1960's.

The response to this was to get calorie counts up as quickly as possible, and that meant cheap food and processed food. Remember, at this point, the idea of being deficient in specific nutrients was a relatively new idea, since up until that point, people either had enough food or they didn't. Those were the only states in which people found themselves. As such, the medical literature was primarily knowledgeable about the effects of a total lack of food.

Thus, we saw the rise of brands like Wonder Bread and such childhood staples as Twinkies, Fritos, and Eggo waffles. It's tasty. It's cheap. And it's loaded with calories. Just what a growing population needs!

Unfortunately, it wasn't. We actually needed much more. Before that, our diets of farm-grown produce, mom-made bread and dough, and whatever meat we could raise made for a rather complete meal. After that, the things we weren't even thinking about started making their absence known.

Fiber was one of the biggest issues. Afflictions like IBS, diverticulitis, and constipation were nearly unheard of before the end of World War II. After the war, calories went up, fiber took a dive, and these new illnesses suddenly rose in prominence.

So while Grandma generally had good judgment, the post WWII era, which will forever be the Grandma generation, also had underlying values that are incompatible with today's dietary environment. It's not hard to find out which bits of Grandma's wisdom are no longer up to snuff. All you have to do is hit up Wikipedia.


Tip #7: Avoid eating out.

And when you do, count calories. The calorie count in foods from restaurants is almost always stratospheric. Sometimes, this is simply because they know that people like large servings and thus happily oblige. Other times, it is because they do not want to use high-quality ingredients and instead use lots of salt, sugar, and high-fat meats to make the food taste good.

Funny enough, the foods that you get at the oft-maligned fast food joints are usually not terrible as regards calories. They are not great fuel, in that the nutrient make-up of anything that you buy is going to be rather simple, but it's hard to get a fast food meal above 1,000 calories without chugging soda. For example, a Double Cheeseburger and large fries from McDonald's is only 940 calories.

You will also be amazed by how much money that you save doing this. As an exercise to provide further motivation to continue, while you are preparing your food, think about where you would have gone or what food you would have ordered, price it out, and tally it all up. If you eat out frequently, your monthly savings could be in the hundreds of dollars, while the food you are eating is undoubtedly superior fuel.

For example, McDonald's meals usually ring-up at about $5. For an at-home power meal, 2/3 lb of Wal-Mart Purdue chicken is $2. Two packs of Green Giant frozen vegetable mixes is $2.60. Add in $0.20 worth of herbs and spices and the at-home meal costs less than even McDonald's. The price difference is only amplified when you consider that most states tax prepared foods but not raw materials.

Tip #8: Find tasty drinks.

Water can get so boring. Zero-calorie sweetened drinks all taste like ass, and they can apparently make things worse. And while I consider milk to be an amazing drink, I think I would start to hate it if I had to drink more than a glass or two per day.

There are lots of flavored drinks out there that you can safely drink. I positively guzzle V8. I have no history of heart issues, so the salt doesn't concern me. Moreover, an entire bottle only equals about 100% my daily value. Orange juice is somewhat high in calories, so you may not want to drink it all day, every day. Also, the acid would just start to hurt. But again, OJ is something that Grandma would love.

Tea and coffee are wonderful, wonderful, drinks. Caffeine is being shown to have a broad array of positive physiological benefits, and both coffee and tea have unique benefits with yet-unknown mechanisms. A little sugar, honey, or milk and you have a delicious drink that's low in calories and big in benefits.

Drinks that you cannot safely drink are the non-refrigerated juices. They are almost always juice "cocktails," of super-sweetened water and a smattering of actual juice. These are little better than soda.

Tip #9: Force yourself to eat things that you don't like.

Your body is an incredible machine. It does much more than simply digest your food, it actually "decides" which foods taste good.

Have you ever found yourself craving a particular food? It happens to everyone. One day, for seemingly no reason, you can't get enough oranges. This is because something inside of oranges is needed by your body and your body "remembers" that those nutrients were paired with that particular taste. As such, from somewhere deep inside the unconscious parts of your brain, a signal is sent up to the conscious part of your brain to find 1000 CC's of oranges, stat.

This is why the recent discoveries that artificial sweeteners make people gain weight makes perfect sense. Your body tastes sweet and gears up in anticipation of sugar, because some mechanism in your body associated the two things. When it doesn't get that, the whole system is thrown out of whack.

You can use this mechanism to your advantage. By taking foods that you know are loaded with nutrients but you do not usually like, and forcing yourself to eat them will allow your body to associate that flavor with the burst of good stuff. As a result, you will begin to like these foods and can integrate them into your diet.

This does have a few limits. For example, some people are able to taste a level of bitterness in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli that others cannot. No matter how much you eat these vegetables, for some people, children especially, they will always taste bad.

Tip #10: Explore and expand your diet.

Studies show that people who like many types of food are thinner. This seems obvious. If all you like are hamburgers and chicken wings, losing weight isn't going to be an easy endeavor for you. Explore, for Pete's sake!

Tip #11: Find healthy snacks.

Assuming that you do not have access to a Super Wal-Mart, your Wally World will likely have an enormous snack section. Use it. The snacks are always cheapest there and they have identical selections of crackers, nuts, jerky,

For example, Planter's Nut*rition line of nut mixes are excellent snacks that are filling and loaded with good stuff. Nowhere else on Earth are they as cheap as at Wal-Mart.

Tip #12: Don't let yourself get hungry.

Being hungry is the hiiiiighwaaaaay tooo the danger zone. It's an oft-repeated humorous story, when someone who is hungry walks into a store and leaves with $297 worth of crap that they never intended on buying because everything looked so good.

This same story applies to your kitchen. If you wait long enough that you are very hungry, making sure to not snack or wait until a good meal is prepared will require willpower, which we cannot abide. The goal is to want this food. Time your meals. All of the above tips make preparing a real meal quick and simple. You can walk into the kitchen and have good food, good fuel, nearly as quickly as opening up some prepackaged bar. Only if you wait until you are hungry will the risk of failure arise.


I hope that this has been of some use. Changing your diet for the better is shockingly easy. It requires little self control or "willpower," it doesn't cost more to eat healthy, and you provide your body the fuel that it needs to do stuff. Your energy levels will rise, you'll feel better, truly, all of life will be better because the machine that carries you through it is running more efficiently.

What you need is the desire. After I tell you all of this, you may decide that the pleasure of eating cheesecake twice a day is greater than the pleasure of having a lean, mean, machine as your body. I derive pleasure from the latter, you from the former, and that is entirely alright. I am absolutely not applying a value judgment to either lifestyle. I am saying that I have found pleasure in my dietary life. I do not completely restrict myself from snacks, but I desire to rarely eat them because I would rather consume better fuel. If you do not desire the same thing, this is not for you, and you will fail if you attempt it.

That is the only kink in my plan. If you do not desire it, then you simply don't desire it. I could show you all of the evidence in the world; one cannot choose to want something. He or she simply does. If the idea of viewing your body as a machine, and thus providing it the best fuel possible, is appealing to you, I think that you should try this.