A few years ago I found myself at an auto repair shop waiting for an oil change with nothing to occupy my time aside from a tattered copy of Men's Health magazine. Since it was the only reading material available, I picked it up and came across a feature entitled Eat This, Not That.
In the feature, authors David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding researched caloric and nutritional values of foods available at fast food and major chain restaurants to see what, if any, healthier alternatives might be available. By making their way through the menus of these temples of mediocre food and empty calories, Zinczenko and Goulding offered a way to circumvent some of the daily dietary turmoil that plagues diners who frequent these chains.
Now Zinczenko and Goulding are back with a newly released edition of Eat This, Not That, a guide to recreating healthier the dishes found in popular chain restaurants at home.
A few weeks back Alex Witchel of The New York Times took a stab a recreating spaghetti and meatballs from The Olive Garden using a recipe from Eat This, Not That. Her findings weren't all that shocking: The home cooked version was far superior to the subpar version she was served at The Olive Garden. But for me, spaghetti and meatballs is a dish to be enjoyed only at home. I wanted to see how some of the more restaurant-minded foods stood up to the test.
I decided that the only way to make a fair comparison was to eat a meal at one of these chains and use the recipes provided in Eat This, Not That to replicate them at home.
I chose a lunch at Applebee's for the first leg of my experiment. My meal had already been planned when I was seated: Spinach and Artichoke Dip and an Oriental Chicken Salad.
I didn't go into the meal with any expectations, but the food that arrived proved to be disappointing nonetheless. For all of the calories advertised on the menu, the food really just tasted bland, gloopy, and old. Unsatisfied and mildly annoyed at the fact that the meal ended up being much pricier than I had anticipated, it was time to see if I could do better at home.
The Spinach Artichoke Dip that I whipped up at home in just a few minutes was worlds away from the tasteless mess that I had tried to get through at Applebee's. It was lighter due to the lack of processed cheese, fresher tasting thanks to the chiles and lemon juice that give this dip some necessary acid, and I didn't feel a sense of overwhelming guilt for eating it. The ingredients for this dip cost half the price of the restaurant version and the calorie count weighed in at under a quarter of the original, not bad considering that butter, mayonnaise and cream cheese are all present.
The moral of the story? Next time you have a craving for a not very good for you meal, chances are you can whip up a good approximation at home that saves money, calories, and a trip to a dreadful chain restaurant with the help of Cook This, Not That.