Why Aren't There Healthy Fast Food Restaurants?
A friend of mine recently lamented the fact that there are no healthy fast food restaurants. "I wish I could just pull through the drive through and get a fresh salad and some sort of a light entrée. And fresh fruit sorbet for dessert." Why don't they have healthy fast food restaurants?
The modern day fast food restaurant debuted with the McDonald brother's unique assembly line style system circa 1948. To really understand what makes fast food industry tick you have to understand that fast food is really all about labor intensive foods made quickly. Once upon a time, ground hamburger was a luxury. French fries? Another luxury. When you have to peel and chop the potatoes by hand, shoestring fries quickly lose their place in the nightly meal rotation. Fast food restaurants capitalize on our cravings for comfort foods. Foods that we can't quickly make on our own. Labor intensive items that we just don't have the time, energy or resources to make on our own.
When you're cooking for a family, it's labor intensive. But, when you're cooking for a million customers? You learn a few shortcuts. For instance, you can buy and process beef in bulk. Same with potatoes. Scrub them up, shoot them through sharp grids and you've got much more work than you'd do for one or two servings. But for a million? You've struck gold.
Unfortunately, when you're cooking for a million, you're not cooking fresh food. That food is going to do a LOT of traveling. It has to get from the farm (from a lot of farms) to a processing plant. It has to be processed just right. And then it has to be packaged in a uniform manner, shipped back out and stored until it's ready to use. It has to be easy to prepare. It has to be something that is uniform enough that you get the same basic meal at any restaurant in the country. It has to easily go from frozen to served in a very short time frame. (This is where it earns the title of Fast Food.)
Why Don't They Make it Healthy?
The process tends to drain food of it's natural flavor. Which leads to the doctoring up of our food supply. Our taste buds respond to flavor. They want pizazz, excitement. That comes in the form of sodium and a variety of additives, both natural and artificial. But salt is the most important one, since salt doesn't just add it's own salty taste, it enhances the flavor of whatever it's paired with. (Which is why you add a dash of salt to cake and cookie recipes)
Foods that are considered inherently healthy are generally prepared fresh. They contain a minimal number of ingredients, relying mostly on their fresh state to provide flavor and color. Fresh food takes extra prep time in a restaurant. Fresh food has a short shelf life. And fresh food doesn't satisfy that salty craving for fried comfort food that we've come to expect fast food to fill.
Fresh food preparation also requires a higher skill set than many fast food chains are prepared to offer. It's one thing to unwrap pre-packaged burgers and flip them when they hit a certain color or when the timer tells you to. It's another thing to learn how to slice, dice and sautee your way through the menu.
Although fresh food preparation may take a little more training than a high turnover of minimum wage employees makes practical, it tends to give consumers the impression that they could easily make that at home. While the process of slicing shoestring fries, then deep frying them in a vat of oil is a little overwhelming to the average customer, tossing a green salad sounds like something they can easily do at home for a fraction of the cost.
Simple, fresh, inherently fast (to make) foods ironically would be more expensive to serve in a fast food setting because of the costs to keep the fridge stocked, the employees trained and the store running. And consumers, while they like the idea of fresh and fast food, aren't generally willing to foot the bill.
Healthy Food VS Fast Food
While fresh, healthy fast food restaurants may not be opening up on a nearby corner any day soon, that doesn't mean you're cursed to eat high fat, high calorie, sodium laden dinners and lunches for the rest of your life. Nor do you need to resign yourself to hours of daily food preparation. There is a happy medium. Multiple happy mediums, in fact.
Unless your new resolve to eat healthfully is spearheaded by a newly diagnosed medical condition, fast food doesn't have to be off the table completely. While there may not be a lot of inherently 'healthy' options out there, there are plenty of 'healthier' choices to make. Choose apple slices instead of fries. Get a plain salad, and drizzle it with lemon juice. Choose a baked potato and top it with some veggies from the salad bar. Jamba Juice offers all fruit smoothies.
If eating out is reserved for a special treat, a truly special treat that is indulged only a few times a year, then the few extra calories and sodium and fat will be balanced out by your regular diet. But only if your regular diet is relatively healthy. (I say relatively because healthy looks different to everyone). Healthy eating doesn't have to be expensive or time consuming. It just takes a change in the way you think. Healthy eating isn't a diet, it's a lifestyle. One that fast food restaurants simply aren't equipped to accommodate. When you're exhausted after a long day, rethink your fast food attitude. Instead of looking for a drive through, look for fast options in your own fridge. They'll be twice as satisfying, and exponentially healthier.