Take a look at the appetizers available at your typical American casual restaurant chain, and you will probably find some variety of chicken, breads, cheesy baked dips, stuffed or fried vegetables, mozzarella sticks, quesadillas, nachos, egg rolls, and potstickers,. The first few items may sound ‘All-American,’ and even Tex-Mex food like nachos has been adapted enough to qualify as an American standard – but egg rolls? Although the United States is known as a melting pot of ethnic cultures, it strikes me as a little wrong to have heavily Italian-, Mexican-, and Asian-inspired dishes on the same menu. Rather than being impressed by the variety that the restaurant has to offer, I’m skeptical of the quality of each of these dishes. I would prefer to eat somewhere that specializes in making certain kinds of dishes really well over a place that makes a bunch of mediocre crowd-pleasers. Furthermore, large menus really generate waste.
Let’s start with restaurant management. The more expansive a menu is, the more ingredients are needed to make the wide variety of dishes. While most foods can fortunately be found in various cuisines – for instance, pretty much any vegetables used in stir fry can be roasted as a side dish or served in a salad – some specialty ingredients like bean sprouts have a limited range of use. Even if a restaurant takes this into account and makes an effort to only work with versatile ingredients or specialize in a certain cuisine, a huge menu means the kitchen needs to be stocked with a large quantity of fresh foods in order to be ready to prepare anything. In our freshness-paranoid society, that means that a lot of fruits, vegetables, baked goods, and who knows what else gets tossed out at the end of the day to make room for a new ingredients shipment the next morning.
Then there’s us, the consumers confronted with a dauntingly long list of food offerings. Unless you have a specific craving or are a very picky eater, chances are that you will have trouble deciding what to order. In addition to being stressful, possibly to the point of causing so-called menu anxiety, the pressure to quickly settle on a meal encourages rash, irrational decision-making. For some people, the bad decision is foregoing their diets because the small salad section has been undermined by long lists of burgers, pastas, and/or other hearty entrees. In other cases, though, it means ordering multiple dishes so as to avoid choosing between two enticing options. Splitting or sampling is all well and good if you’re with at least one other person willing to share, but often it just results in several unfinished plates. In over 50% of cases, restaurant leftovers such as these are not taken home by the diner, which usually means they end up in the garbage. Why someone would allow a meal that they found so irresistible go to waste is a rant for another time.
As much as I love ordering something different every time I come to a restaurant, many of today’s menus are simply overwhelming. One consequence of being inundated with choices is wastefulness. By sticking to what they know instead of trying to satisfy every taste, restaurants save money on ingredients and prevent needless waste. The overall dining experience is also more pleasant for patrons when they don’t find themselves vacillating between five scrumptious-sounding options. Rather than worrying, “What if that other dish was better?” diners can are more likely to be satisfied by their orders, hopefully happy enough to finish them or take leftovers home.
If you find yourself in eating somewhere with a huge menu, take a moment to not look at it and think about what kind of food you’re really in the mood for. Find that section of the menu and try not to let your eyes wander. On the other hand, if you want to peruse everything, just keep in mind a) how much you want to eat, b) whether you can take leftovers home (and will have a chance to eat them), and c) whether you can come back some other time to try something else.
Make eating an enjoyable experience, not a stressful one!