You probably want to eat healthy.
Maybe you put the effort in to avoid industrial food products in favor of fresh, whole vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. If you're like me, you learned to love the subtle, complex, nuanced flavors that come with fresh.
Maybe you even learned to dislike that restaurants cover fresh ingredients with sauces or coverings that are sweet, rich, salty, or all of the above. They hide the vegetables in piles of rice, bread, pasta, and other filler.
Yes, it's pleasurable. As a child I preferred pleasure to other ways to subtle and complex, but as an adult, I prefer subtlety and nuance.
Comfort food used to be a rare treat, even at restaurants.
Then it became common.
Now it's nearly the only option.
I live in Manhattan, with a huge number and variety of restaurants. They overwhelmingly serve comfort food.
Even so-called "healthy" options rarely are. Quinoa may be healthier than rice, but less than vegetables. Olive oil may be healthier than hydrogenated, but beyond teaspoon quantities, it's nearly empty calories and restaurants pile it on.
Besides, what menus call healthy usually doesn't taste great. My food at home tastes great and is still healthy.
Restaurant owners and chefs know what brings people back: sugar, fat, salt, and large portions, which means fillers--rice, bread, pasta, quinoa, etc--no matter how lacking in nutrition and full of calories the fillers are. So that's what they serve. Researchers found sit-down restaurants as unhealthy as fast food.
Comfort means losing variety. Mexican and Thai cuisines are very different in their countries, but become similar when one is covered in cheese and the other in coconut milk. Cheese and coconut milk are different, but they turn both dishes into comfort food, lacking differentiation. They're just yummy.
Whole Foods and its peers sell mostly packaged food. Trader Joe's sells almost exclusively packaged food. Marketing something as fresh and whole doesn't make it so.
What matters with food
I value one thing over all else in food: Is it delicious?
If not, there's no point in continuing.
Second: is it healthy?
I avoid what isn't delicious or healthy. Once it meets those two properties, I prefer lower price per quantity, but I'm willing to pay more for quality.
People who make money from selling food realize they make more money by triggering reflexive responses than by satisfying the interests of people who distinguish between yummy and delicious.
The comfort food death spiral
So begins a death spiral: they sell more comfort food, people lose appreciation for delicious, leading to more comfort food, leading to people losing appreciation for delicious, and so on.
But you and I get more delicious food at home so restaurants don't bother us that much.
Except when we travel.
The traveling trap
Traveling puts you at the mercy of the lowest common denominator of food, which is yummy food.
I'm writing these words on the way back from giving a keynote a few states away. I asked the hotel's concierge to recommend a restaurant. The first night he recommended a vegan restaurant featuring local, organic food.
In Manhattan, all restaurants have at least a few vegetarian options, so I rarely choose vegetarian.
But on the road, I figured vegan, local, organic would give me my best chance at delicious. As it turned out, the local, vegan, organic place still served mostly comfort food. Nearly everything was covered in a "cheez" sauce. That the cheez was made of cashews and oil didn't change the small amount of vegetables, which didn't taste fresh, and whose nuances the cheez covered.
Is there a way out?
I wish I had an answer to if there is a way out. Sadly, I don't see one in the mainstream market. On the other hand, a few years ago my trash overflowed with food packaging and I didn't know what composting meant. Now my compost runs over and I last emptied my landfill garbage 11 months ago.
So change is possible. There are exceptions--restaurants that serve fresh delicious food.
I just hope it happens. Let me know if you have ideas short of me starting a restaurant.