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Would nutritional information on restaurant menus help you make healthier choices?

I just read about a study at the University of Waterloo in Ontario where the researcher is trying to determine if information right on the menu (rather than on the restaurant's website or a brochure) would affect diners' choices for the better.



I think the idea is that this menu labeling policy, if ever implemented, would apply only to fast-food outlets and chains so the notion may not be an issue with most chowhounds but it got me to thinking about the choices I make at non-chain restaurants.

I try to eat healthy most of the time but when I eat out -- thoughts of calories and sodium be damned, I want to enjoy myself. For instance, I had a duck confit poutine earlier this week -- it was rich and it was salty and it was good. My poor heart is probably still in shock.

Would you welcome nutritional info on menus as a way to make healthy choices? Or would it put you off.

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  1. I don't know that having the information on the menu would influence my choices, but having the information available through a website or brochure absolutely has. There are times when chain restaurants are the only option, and I will almost always choose one that makes the information available so I can plan my meal. I'm an on-again, off-again weight watchers participant, so the numbers are important to me.

    1. I've thought about this a lot, and I'm just not sure. I always know when I eat junk that it's junk, and since it's a rare occurrence for me, I doubt the info would make any difference.

      The real issue, though, is that except in places with gadgets that strictly regulate the ingredients, the actual item's resemblance to the recipe used to calculate the tallies is going to differ extremely widely. I've had restaurant sandwiches with literally three tablespoons of mayonnaise, and I'm sure that's not how they're intended. Likewise with portion sizes. I occasionally really enjoy a Hardee's hamburger with onion rings. Even at the well-run location near my house, the amount of onion rings especially varies in the extreme from serving to serving.

      1. I would find it useful. I track my calorie intake regularly and often stay in rather than go out because I only want to eat 500 or so calories. If I knew of some meals that were around my target levels for calories and macronutrients, I might be encouraged to go try them more often.

        1. Many places in Japan have calorie counts on their menus. I thought it was helpful, although it didn't really influence my choices. For the most part the calorie counts for a particular dish weren't that high, but that might have been because the restaurants were more conscious about keeping the calories down.

          1. I would love to know the nutritional information for the foods I eat in restaurants. It doesn't necessarily have to be right on the menu, but I would really appreciate having access to the information if requested. I know I can OFTEN do this online for chain restaurants, but I would like to have access to this information while I'm at ANY restaurant during the decision-making process. I started "tracking" my food intake a few months ago and the changes have been amazing. I didn't realize how little protein I was eating and have since made huge steps towards meeting my recommended daily intake (and lost twenty pounds...).

            1. I believe in complete nutritional information being readily available for all dishes. However I think that forcing that information into the minds of the consumer is not the way to go. When I'm eating fast food, I know its unhealthy. I don't want to know how unhealthy.

              There's also the issue of people with eating disorders. Showing them calorie contents can be very counter productive towards their recovery.

              1. Yes, it would. But, that's only because I am dieting to lose weight. Since some of the larger chains have already started posting their calorie contents, I have utilized them once or twice. At CPK, you can save calories by getting the wheat crust and by getting it extra thin.

                There was an article in Cooking Light this month about the food labeling. It said that while it mostly only affects chains, if it proves popular, smaller restaurants would probably start to do it to stay competitive. It also said that it's made some companies reformulate their food so that the numbers look better. For example, Starbucks has defaulted to using skim milk on their drinks and has begun working on their snack items. So, it's a good start.

                1. i would find having more nutritional information tremendously useful.
                  i eat out FAR more often than i eat at home, so i don't look restaurant meals as a "splurge" or as 'anything goes.'
                  i would use the information to keep track of what i'm eating on a daily basis.
                  i would also use the information to 'favor' one restaurant over another.
                  having this kind of info would absolutely determine what restaurants i would patronize and which dishes i would order.
                  (just yesterday, i asked one of the restaurants on my regular rotation to tell me exactly what type of oil they are using in their deep fryer. they gladly showed me the box. since it was 100% soybean oil, going forward i will be much more likely to go to that restaurant to have any deep-fat-fried items than i would be to take a chance on another place that might be using partially hydrogenated oil in their fryer.)

                  1. To a certain extent, it would be helpful to me as I am mindful of what I eat daily. However, I only go to certain restaurants to have something I "shouldn't" have or normally wouldn't have at home. I prefer to eat things I can't or won't make at home when I go out to eat.

                    However, there have been certain items where I've happened to see the nutritional content and it was so shocking that I've never gotten that item again.

                    1. I also tend to only go out to eat food that I can't (or don't) make at home, with the exception of work lunches with others, which tend to be chain restaurants. For chain restaurants, especially, yes I do and would like to see nutritional information. If I know I'm going to a specific chain restaurant, I will often look up nutritional information. I don't want to waste my calories on food I don't think is very good in the first place.

                      Other restaurants, the splurge type or the ethnic types, I generally know what's better or worse nutritionally without having to see nutritional information. And at those restaurants, I'm likely to choose what I want to eat, regardless of nutritional value. I "save" my calories to spend them at these types of places!

                      1. Yes. Not for special occasion meals where you know you will indulge but for day to day choices. Yesterday, my friend was talking about getting a Starbucks specialty drink. She said she knew it wasn't good for her but wanted to know how bad it was, so she could adjust her calories for the day, decide how often to have it, etc.

                        I was at the airport and the guy in front of me was asking about the chicken parmighiana and whether the chicken was fried or not. He told the counter person he had a health condition and couldn't eat high fat foods. The guy behind the counter had no idea and told him it wasn't but they get it premade. I told him there was a good chance, especially since it's overly processed Sysco food. I'd really feel bad for him if he was flying and had some kind of reaction.

                        1. I agree, that at a special occasion restaurant, no, I probably don't really want to know or care. However, I'm currently dieting and watching my carb/protein/sodium closely. I had to meet friends at a local IHOP for breakfast. I ordered a ham and cheese omelet, hold the toast or pancake sides. Figured that should be fine....
                          Looking later on the internet I found it likely had a calorie count of either 800 or 1250 (ihop won't tell you) and plenty of carbs thanks to them infusing their eggs with pancake batter. Had I had their information, I would definitely have ordered something different.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: Firegoat

                            I didn't know that about their eggs, either. I would have thought scrambled eggs would be a decent choice, too. When I eat at places like that, I want to do the least amount of damage w/in reason, given that the food isn't that good to begin with. I don't think they need as many of the nutrition pages as menus, either. It could be done on customer request.

                            1. re: chowser

                              I don't know if they do it to the scrambled eggs, just read that they do it to the omelets to make them fluffier.

                              1. re: chowser

                                On the rare occasions I go to IHOP I always get my eggs over easy because they will sneak that pancake batter into EVERYTHING.

                                1. re: MandalayVA

                                  I was shocked.... and my omelet wasn't even the worst calorie wise.... the veggie omelet also was high

                              2. re: Firegoat

                                an omelette was between 800 and 1200 calories? That is shocking!

                              3. Yes, I think it is so important. I want as much information as possible about what I'm eating when I go out. I really don't understand the arguments against - if you don't want to consider the stats, then just ignore them. I know lots of people think that ignorance is bliss, but it's not like you can necessarily use "common sense" to figure out the best choices, especially at chain restaurants. Firegoats' eggs-with-pancake-batter scenario above is a good illustration of that.

                                For instance, check out the Center for Science in the Public Interest's interactive menu quiz and see how you do: http://cspinet.org/nutritionpolicy/re...

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: antennastoheaven

                                  last night when i stopped at a mc donald's i noticed that their version of a 'frappacino/blended' beverage contained over three times the calories of their ice cream cone.
                                  i was glad to know this so that i'll never order the beverage and will always stick to the cones.

                                2. I can generally figure out (or guesstimate) the caloric content of most menu items without an appended nutritional info table.

                                  I don't need to know the precise amount of food -- down to the very last ounce and calorie -- of everything I am putting into my mouth. Plus, even those calorie counts on menus are not exactly accurate anyway.

                                  Knowing that my chicken sandwich with mustard and no mayo is "healthier" and less calorically dense than a chicken parmigiana sandwich is enough for me.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                    What always surprises me is how many calories are in drinks. I rarely have them so it's more out of curiosity but the fact that the chocolate shake at McD's has far more calories than a big mac or 4 hamburgers (in the quiz antennae posted) surprised me. And, Starbucks drinks are always higher than I'd think and their low fat baked goods have far more. Exact isn't important but my guesstimate is off by hundreds.

                                  2. The healthiest choice is not to eat at fast food or chain restaurants. Not that independently owned places that have Sysco trucks rolling up to them are better. Eating out should be an infrequent occasion, not an everyday thing. When I go out, I enjoy myself and am not all OMG IS THIS HEALTHY?!?!?!?!?

                                    7 Replies
                                    1. re: MandalayVA

                                      It's all well and good to say you shouldn't be eating there at all, but that's not an option for most people. If you need to go to one of those restaurants for a business lunch/dinner, it's nice to have an idea of what the calorie count is. For most people, just skipping out on those is not recommended if they want to be seen as a team player.

                                      1. re: MandalayVA

                                        I travel alot. Eating out becomes less of an "option" and more of a way of life.

                                        1. re: MandalayVA

                                          Yes, yes, ideally, we'd all be eating vegetables grown from our own gardens but in real life, people make concessions. If I'm eating out w/ friends or whatever, I want to make sure what I'm eating is worth the calories. Thanks to Firegoat, I know to stay away from IHOP's omelettes.

                                          1. re: chowser

                                            You're assuming, though, that calories matter. I know it's been drilled into everyone's heads--calories in, calories out--but the truth is you can get fat on 1200 calories and lose weight on 2200 calories depending on what vehicle those calories come in. My rule of thumb when having to eat out at a place I wouldn't have chosen is a piece of meat and a veggies-only salad, maybe a chicken Caesar salad if I feel daring. My sister-in-law loves IHOP for some reason so when I go there I get pork chops and eggs over easy. Calories, schmalories because they don't matter and slowly but surely people are beginning to realize that.

                                            1. re: MandalayVA

                                              "but the truth is you can get fat on 1200 calories and lose weight on 2200 calories depending on what vehicle those calories come in. "

                                              Ok, I'll play.


                                              If the person consuming 1200 calories burns 1200 calories, then no matter the "vehicle those calories come in" she will not gain weight. Now, she may get "fat" in that her body fat percentage may rise because the 1200 calories are say, for example, pure lard. But she will not gain weight -- the weight she has will merely be different.

                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                Search my user name here; I've written many posts about this. And please read Gary Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories." And remember--just because someone's an MD doesn't mean they know what they're talking about.

                                              2. re: MandalayVA

                                                Anecdotal evidence aside, I've yet to read any scientific study that proves that calories don't matter. But, even if you don't care about calories, you might be interested in knowing what is in your food so you can tailor it to how you eat, eg since you're obviously low-carbing, knowing the IHOP's omelettes have pancake batter would matter.

                                          2. I would find it most useful at places like chain restaurants, but more as a reality check than anything else.

                                            I've read listings of calorie/fat/salt contents for a number of sit down chain restaurants. Not fast food - places with a menu, and food that looks something like a meal you could prepare at home. For some of the items, I honestly can't figure out how that fit *that many* calories into it. Mentally, it's hard to wrap your mind around a salad that has over 1000 calories, because that's so far removed from what you would prepare yourself.

                                            It would also be useful for when I'm travelling for work, have to eat out, and don't have the money for better restaurants, or the knowledge and time to dig out cheap but good places.

                                            1. I know it would influence me as it litterally just happened to me.

                                              I am always watching what I eat because I am a tiny woman of 4 ft 10 - 90lbs and any weight I gain shows up rather quickly...anyhow since I love to eat - I try my best to make healthy choices as much as I can, and then at the weekends relax and enjoy my food.

                                              Today is a cold and gloomy day in NY, and I really was feeling like something other than my normal cereal for lunch..I was in the mood for quiche (havnt had it in years)
                                              So I popped down to the deli and was on the line to order the zucchini/mushroom quiche when I got a gander at the caloric content - 790 calories!!!!!
                                              I knew I wouldnt eat the entire thing at once, but eventually I would finish it...So
                                              I could not bring myself to get it....ughh
                                              I just finished my very unsatisfying cereal :(

                                              Having said that - I am pretty certain that I would NOT want restaurants to post these figures because when I eat out - I want to enjoy my food without any knowledge to cause me any guilt...When I really eat I want to enjoy every last bite.
                                              I don't need or want to know that my bowl of pasta is 900 calories etc.....

                                              6 Replies
                                              1. re: NellyNel

                                                No one would force you to read the calorie counts, just as no one can force you to read the nutritional labels. Personally, if I've decided to eat out and enjoy the meal, nothing about calories and nutrition would make me feel guilty about it. I enjoy w/ gusto.

                                                1. re: chowser

                                                  I assume that if calorie/fat contents were on menu's - they would not be hidden on the back of the menu - but posted next to the item description.

                                                  I work hard to keep my body fit, and am in incredible shape for my age. I WOULD feel guilty. I would probably still eat it and enjoy, but there would be a little dark shadow looming over me while I did - if not during the meal - after for sure!!

                                                  1. re: NellyNel

                                                    That's too bad. I'm a personal trainer and group fitness instructor and see that so often. If I'm eating pate, I'm loving pate, no guilt.

                                                    I thought the nutritional advice would be available if people asked, on a separate pamphlet. That would be more cost effective than adding all that information onto existing menus.

                                                    1. re: chowser

                                                      Nah - I think I have a pretty healthy attitude about it all...
                                                      I do know people who are consumed with fat/calories etc etc... and no - that is no way to go through life I agree...
                                                      And I love to cook and eat out - I don't deprive myself or feel guilty when I do.
                                                      I think I have a good balance of healthy eating and total indulgence going.....

                                                      If I had the CHOICE to see nutritional content - then no I wouldnt want to know...... please dont POST it where I can't help but see it.

                                                      If I had a particular diet I was following - then yes N I would be useful.

                                                2. re: NellyNel


                                                  While without the printed nutritional info on a menu you might not be told explicity the calorie count and therefore not "know" it, but don't you already "know" how many calories are in that quiche?

                                                  I mean seriously, deep down inside you "know" that the quiche probably has at least 400 to 500 more calories than a bowl of cereal right?

                                                  What the printed nutritional info provides is simply more clarity and exactitude.

                                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                                    Yes, you are in fact absolutely correct...
                                                    ....but for me personaly I can truly "block" this kind of literal information out of my mind as long as it is not staring me in the face!
                                                    "If I don't KNOW it's 790 calories...then I don't know it!!"...
                                                    (and actually, I was pretty shocked by 790 calories!! - I would have assumed the quiche was around 500 calories

                                                    This has happened to me many times while reading labels...No matter how bad I am craving something... I simply can't bring myself to buy it if I see the fat content is over the top ridiculous.
                                                    If I am craving something off the street such as a pork bun, where I know it's bad for me ...but I don't know exactly HOW bad it is for me......I am much more likely to give in to temptation....(Sometimes I will refrain and sometimes I won't, but if I SEE how bad it is - I surely will not give in to a mere craving.

                                                3. Oh my gosh, I so wish the nutritional information was available. It would not only help me choose, but I think I would eat out more...once I found dishes that met my needs, of course. At first, I might just feel sick looking over the menus. I think it would also encourage the restaurants to make dishes healthier, without sacrificing flavour.

                                                  Keep in mind that the nutritional information could be optional. One could request the menu with the info. and default could be without. I think that would not only help someone like me who just wants to eat a healthier choice, but also anyone with a health condition affected by diet.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: Full tummy

                                                    I look at the nutrition label of everything I buy at the store to put in my body. I'd like to be able to do the same at least at a chain restaurant. I may choose to ignore it.... but then the fault is on me.

                                                  2. Not at all. Don't care, never will.

                                                    If I want healthy, I'll cook at home.

                                                    1. Yes, all of the time.
                                                      Here, in NYC, it's a law that restaurants (with 15 or more outlets) must post their calorie count. So it makes you think twice about eating those calories. I'll still eat that cheeseburger (550) from 5 guys- but now I'll skip the fries (600). And if I'm getting a coffee from Starbucks, I'll pass on that lemon cake (440) that I'm not even hungry for.

                                                      4 Replies
                                                      1. re: AimeeD

                                                        Really? Fries are more calories than a cheeseburger???
                                                        Holy smokes!

                                                        I just took a walk to a little street fair...
                                                        I thought of this thread at every food stall!
                                                        "I wonder if I would eat this if I KNEW what the nutritional content really is!!!"
                                                        So in the end I didnt get any of the GOOD stuff, but I did choose a grilled corn on the cob (w/ a teeeensy dab of honey butter!)

                                                        1. re: NellyNel

                                                          I was thinking the same thing about the fries. But, Five Guys servings are huge. My family of four share one. It's been a long time since I've looked, but IIRC, McD's small fries had about 220-250 calories.

                                                          1. re: NellyNel

                                                            NellyNel, you are right on!

                                                            In NYC after that menu law first went into effect, we stopped at a well-known chain for lunch. I flipped open the menu and was just stunned by the fat & calorie numbers therein -- not their presence but rather how drastically I'd underestimated the reality.

                                                            NE-style clam chowder had always been on my personal "satisfying but not as bad as many other options" list ... I'd been lying to myself for decades.

                                                          2. re: AimeeD

                                                            I look at the nutritional information available from the chains I visit; however, most of my meals out aren't at chains. Scary.

                                                          3. It has and does help me. A lot of times, I'll only eat at places where they do offer nutritional information somewhere. I like having it online, because it's easier to pick a place to go rather than sit down and see that there's nothing I want to allow myself to order (not that that's ever happened.)

                                                            But I actually do order based on nutritional content, when provided, and when it's not I just try to make my best guess. I can't imagine any situation in life where providing better information doesn't help someone make a wiser decision.

                                                            1. Of course it would! I would never walk into, say, a shoe store and have them ring up a pair of stilettos without checking the price tag first! "No, no...I'm here to splurge..." I think it is extremely helpful to know both "prices" I am paying for my food. I may still get the 600 calorie chocolate cake for dessert if I really want it, but at least then I know that tomorrow I need to scale back a little to compensate.

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. No - if I'm eating out then it is for a treat. I don't want my treat marred by feelings of guilt. I don't want to decide not to have something because I know that everyone at the table knows it has 900 calories and they know as well as I do that I don't need 900 calories.
                                                                I KNOW how bad for me certain foods are - and I can make adjustments to my diet in the days following a splurge without it being spelled out to me as if I was a child in school.

                                                                7 Replies
                                                                1. re: Peg

                                                                  Pertinent information shouldn't go undisclosed simply because people might feel guilty or ashamed when faced with it. it may not be pertinent to you, because you're more knowledgeable about different foods and what they contain. But it's evident that more people NEED to face the facts. Sadly, the obesity problem is one that doesn't just affect the individual, but it weighs on the entire healthcare system, and we all end up paying for it. Clearly, a solution is needed. And printing nutrition information on menus, or at least having it available within easy reach, such as on a separate menu left on each table, is one of the simplest ways to empower people to make better choices.

                                                                  1. re: Peg

                                                                    No one is forcing you to read the information--if there were a separate menu or pamphlet with the facts, then you could ignore it. Some people don't want to go through life w/ blinders on, so why keep the information from them, just so you don't have to feel guilty?

                                                                    1. re: chowser

                                                                      I take your point. Though I'm not sure how anyone could not take a peek at a seperate 'nutri-menu'. In my experience the super-obese don't dine in the places I dine at - but displaying nutritional data would have to be a universal requirement.
                                                                      How would it work at non chain places? Who would be reponsible for calculating the data? In the reportedly litigious US - would someone sue a restaurant for under-reporting the fat or calorie content of a meal? (just playing devils advocate here)..

                                                                      1. re: Peg

                                                                        I'm sure if someone sees an opportunity to sue, they just might (unfortunately.) But if the law is written well enough, hopefully it would close any loopholes there might be that someone could try to take advantage of for their own greedy benefit.

                                                                        I think it would be the owner of the restaurant who's responsible for calculating the nutrition information, though the chef would probably do most of the grunt-work. It might be a frustrating process to get started, but once it's done, anything new added to the menu, or any tinkering of old recipes, should be easy to figure out.

                                                                        1. re: Peg

                                                                          The are multiple websites with free recipe nutrition calculators, and even more with searchable nutrition databases. As far as I know, all of the laws to date requiring information on menus permit the use of average nutrition values available from the FDA/USDA, which is where most website get their info. With a few hours of time up front, plus periodic upkeep, any restaurant should be able to calculate their nutrition values using free tools. It's even easier/faster if you're will to spend some money on recipe/nutrition software.

                                                                          In terms of deviation from posted values, it's no different than nutrition info in the grocery store. Food lables are averages, each cookie/chip/slice of bread deviates a little from the listed average, and no one gets in trouble as long as the label information is "true" within an accepted range.

                                                                          1. re: Peg

                                                                            From what I've read, it's based on the size of the chain and independent restaurants don't have to provide the information. For me, I have an idea of how many calories/fat food I prepare has but have no idea what restaurants do--is the chicken parm deep fried? There are so many hidden calories in food. Sure, if it's a special occasion meal, I don't think twice but if my friends want to go to Cheesecake Factory or wherever and I want to minimize damage, I'd love to have the information. I was surprised at one restaurant that the grilled cheese had twice as many calories as the cheeseburger--not that I had either but I assumed that the cheese sandwich was the cheeseburger minus the meat.

                                                                            As for suing, that is a possibility, just as it is with food labels. Plenty of companies get in trouble for falsely reporting their nutritional data. Years ago, I remember going by PowerBar (or another sports bar, can't remember which) labels for 5 grams of fat and it was far more than that. It's more the FDA that stops it than individual consumers. But, I'm guessing if a company intentionally reported far fewer calories and someone gained weight (say someone had a Subway under 400 calories sandwich every meal), there could be a lawsuit. And, I don't think it would be frivolous.

                                                                            1. re: chowser

                                                                              With these things, I think there is usually an allowable range of error, based on the fact that each serving will not be exactly the same. Here in Toronto, one newspaper has been publishing a weekly column on nutritional data for popular dishes from local restaurants, and one of the dishes was from a chain restaurant that publishes their data. As it turned out, the dish the anonymous reporter received had less fat and calories than the restaurant's published information stated. It's one thing for a company to knowingly falsify the data, but it's another thing for amounts to be different based on cooking techniques, serving size, etc.

                                                                              I'm with you on wanting the information. If I don't feel like looking at it, I don't have to. Chocolate bars now have nutritional information on them. I wonder if that has affected their sales. Anyway, the unhealthy food section of the economy is not something I feel I am responsible for keeping afloat. I hope it would be a challenge to chefs to see just how delicious they could make their dishes while cutting some of the extra fat/sugar/salt out.

                                                                      2. I'm with you on this one. Outside of fast food, when I'm "dining" out, I want to enjoy myself. I don't want a treatise on whether what I decided to order is "healthy" or not. Who the heck needs or wants a guilt trip during a nice dinner out.

                                                                        Now if I ate out luxuriously all the time - like several times a week - then maybe it might be helpful. But you know, even then, I think most folks who dine out regularly have the good sense to know what the basic healthiness of their menu items are. I mean really - how difficult is it to figure out that a basic grilled or broiled item is going to be healthier than something fried &/or slathered in a cream sauce, or that a salad is most likely going to be healthier than gratineed potatoes - lol!!!

                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                        1. re: Breezychow

                                                                          Lots of people need that and even want that. What's common sense to one person isn't always common sense to another--even when it really should be, that doesn't make it so. But even to people who do regularly pay attention to what they're eating, sometimes the fat/calorie content of certain items is a bit of a shocker.

                                                                          If you know it's not healthy for you but you want to indulge anyway, go right ahead and enjoy! Having the ability to peek at the fat/calorie content shouldn't interfere with that if you're already aware it's swarming with them. And, hey, if it does interfere with your enjoyment, don't look at that info. Food related health health issues are abound in the U.S., so the preference of the few who would rather not know, shouldn't take precedence over the rest of the population who NEED to know, and SHOULD be confronted with the facts in order to put a little pressure on them to make better choices for their health, which would also improve the economic health of the country--which is strained, in part, thanks to the demands on the healthcare system regarding obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.

                                                                        2. The Toronto paper does a weekly analysis of restaurant meals by reader request. To the shock and horror of my colleagues, the sodium level of the pho at a nearby popular Vietnamese take-out place was astronomical. Just the image in my head of 20 dashes of a salt shaker or 10 bags of potato chips has made me leery of going back. My blood pressure is high enough!
                                                                          Here's the story -