A picture of some deep-fried chicken liver pieces and a fried sausage on a plate.

The Right to Choose What to Eat

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Can I eat what I want or does someone else have the right to decide it for me? Can I be forced to accept someone else’s idea what to eat?

A picture of some deep-fried chicken liver pieces and a fried sausage on a plate.

Fried chicken liver pieces with fried sausage as a side dish in a food court in Hungary.
There I could order what I wanted and they sold me what I wanted without any argument.
So, in Canada, why can’t I get what I want to order instead of what the restaurant wants?

There is some commotion as Ontario is trying to pass legislation to force restaurants to include nutritional information on the menu. While people certainly should have the right to know what they are about to eat, this is really just the tip of the iceberg.

A lot bigger concern is what one can do with this information. I have to say that in a lot of instances really not much. We in North America live in a culture of happy meals and value menus — which usually means that in the price you have to pay for your food a lot of items are included that you may not want in the first place.

Restaurants make money by selling you stuff, they don’t care if it is good or bad for you or even if you wanted it in the first place. They will give you a friendly reminder “Do you want fries with that?” or try to make it a “combo” or a “meal” or whatever your establishment calls it. Let’s face it, profit margins on sugared water are just unbelievable, and profit margins on fries and other starchy goods are just way higher than on healthier food items. So it is in the restaurant’s best interest to push those products, and encourage you, the customer, to adopt a belief system where eating your own bodyweight in starch and washing it down with a sugar solution is in some unimaginable way good for you.

That is if you are lucky. Some restaurants will flatly refuse to sell you anything without a side dish, thereby in effect tying the sale of two otherwise separate products.

Which begs the question: Why do I have to buy something that I am not going to eat? If I wanted extra sides I sure would have to pay extra for them, so if I don’t want the one “included for free” why don’t they reduce the price by whatever they would charge for that side dish? “Comes free with your meal” just means that you have to pay for it whether you want it or not.

Even fancier restaurants have a tendency of advertising only one price that includes side dishes, quite often with limited options to change them, and often with no option to refuse them.

Sometimes it can be tiresome to make a waiter understand, even in an expensive restaurant that no, I don’t want any of their sides. In a food court — just forget it. They often refuse any request to sell you food except for the combinations which are listed as their “meals”. That means whether or not you want fries, or rice, or whatever with your meal, you are going to pay for it.

Same goes for “freebies” already included in your bill. Many a sushi restaurant simply insists that ice cream comes with your order, and if you don’t want to eat it that is your problem. Must be the ancient Japanese tradition of eating ice cream with every meal — I mean I could understand (just not quite accept) if they insisted that umeshiso maki was something that you had to eat after raw fish, but ice cream? Really?

I have to say that many Chinese restaurants in my area are way better in this respect. À la cart items usually come as ordered, no unwanted extras hidden in them. If you want a bowl of rice you have to order it, and pay for it separately — as it should be. Yet they manage to stay in business without forcing their customers to buy staff they do not want.

This is in a country where obesity is prevalent and approximately 10% of the population suffers from type II diabetes. Surely it would help if they could more easily access food that is good for them.

The rights of restaurant owners to make money should not be regarded as more important than your rights to choose what is good for your health.

Although what a healthy meal means is in the eye or the beholder. What can we expect from restaurants when e.g. the official advice given to diabetics is to avoid eating fat and eat rice, bulgur, lentils and beans instead. Well intentioned as it may be, is it sound health advice to tell people to eat more of the very thing that made them sick in the first place?
See also the manifesto entitled Why is Fat Your Friend on this website.

How do we expect any kind of customer rights to not to have to buy starchy side dishes with every meal whether they want it or not, when experts can’t even figure out the obvious: If you are obese, or already have type II diabetes, you should reduce your carbohydrate intake, not replace the fat in your diet with more sugar.

Since the definition of what constitutes a “healthy meal” appears to be elusive, it is all the more important that the customer should have a choice in the matter.

Instead there seems to be some “big brother knows best” mentality. Two kids in Manitoba were fed some crackers in daycare because their mother did not include “grains” in their lunch. The mother then was charged $10 for the crackers. A lot of people lead perfectly happy, healthy lives without ever eating crackers, so what gives the right to the daycare center to decide what a mother should or should not feed to her children?

I do agree that giving people as much information as possible about their food is a good thing, and restaurants should tell you what they put in your food. But forcing them to publish calories, or Sodium content — why not carbohydrate content then, for instance — is not going to help much if you do not have the right to act on that information and order and eat what you choose.

Quite often hunting for another restaurant is just not an option, you might be eating out with others, on a limited lunch break, or whatever. So “voting with your feet” does not always work. Restaurants count on having a captive customer base — workplace cafeterias being among the worst offenders — they don’t care that you don’t like their food since very often there is precious little you can do about it.

You need to have the right to order and eat what you want, not what someone else wants you to eat.

Neither the government nor the restaurant owners should tell you what you have to eat. You should have the right to decide it yourself.

It is amazing that unlike in Europe, in North America customers appear to have precious few rights. And I am not just talking about the restaurant industry, but complaining about other products would be a whole different discussion.

Last updated: July 8, 2014

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