Experience Stretching: Why I No Longer Love In-N-Out Burgers

by | Sep 25, 2013

Photo by Peter Fuchs

I grew up in southern California and, like most people there, I thought In-N-Out Burger made the best cheeseburgers in the universe. In-N-Out is legendary in SoCal, and I longed for their iconic burgers and shakes for years after leaving for college.

Even later as a blossoming foodist in my early years of graduate school, I gave In-N-Out the benefit of the doubt among fast food chains because of their commitment to “freshness”, and would occasionally stop there on the long drives home down the I-5.

But as the years went by and my dedication to real, fresh and insanely delicious food continued to develop, I noticed my taste for In-N-Out declined. Today it would take a substantial bribe (think 5-figures) to get me to even consider taking a single bite of a Double Double.

WTF happened?

My disinclination to indulge today in something I loved in the past has nothing to do with health. As long time Summer Tomato readers know, I don’t approve of deprivation and believe there is room for anything in your healthstyle if it means enough to you. If I still wanted In-N-Out occasionally, I would eat it. But I don’t.

I realized the reason for this recently while reading Dan Gilbert’s excellent book, Stumbling on Happiness. In it Gilbert describes a phenomenon called experience stretching, in which your definition of happiness expands and changes relative to the breadth of your experiences. He says, “Once we have an experience, we are thereafter unable to see the world as we did before. Our innocence is lost and we cannot go home again.”

In the book, the experience-stretching hypothesis is used as a negative example of why we become snobs as grown ups and can no longer be happy with the simple things. I think Gilbert is right-on in this sense, and it explains why I’m still miserable after 16 years in the cold fog of San Francisco just because I grew up on the sunny beaches of Orange County. The weather here will never compare to the weather there, and I’m ruined for life because of it. Booooo.

But as a foodist, I think there can be an upside to experience stretching. While it is undoubtedly true that I’ve developed a taste for higher quality food and this puts pressure on me to spend more time and money meeting those standards, there’s also no denying that this makes it much easier for me to be healthy. Whenever I ask friends and readers what the hardest part of eating healthy is, the allure and convenience of fast food is one of the most common answers. But if you ask someone who is already a foodist, they’ll say the hardest parts are dealing with the social pressures from friends and family who haven’t yet learned to appreciate their healthstyle. Fast food doesn’t tempt them at all.

It’s normal to believe that you’ll always love fast food when it’s still a regular part of your daily life, but once healthy and delicious start working with each other instead of against each other, your tastes and standards will shift upward and fast food will lose its appeal. When you no longer crave the stuff that keeps you unhealthy, you win.

Although experience stretching can definitely breed snobbery, it is not inevitable. Appreciating a more broad range of experiences doesn’t automatically turn you into a jerk. You can develop a new set of standards for your own palette, but you aren’t a snob until you start judging others for not sharing the same opinions.

Gilbert argues that experience stretching is a barrier to happiness, because it leaves us constantly demanding nicer things for us to be satisfied. When it comes to food and health, however, higher quality standards are exactly what we need.

While experience stretching may leave you less happy with an In-N-Out burger, you will be just as happy (arguably more happy, but it’s all relative) with the new, delicious foods you’ve come to appreciate. More important, you’ll have the added contentment that comes from looking and feeling your best.

Has your palette changed because of experience stretching?

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35 Responses to “Experience Stretching: Why I No Longer Love In-N-Out Burgers”

  1. Kate says:

    When I was a kid, my mom did most of the cooking and for the era, she was pretty ahead of her time (freshly ground coffee beans, kiwi fruit, those exotic bagels like they have in New York!, etc.).

    But we still ate some stuff I wouldn’t serve kids or anyone today.

    I remember in particular loving SpaghettiOs. Now, my mom made a good, real spaghetti sauce with fresh tomatoes, herbs, etc., that we all loved. But I also loved the canned SpaghettiOs with the tiny meatballs.

    Fast forward and I’m in my early 20s, it’s a rainy Winter night, I’ve been battling a cold for what seems like weeks, and at the store, I see SpaghettiOs and think about how I used to love them and how I’m too sick and cold and tired to really cook anything.

    So I got them.

    Oh dear. I took the first few bites thinking I must be more congested than I realized because this stuff I loved when I was 8 tasted like…chemicals. I mean, it actually tasted like chemicals! I truly thought it was me.

    So a month or so later, recovered and in a purely experimental mode, I bought another can, just to see.

    You can imagine the result. It wasn’t my illness or congestion, that stuff was VILE. I honestly couldn’t believe that I had BEGGED for it as a child! It was actually vile.

    And now I’m gonna get sued by Chef Boyardee or whoever….

    • Dawn says:

      I know what you mean :( Some of my all-time favorite potato chips are cheddar and sour cream but for the past few years I’ve been trying to curb my chip addiction, not having them unless I really want them. Well, something must have happened because I bought a bag recently and on the first bite I almost thought I had a bad batch! All I could taste were chemicals. So weird. So, I threw the whole bag away and tried again in a few weeks. Same problem :-/ Wtf happened? That said, I still love to have Kraft Mac n cheese a few times a year :)

      • Koobazaur says:

        Oh I know what you guys mean, so many times I try to revisit a childhood indulgence I end up disappointed. But nostalgia is probably part of it too.

        Also I know exactly what you mean about chemicals I had some Mac n cheese recently that literally tasted chalky and fake ugh. But I wonder if there is more to it than just our tastes – the spaghettios or Mac n cheese we eat today is very different from the way it was 10, 20 years ago, with many changes in ingredients, additives, preservatives etc. perhaps that explains the chemically taste more than our tongues?

  2. Steve says:

    So what burger do you go for now? Or has your stretching removed burgers from your palate altogether?

    • gigi says:

      When I was a busy single working mom, fast food was something I indulged in just to put a quick meal on the table. The local hamburger joint actually offered a “ladies night”, where women could get 2 for 1. At the time, the food always seemed delicious. Since retiring and now having the time to actually enjoy cooking, fast food has definitely lost its appeal. If I want to eat hamburgers, I prefer making them at home. My family and friends don’t understand why I would prefer to cook at home rather than order a hamburger at a popular restaurant (which always comes with a mountain of french fries). Seriously, it’s a freaking hamburger, just how much better tasting can it be? I also used to love take out pizza – but since learning how to bake my own bread – now that has lost its appeal. I feel that if I am going to dine out, it better be for something I can’t easily make myself.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I think this is absolutely the case – the more I eat ‘real’ food and avoid processed, manufactured food, the more I want real food and what used to seem tasty just isn’t anymore.

    Had to laugh at the SpaghettiOs reference. I used to love them too and actually ate them at my desk at work eons ago, to the amusement of my coworkers. But even back then, I could tell how much sweeter it tasted than I remembered (and perhaps they’ve added more sugar to them now, as it seems with a lot of processed foods).

    BTW, I’ve *really* enjoyed your book and expect to be referring to it again & again. It’s just so ‘common sensical’ – not at all about dieting, but about striving for the best, in our food, in health, in life. It’s inspired me to get back on a healthier path and more than anything else, it’s given me a huge sense of relief. It’s really so simple and easy.

    Having counted calories for over 30 years and been a master at dieting and training, my body’s grown tired of that approach as has my brain. It’s mind-numbingly boring, as well. Being in my mid 40s, life is very different, in many ways – body changes, philosophy changes – everything. Love the holistic, optimistic approach you have and it definitely speaks to me.
    Thanks for all the great work!
    -J

  4. Therese says:

    I can’t imagine not wanting taco bell on the way home from a night of drinking and dancing. so hard to resist

  5. Kelli says:

    Sadly, not only have I “lost” M&Ms because they’re just too sweet, I can’t even enjoy the “healthier” Sundrops (grain sweetened, no artificial colors) any more because now they’re too sweet too!

  6. Edward says:

    I am pretty much a foody, but I still love things that one wouldn’t consider healthy, not-fresh, etc.. Being an East-coaster, I’ve never had an In and Out burger so I can’t comment on that, but I think the experience of eating a dirty water dog (aka a hot dog from a NYC street cart) is an experience to savour and emjoy. Same thing for other types of street/fast food. I guess in this context, I think of trying, and enjoying, all different types of food including anything from fast food to fresh local food as “experience stretching” and don’t think limiting myself is for me. Now, I wouldn’t eat that type of stuff exclusively, or even regularly, but I find the experience worth-while on occasion.

    • Steve says:

      I think the difference is that In-N-Out (ie Shake Shack), does not really compare all that favorably in the taste-only department vs a higher quality burger. For the price you could make an argument. I still like both, as some, finding each has it’s place in the culinary universe. That said, while eating an In-N-Out/Shake Shack/Tasty Burger I find myself thinking about the true great burgers I’ve had, but when I eat a great burger I don’t think about the prior mentioned “lesser burgers”.

      If you begin to think about food like this in an either/or paradigm, ie I get to eat one burger, I can have In-N-Out or I can have a truly great burger from XYZ, then generally one is going to pick the great burger. If your “stretch” has only gone so far as In-N-Out then that will be your choice, but when you’ve had and know where to get a better burger, that will end up being your choice.

      All that regardless of where you got it. Street food is great, and a sausage cart sausage is probably going to be better eats, regardless of price, than a “high end” restaurant. In-N-Out just does not fall under the pantheon of Great Burgers, it falls under the “Best of the Fast Food Burgers”.

    • Darya Rose says:

      I think that’s different. Like I said, if I still enjoyed fast food I would eat it. And I definitely still eat tasty burgers (see comment above). I also still eat the dirt cheap SoCal Mexican food and relish every bite. I think my burger palate and standards have changed, and that’s why I no longer enjoy in-n-out, which really is worse than what I eat now.

  7. I had to read this article because I too used to love In-N-Out. (And also grew up on the beaches of Orange County and survived 11 years in London’s weather.)

    When I saw my older (and overweight) sister’s text on her birthday about her present to herself–a In-N-Out burger, fries and a shake, I felt bad. I felt bad at first, then realized she needed to make her own food choices and also hopefully she just saw it as a special, once-a-year treat. Is that much different than me “treating” myself to an upscale wood-fired pizza? I don’t think she eats great at the best of time, so we’ll see.

    But, as my husband keeps reminding me, I can’t police the world. And lecturing my sister won’t help her change. Maybe I’ll slip her a copy of Foodist one of these days… ;)

  8. Laura says:

    I love this idea and think you are spot on. When you eat really good food (healthy, fresh, unprocessed), it definitely leads you to wanting to eat more good food. Your taste buds become more selective. But I also think that when you cut out foods that don’t make you feel good (for me sugar and flour based foods), in a short amount of time, you can decrease your physical and emotional dependence on them.

    The human condition is sometimes strange. You can put two and two together. You understand that eating certain foods leaves you sluggish and gaining weight, and yet somehow you are still drawn to that chocolate bar or bagel (or fill in your choice). Until, one day you decide you’ve had enough.

    Something magical happened for me when I decided to eliminate sugar and flour for “just a few weeks.” I told myself that I just wanted to see if I felt better. I told myself that it wasn’t forever–I didn’t want to feel deprived for the rest of my life! Well, it’s now nearly a year later and can honestly say that I really don’t want these processed foods anymore.

    I have been in situations when everyone around me is digging in to some “fabulous” dessert after a filling meal in a restaurant. “Oh you’ve got to try this,” someone will say. Now, I am able to leave my spoon on the table without feeling the slightest bit deprived! “Oh, you have such good willpower,” someone else will comment. No. If I wanted a bite, I would have one. I really would. But I just don’t. It feels like some sort of magic trick. But, I strongly believe that is just the result of focusing on real food and wanting to gain strength and sustenance from food instead of the opposite.

    Thanks for all of your words of wisdom. Love your site and love the addition of Elyse Kopecky (Freshabits). Great recipes and great inspirations.

  9. Leslie A says:

    I am proof positive of this dynamic. I NEVER thought I would give up fast food. But slowly (and it was a gradual process) I have lost my taste for it. While I still will go if we are on a family trip or something, it has become rarer and rarer. And, along this line, I love Panera Bread, which makes healthy eating possible and fast! :)

  10. Garrett says:

    This theory is exactly why I love In and Out. Being an east coaster these burgers are a step above. Since I do agree, sadly; someday I will move past In and Out also. Hopefully not to soon.

  11. NatalieInCA says:

    Definitely. But taste is not all, it’s also how you feel afterward. After eating real food for a while, I now just feel awful a couple of hours after eating processed food.

  12. I love this and have never thought about it this way before! Because I know what kind of foods I love and truly enjoy, things like fast food don’t temp me a bit. When you realize there is so much more out there that is so enjoyable, unhealthy food just isn’t as appealing as it used to be. I am not perfect and love my treats, but the things I love the most are delicious and real foods.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Totally. That’s why you couldn’t pay me to touch the stuff now. Not only is it not that tasty, but knowing what’s in it and how I feel afterward it becomes repulsive. I don’t feel any loss, I eat much better (real) burgers now :)

  13. Becky says:

    Several yrs ago my husband had 3 stents put in his arteries. We stopped at Walmart on the way home and spent an hour just reading labels. And we decided we wouldn’t be able to eat anything ever again. We completely changed the way we eat. The dr. told us to eat fried foods once every 10 days but he said we wouldn’t even want to do that eventually. We also stopped eating fast foods of all kinds. The dr was right. We don’t even want fried foods anymore and can’t stand the smell of a fast food restaurant if we drive by one.

  14. trish says:

    MM’s and kind of candy bars I will not eat. I do like a piece of dark chocolate once in awhile. Fast food is a slow process. I get soooo thirsty if I do eat fast food. Even the diet coke taste awful. So that thought pops up and whether I want to deal with the extreme thirst.

  15. Koobazaur says:

    I recently came to a realization, much to my friends hatred, that I don’t actually like in n out. Sure, it is the best of fast food burgers, but that doesn’t say much; ill take a proper gourmet burger, or better yet your own freshly grilled one, over it any time.

    But honestly I don’t see the dieting paranoia of burgers – with quality bread and meat it’s actually a very healthy choice that hits all your body’s needs – proteins fats carbs with some veggies. Same with pizza too provided you’re eating a proper Italian one and not dominos.

  16. Dee says:

    Experience stretching= my 3year old now eats broccoli each and every time, after previously refusing or trying a little bite yay!

  17. Alexandra says:

    I have been trying to eat real food for awhile now, and am becoming better with it every day. Your awesome site and your book have been helpful too. Whenever I am on a road trip, I allow myself to eat fast food, I was on one recently and decided on a fast food burger for lunch. It was awful, I could not finish it, the fries were awful too, I felt so unsatisfied afterwards. This is the first time this has happened to me, I used to be a sucker for fast food burgers and fries. It just shows how real food changes your palate.

  18. Dave McGhee says:

    Can’t agree with you. I believe in the foodist philosophy, but there is nothing like an In-an Out burger. Everything in moderation…including moderation.

  19. Michael Fischer says:

    The same thing happened to me with In-N-Out; they have no appeal for me since I started preparing my own food from fresh ingredients. I used to buy the candy bars as a special treat when I was in the supermarket checkout line. But I avoided them when I learned about the ingredients in them. Recently I tried one again; it tasted artificial!

  20. Niki says:

    Darya, I know what you mean! I haven’t had a bite of any fast food for months! There’s just so much more choice of food out there, that’s richer in taste and I guess much healthier, that I hardly even think of fast food. It’s not that I say no to it, it just hasn’t come into my mind whenever I need to eat. Didn’t know it’s called experience stretching. Nice to know! :)

  21. TJ Boston says:

    Uncanny timing, Darya: I just noticed this in myself this week! I used to always count on Wendy’s for a fast $2 not-too-unhealthy lunch-on-the-go while out running errands, doing the soccer-dad loop, etc. (No In-n-Outs in MA yet.) Then about a year ago my youngest got his license (and is now away at college!) so my schedule changed drastically. Also just then a healthy burger place (see http://www.bgood.com for their story, AWESOME people!!) started spreading around the area. Their burgers are fresh and wholesome and the gently hand formed rough ground fresh local beef just melts in your mouth, you know? Dreamy! Anyway, this week I found myself running my old routes and having no time to eat… unless… so I grabbed my ol’ standby at Wendy’s on the way past. Yuck! Tasted like a shoe-leather burger on buns made of styrofoam. So to my surprise I realized that b.good has ruined my palate for anything less than “real food, fast” as their slogan says. I thought I was weird, but now your article has reassured me this is natural, so thanks for that!
    I’ll confess I still liked Wendy’s fries. Skin-on and sea-salted, they DO have a good flavor if the oil isn’t too old. But knowing they aren’t organic or cooked in a healthier fat tempered my joy even if my taste buds didn’t notice. Maybe they’ll catch up on the fries too by the time I try them again.
    Anyway, thanks for the analysis & vindication! :)

  22. Kari says:

    I have been noticing this phenomenon for some time, and it’s good to know they’re studying it.

    I was a vegetarian before it was cool, and unfortunately, my college cafeteria was unsympathetic. Cooking in a dorm is tricky, and I developed a fondness for box food. Soup mixes featured prominently in my diet. I went without them for years, and every now and then I will get nostalgic and try one, and frankly, a bowl of salt would cost less and taste similar.

    The flipside; I have tried the finest of many things, and as a result I would have to call myself a bit high maintenance. I make all my own most things, but it all makes me so happy, so that’s all right, I guess.

  23. Karlita says:

    People at work on meeting days seem to think I am eating an Autumn Glory apple and then don’t request anything in the big collective order from Buffalo Wild Wings because I prefer to “eat healthy.” I don’t “eat healthy”; I just can’t find a single thing on that menu that I know is going to taste awesome and nourish me. YES my palate has changed.

  24. Arlene says:

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked
    submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr…
    well I’m not writing all that over again. Regardless, just
    wanted to say wonderful blog!

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