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Are portion sizes too big?

In order to lose weight, Americans need to eat less. Thing is, a whole lot of us will devour whatever’s put in front of us, long after we’ve ceased to be hungry. In one study, participants who were given smaller portions of food reported as much satiety as those provided larger portions. Yet another study showed that people who were given different flavors of jelly beans all jumbled together ate far more than those who received the same number of jelly beans arranged by color and flavor.

Here’s what we know: In order to lose weight, Americans need to eat less. Thing is, a whole lot of us will devour whatever’s put in front of us, long after we’ve ceased to be hungry.

Study after study confirms these facts. In one of them, participants who were given smaller portions of food reported as much satiety as those provided larger portions. Yet another study showed that people who were given different flavors of jelly beans all jumbled together ate far more than those who received the same number of jelly beans arranged by color and flavor.

And then there’s the one where folks who got a piece of cake with a fork already stuck in it ate the whole thing; those who got a knife and fork on the side only ate some.

When it comes to value, variety and perceived satisfaction—cues that make people eat more—the American restaurant industry has it nailed. And that’s the problem. The subject of obesity is all over the news. Cities like New York want calorie counts posted on menus. Even consumers agree that some restaurants serve portions that are too large—57 percent of them, according to Decision Analyst, an international marketing research and consulting firm.

“People aren’t going to stop eating out, but they are going to keep gaining weight if the industry doesn’t do something,” says Randy Ackerman, who works with local restaurants as program coordinator for the Healthy Heart initiative at Mather Hospital in Suffolk County, Long Island. “We have to learn for ourselves how to offer healthier choices and more moderate portion sizes, or the government’s going to do it for us.”

But when restaurants do attempt to reduce portion sizes or market healthier choices, they enter what The News & Observer, in Raleigh, North Carolina, calls “treacherous territory.” Ruby Tuesday got a famous smackdown when it initiated a number of highly publicized health-oriented measures in 2004, including calorie counts on menus and smaller portions. Customers complained, sales fell, management retreated.

“It’s hard to have a win here,” says foodservice consultant David Goldstein. “The premium casual segment has put itself in the position of marketing through the plate, and that means big portions for a lot of them. The pressure to reduce portion sizes is coming from a small number of people, but they’re very, very vocal. That puts [restaurants] at the end of a long whipsaw.”

“Portions are just too big,” says Clifford Pleau, director of culinary development and executive chef for Seasons 52, the Darden concept. “What the industry doesn’t seem to realize is that large portions have driven people to order just two courses—an appetizer and an entree, or an entree and a dessert.”

Pleau hit paydirt with the Mini Indulgences dessert menu, 3-oz. portions of nine different classic desserts served in square shot glasses for $1.95 each. “People will order several to share,” he says. “Nearly every table orders dessert now.”

“I understand that it may be harder for smaller, independently owned restaurants to keep up with changing food trends and diet issues,” says Ackerman. “On the other hand, they can be more flexible than the big chains, and that ought to be an advantage.”        

How to Cut Portions Down to Size

Don’t tinker too much. Leave existing menu items alone unless it’s to offer additional sizes, like half-portions. Ruby Tuesday is back into smaller portions—but only with new items.

Ditch the healthy talk. Research shows that using “healthy” to describe food negatively impacts consumers’ taste perception.

Shift the blame. Applebee’s partnership with Weight Watchers to create approved menu items works because it makes WW and the consumer responsible for the choices a customer makes.

Make it multipurpose. Items like McDonald’s Chicken Tender Snacker and Good Times’ Bambino Burgers are smaller portions disguised as snacks, kids meals, value specials.

Build a bundle. Offer combos of smaller portions of an appetizer, entree and dessert for one value price.
Price it right. Country Kitchen’s “Lighter Appetites” menu features half-size portions at prices that are about two-thirds of the regular menu’s.

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