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Trend Watch: Savvy restaurants offer smaller portions
Americans' tendency to join the "clean plate club" leads to assigning blame for expanding waistlines
March 01, 2005
As the national debate on obesity gains momentum, it is tempting to point fingers and assign blame to those responsible for Americans’ expanding waistlines. Inevitably, the finger pointing turns to restaurants, which are accused of putting too much food on the dinner plate, thus encouraging diners to eat too much.
“Americans say the portion sizes are too big, but we also want those sizes and have come to expect them,” says Lisa Young, an adjunct professor at New York University who has studied portion sizes extensively and authored a book on the subject.
“Portion sizes are two to five times bigger than they were in the 1970s,” she says. “That began in the ’70s but hit big in the ’80s, when the average American adult gained 8 pounds. I don’t think there’s any coincidence there.”
Part of the problem is that diners don’t know the difference between a serving size, typically what arrives on a restaurant plate, and a portion size, which is roughly the size of a clenched fist or a deck of cards, according to Weight Watchers.
“Many Americans found that what was being served to them in restaurants was bigger than what was expected, yet a great deal of them continue to eat those servings,” says Dave Grotto, a registered dietician and spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. A nutrition survey conducted by ADA in 2002 found that 70 percent of Americans tend to eat everything on their plates.
The inexpensive price of food — fast food in particular — doesn’t help matters.
“Hardees restaurant just announced the launch of its Monster Thickburger, which weighs in at 1,400 calories and 109 grams of fat,” says Grotto. “That’s four times the amount of a regular hamburger, if not more. So we’re still seeing that consumers want to have big portions.
“It’s the old adage, ‘Your eyes are bigger than your stomach,’” Grotto says. “When you’re hungry, you don’t make rational decisions. I tell my clients to request that half of their restaurant entrée be wrapped up for later, so that they can gain control over the quantity of food they are eating.”
Seafood differs from other foods served in restaurants in that its caloric density is not as great as that of fatty meats, and seafood tends to be more heart-healthy.
“Unless breaded and deep fried, or served in a butter sauce, generally a serving of fish is something I’m less concerned about,” says Grotto. “However, if it’s accompanied by a fatty breading or oily sauce, it becomes a matter of guilt by association — not necessarily the seafood itself that is the culprit.”
But larger portions still contain more calories than smaller portions.
Some restaurants are finding a niche by serving less food, thereby allowing diners to try a greater variety of dishes on their menus. Wave Restaurant in Chicago’s W Hotel serves smaller portions yet makes more money than when it offered larger ones.
“People want a more interactive dining experience, one they can share with friends,” says Head Chef Kristine Subido. “We train our servers to inform the tables that this is a restaurant fit to share. Each person orders three to four items from the menu, and many leave saying, ‘I can’t take any more food — stop!’”
Wave dropped its portion sizes and decreased its prices almost a year ago, lowering its per-person check average from $35 to $24.
“It hasn’t hurt our business,” reports Subido. “On the contrary, this is the first year out of our three years in business that we’re making money, and the reason is
that we’re getting a lot more traffic,” she says.
“The food preparation and labor are not as intensive, and I have fewer staff in the kitchen than I did before.”
Subido opts for olive oil rather than butter in her sauces, choosing low-fat foods like yogurt and vegetable reductions for her sauces.
“Our highest-selling item on our menu is our Garlic Shrimp, which is three pieces of shrimp cooked in olive oil and served with potato, costing $11,” she says. “There’s a real demand, at least in Chicago, for smaller food portions, and I know it’s happening in New York and San Francisco, too.”
Restaurants in Seattle are no strangers to smaller portion sizes.
“People realize that you don’t need the quantity,” says John Sundstrom, chef and owner of Lark Restaurant, which opened in fall 2003. “We’ve had smaller portion sizes from the start, because I wanted to be able to offer a lot of variety.”
Almost everything on Lark’s menu is priced between $7 and $16, and seafood dishes are served in 4-ounce quantities.
“It’s not quite tapas, but the idea is to order as you go, share your food around the table,” Sundstrom adds. “By serving smaller portions, people can try more things.”
Lark’s diners tend to order three to four dishes per person on average, with a per-person check average of $35.
Apart from a handful of restaurants that are offering diners smaller portions, many others are still making life difficult for those who choose to eat normal-sized portions. Many establishments have a $5 “sharing charge” or refuse to accommodate people who want half portions.
“I do not know anyone who has a clue about how to get people to return to smaller-size portions,” says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University. “Lawsuits may help, but the big problem is price points. Fast-food places charge less per weight or volume for larger sizes, so price provides an incentive to eat more.”
Ultimately, if Americans are going to fight obesity and win, the onus will fall upon each individual to moderate his or her portion sizes appropriately rather than being enticed into the “clean plate” club.
That’s the view of the ADA’s Grotto, who spends much of his time trying to “deprogram” clients into not eating everything on their plates.
“I encourage them to put their forks down and ask themselves if they’re sufficiently content or still hungry before they continue eating,” he says.
“I also urge them to choose something smaller off the menu, or to offer to share an entrée, or have half their entrée wrapped to go. If they have it immediately wrapped, it’s much easier for them to ignore it.
“Dining out is Americana, a big part of our lives,” he says. “We need to put portion sizes in perspective and gain back the control we tend to have at home.”