The problem with portion sizes
In a market where diners vote with their feet, how can foodservice operators address portion sizes without patrons feeling like they’re being jipped? Industry Observer searches for the answer.
The other night, my family and I sat down for a meal in a country pub. This one happened to be in Victoria, but could have been anywhere that meals are served into hospitality’s middle ground. Not one of us at the table could finish our meal – they were huge – and it got me thinking. How do we manage portion sizes in such a way that ‘generosity’ is still obvious and welcomed, but ‘abundance’, and its near neighbour gluttony, are kept in check? And if you think that the answer rests in just serving smaller meals, then think again, as the chatter among the locals will kill off a business in no time if the balance is not right.
Personally, I blame the early Americans who changed much of the ‘traditional’ plating methods and replaced them with central dishes, piled high and accompanied with the instruction to ‘take some and pass it on’. This was actually called ‘American service’ when I studied Hospitality, but now we call it ‘share plates’. But the share plate is not the problem; it’s the desire to have more than we need. To the Americans of the time, it reflected the abundance of produce and wealth in this new land, often far removed from the poverty stricken homeland that they migrated from. For my family, there was no need for the parma at the pub to be bigger than my outstretched hand, nor was there a need for a 500g steak to be washed down with beer by the pint, but it is what many desire. And not only is it a massive waste of resources; it’s killing us.
Former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, tried to limit the size of the soft drinks offered in ‘up-sized’ meals (that have up-sized many of us) and was howled down by a rampant group of consumers demanding to have the ‘right’ to get as much soft drink as they wanted. They were well supported by the fast food chains and soft drink makers in their endeavour – and they succeeded. Sensible does not always win. Wants are triumphing over needs. Mayor Bloomberg recognised the destructive path that we (predominantly the wealthy Western World) are heading toward. Diabetes’ cost to the world last year was in excess of $550 billion and it is rapidly rising. In people numbers, it would be the fifth largest country on earth. We are eating and drinking ourselves to death.
We need to make a change, but how? In my formative years, menus were designed so that the punters should be able to consume three courses (and were portioned accordingly), but the food world has evolved, with many fine diners heading to multiple small courses (of morsels – thanks El Bulli) and degustation options, while the lower to middle rungs are stuck in the ‘bulk is better’ mentality. Much of the rise in Asian food choices has been around the abundance shown at the table and deemed as good value for money. In times where discretionary spend is tight and house prices are ridiculous, the challenge is how to manage this value perception – it can’t continue to be by just selling bigger portions.
Education has a central part to play in how the industry manages this challenge – it’s a super competitive space and customers loathe being ‘told’ what’s best for them. If they feel you are preaching, then they’ll find a new place – and this goes back to my original dinner at the ‘local’ pub. If you are the trendsetting establishment that works toward putting a better quality offering on the plate that does not provide the ‘volume’ of food expected, then the customers will likely punish you on social media and vote with their feet. It’s a really vicious cycle. Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden program is showing kids how to grow their food, but do we have enough focus on how much of it is reasonable to consume? Also, we legislate that fast food chains must advertise their kilojoules for each item, but restaurants can serve anything and not be accountable.
The really tough part is that I can’t really see a solution to this dilemma at all. It would take a combination of a determined group of establishments to be able to present a sensible menu, together with assistance from food manufacturers and wholesalers in order to make, produce and deliver sensible portions for the customer. And then we’d need to hope for a coherent communication strategy that clearly and effectively articulates the features, advantages and benefits to all affected by the change. There are so many moving parts in this chain of events that it is almost doomed before it begins, but we have to start somewhere.