Picture of Mayuri Wijayasundara

Mayuri Wijayasundara

Aren’t our portions too big?

Given that we only require a certain amount of energy per day, why have our portion sizes continued to increase over time? 

Portion sizes have been progressively increasing over the past few decades, leading to a surge in obesity rates and other diet-related health issues. While it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that more is better, especially when it comes to food, it is crucial to bear in mind that we only require a specific amount of food to provide us with the necessary energy and nutrition for the day.  

Why are our portion sizes too big?  

One possible reason is that it has been chosen as a strategy to communicate value in a dish or a food serving. The incremental cost of making the portion larger is relatively less, compared to making a new dish and a large portion  which is used to differentiate and create competitive edge. The aspect that is overseen here is that this differentiation can be done through other means. It is good to question whether we offer the right as well enough choices of food to consumers to retain the value of the food serving, while mitigating potential and real resource wastages. 

How have portion sizes changed? 

One of the main reasons portion sizes have gotten so big is because of the abundance of cheap, high-calorie food over time, the portion has steadily increased with developed countries in particular more than doubling them. For example, let’s look at the portion size change between 1980 and 2020 in the United States.  

Food   Portion size in 1980  Portion size in 2020 
Soft drink bottle   6 1/2 ounces (85 calories)  20 ounces (250 calories) 
A blueberry muffin  1 1/2 ounces (210 calories)  4 ounces (500 calories) 
chicken stir-fry  2 cups (435 calories)  4 1/2 cups (865 calories) 
Pasta  1 cup of sauced pasta and 3 small meatballs (500 calories)  2 cups of sauced pasta and 3 large meatballs (1,025 calories) 

Portion sizes and waste  

Waste generation – When large portions cannot be completely consumed it leads to an increase in organic waste generation. Globally 1.4 billion tons of food is thrown as waste every year. Costs associated with wasted food in the restaurant industry in America is estimated to reach $162 billion annually. Food waste, being an organic waste typically is not diverted back to nature in our current linear economic system, leading to environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, water pollution and much more.  

Bringing cost and food waste down through portion control – Tips for the food industry 

1.Offer a smaller portion with a free add-on 

One strategy that restaurants and food establishments can use to encourage customers to choose smaller portion sizes is to offer a smaller portion with a free add-on. This can allow customers to still feel like they are getting a good value while also helping to control portion sizes. 

2. Offer flexible options (half and half dishes) 

Restaurants and food establishments can encourage customers to choose smaller portion sizes is to offer flexible options, such as “half and half” dishes. This allows customers to customize their orders and choose smaller portion sizes if they prefer.  

For examples, offer a “half and half” option for a main dish, allowing customers to choose two different proteins or vegetables to be served in smaller portions. 

 3. Offer socially and environmentally friendly options balancing demand and supply 

Customising the menu often to offer products with high over supply (and also hence cheap) helps reduce waste and also gain cost savings. Offering seasonal fruits and vegetables, pre-cooking and preservation of such (such as pickles, jams) at times of high supply are strategies to consider.  and locally sourced food isa more sustainable choice while limiting imported food and those that require a cold supply chain needing energy, or  warm supply chain resulting in rejections and waste. Vegan and vegetarian options can also be more sustainable, as they tend to have a smaller environmental footprint compared to meat-based dishes.  

4. Keep room for innovation and use the excess supplies 

Excess food supplies need not go to waste. Restaurants might offer a special add-on meals that features dishes made with excess ingredients or left over food, that might otherwise go to waste. This can not only help to reduce food waste, but it can also encourage customers to try new and creative dishes that they might not otherwise consider. Allowing customers to sample a variety of flavours and try new things without committing to a full-size portion does not hurt, as many seek novel food experiences 

5. Promote environmental initiatives through pricing 

Restaurants can offer a discount on dishes made with locally sourced ingredients, or a discount for customers who bring their own reusable containers for leftovers. Loyalty program or rewards system can also be established in restaurants that incentivizes customers to make more sustainable choices, such as ordering smaller portion sizes. 

6. Provide evidence and information  

Providing clear and useful information about the environmental footprint associated with some food, content and nutrition information as well as negative impacts of excess food consumption can expect to change food consumption behaviour even in small ways.  Prompting healthier and low-environmental footprint choices as well as optimum portions can then be driven by consumer demand rather than a push-strategy by the those who serve food. 

With the oncoming food shortages predicted due to world events, as well as the on-going effort to transition to regenerate and preserve resources, it is important for restaurants and food establishments to be mindful of this issue and to consider strategies that can help encourage customers to make conscious choices. Whether it is through more information and education or through direct pricing and choice incentives, there is a crucial role that everyone can play to make a difference within their own domain, if they care and make the effort to do so. 

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Mayuri Wijayasundara


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