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The psychology of plate size

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Whether you think New York City’s ban on big soft drinks will help people get healthier or amounts to another example of the proliferation of the Nanny State, evidence abounds that portion size has a concrete impact on how much we eat. As many on both sides have pointed out, consumers are free to buy as many smaller sodas as they want, which brings up the point that, if the law does any good, it will most likely be because it makes people stop and think about portion size and perhaps get a better handle on what the right portion should be.

Cooking and eating at home gives us a chance to control portion size, a task that’s much tougher to do when dining out. Restaurants are often walking a fine line these days, trying to create healthier dishes while also offering indulgent items that many patrons are seeking when they dine out. The question of providing value raises its head as restaurateurs and chains struggle to determine whether guests see more value in lower-calorie, healthfully prepared meals or big plates full of food.

Meanwhile, many of us apparently depend on the restaurant to tell us how much is enough.

The lion’s share of restaurant meals sampled this year by Rand researchers exceeded the USDA’s recommended daily limit for calories, fat, saturated fat and salt, USA TODAY reported in May. This week, National Public Radio reported on research showing that people are influenced by a portion label even when the label has nothing to do with reality. When researchers, led by University of Michigan marketing professor Aradhna Krishna, gave subjects batches of cookies labeled “medium” or “large,” people ate more from the medium package, even though the portions were the same size. “Just because there’s a different size label attached to the same actual quantity of food, people eat more,” Krishna said. “But also, [they] think they’ve not eaten as much.”

The issue gets even more confusing when we consider that there’s no standard on restaurant portion size. A small order of fries at Burger King is the same size as the kids portion at Wendy’s and the medium at McDonald’s and Sonic, according to Fast Food Marketing. Even when two portions appear to be the same size, they’re not necessarily equal: A medium order of fries at Burger King has 80 more calories than the equivalent at McDonald’s.

The reality is that most of the time, we want to do our best to make healthy choices, but once in a while, we just want to scarf what’s on the plate without worrying about caloric consequences. That means restaurants might need to cater to both sides.

How does your eatery feed healthy and indulgent appetites? Have you tweaked portions in recent months? Tell us in the comments.