In an era of excessive food waste, a plea to restaurants: Cut down your portions
The rules for "Outta Control" on the food site of the Minneapolis Star Tribune are simple: The dish has to be over the top in some way (yet visually appealing) and preferably something customers can actually order off a menu.
Since it was launched two years ago, "Outta Control" has introduced readers to tempura-battered, deep-fried cheeseburgers that ooze brie when cut in half; 15-pound ice cream sandwiches constructed from five flavors of ice cream and cookies the size of hubcaps; a meter-long bratwurst with a choice of two sides (anyone who makes the sausage disappear gets a certificate); and the Meat Tornado. The last, sold at a barbecue trailer, packs in rib ends, bacon, sausage, a cheese sauce and sugar-cured jalapeños.
Sharyn Jackson, the reporter who came up with the idea for putting outsize food in one place, thinks she has plenty of material to work with in a part of the country where it's considered an honor to have your likeness carved from butter at the state fair. "We're not going to run out" of subject matter, she says.
As someone who dines away from home an average of 10 meals a week, I can assure you this is not just a Midwestern thing, but the problem is especially common at chain and midpriced restaurants. Amid continuing concerns about food waste and obesity, we shouldn't keep seeing dishes that practically call for building permits.
At Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse in Chicago, one of the highest-grossing independent establishments in the country, gimlets are poured as if patrons requested doubles, and full-size fruit pies are cut in a mere four slices. Order a sandwich at the Smith in Washington, and it comes with what looks like four cups of french fries, an image I recently tweeted and was met with MYOB, even from my own employer. In New York, the cote de porc a la "shake & bake" at the new Bistro Pierre Lapin weighs in at about a pound of refined nostalgia. "We're a French restaurant - in America," says executive chef Harold Moore.
While vegetables are enjoying more real estate on more menus, a lot of diners are simply getting more than we need to eat in restaurants, to the detriment of waist and the furtherance of waste.
A chief culprit: "There is no standard portion size. It's whatever the restaurant serves," says Lisa Young, author of "Finally Full, Finally Slim" (Center Street, 2019). Since food is relatively cheap, chefs tend to pile it on - three or more cups of pasta, 10 to 16 ounces of meat - often using big plates, says Young, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. Against outsize backgrounds, sensible servings make diners feel cheated, creating what Young calls "proportion distortion." And if you eat out a lot, she warns, the tendency is to eat more "because that's what you're surrounded by."
Maybe the now-entrenched, tapas-like way we're eating around the country can help? Not necessarily. Anyone who holds up small plates as a force for good should know they represent more food than you think when servers recommend three or more plates per person, as is often the case.
If this sounds like a first-world rant, the numbers suggest Americans should take heed. About 40 percent of adults are considered obese. While I sympathize with chefs who say there's a fine line between being mindful and satisfying customers, I think hospitality is too often measured by how much food goes out on a plate, even if much of it ends up coming right back to the kitchen, uneaten. Besides, my job is to cheerlead for the consumer rather than the industry, which by one estimate generates more than 11 million tons of waste a year.
Consider this a call for restaurants to offer up half portions, and please, not just for pastas. Those of us who eat out on a regular basis know: Appetizers are almost always more interesting than main courses, not just because chefs seem to put more creativity into them, but because a few bites can sustain our interest the way a strapping entree can't. A slab of meat tends to taste pretty much the same from slice to slice . . . to slice.
Count me a fan of the medium-size plate as well, the sort that supports portions that fall between an appetizer and a main course, a strategy deployed at the youthful I'm Eddie Cano in Washington. Psychologically, a small dish makes a serving look bigger, a visual that influences your level of satiety; in a food study at Cornell University, consumers with larger bowls took 16 percent more cereal than those with smaller ones. Without coming out and promoting it, a number of upscale restaurants are moving in this abbreviated direction. Amber Kendrick, whose Virginia-based Cloud Terre has designed dishes for a who's-who roster of Washington chefs, says demand for 11- to 12-inch plates has given way to those in the 9- to 10-inch range in recent years. More mainstream restaurants should follow suit.
Taking home leftovers is an obvious strategy for waist/waste control - "pack up, pack up, pack up," coaches Young, the dietitian - provided we actually end up eating them. Mine can't be the only household with a refrigerator that needs to be cleared periodically of restaurant remains that are past their prime and need to get tossed. Sadly, the USDA reports that as much as 40 percent of food in the country goes to waste, with the single biggest source being our own homes.
Young thinks the practice of restaurants charging a fee for dividing a dish, typically a main course, is "terrible," partly because it encourages overeating and waste. Restaurants argue that there are costs involved in extra serviceware and sometimes slightly more generous serving sizes to make the divided dish look more presentable. "Small portions mean a small bill," says Moore of Bistro Pierre Lapin.
Yet when they're on the other side of the table, even some chefs want to eat more modestly. "I hate to encourage diners to split entrees - I can hear the cries from chefs - but that's what my dining room manager and I tend to do at the end of a shift," says Steven Satterfield, chef-owner of Miller Union in Atlanta.
Satterfield is also the author of "Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons" (Harper Wave, 2015), which promotes the use of every part of a plant. At Miller Union, carrot tops become chermoula, squash seeds are turned into purees, and the stems of things appear in everything from green rice to "dirty" farro. Other food waste becomes compost.
Ultimately, there are ways for both restaurants and customers to win. In an ideal world, a restaurant might offer a sensible portion of a dish while letting diners order more of it, in much the same way patrons now order side dishes to accompany entrees.
Want more than a half portion or a medium plate after finishing one or the other? Restaurants should hold out the possibility like a carrot, giving patrons the opportunity to bite, and pay for the privilege.
Alternatively, diners could take another of Young's suggestions and "share, share, share" their food. Want to try a Meat Tornado? Make it a community project.
This article was written by Tom Sietsema, a food critic for The Washington Post.