Scaling back

Smaller portions prove healthy for customers—and operators’ bottom lines.

Pesto Baked Cod from Carteret General.

While restaurant portions continue to grow, many non-commercial segments like schools and hospitals are moving in the opposite direction to recalibrate customers’ serving-size expectations and help them eat less overall.

Nowhere are smaller portions more prominent than in schools, where recently updated federal nutrition guidelines call for reduced servings of calorie-dense food groups including protein and grains. At Fort Mill School District, in South Carolina, this meant reformulating grain- and meat-heavy dishes such as deli sandwiches and spaghetti and meat sauce to contain no more than two ounces of meat per serving.

But downsizing has caused some complaints among students who, before the new guidelines, were used to receiving twice that amount of meat on their lunch trays. “Many students don’t know what a portion size should be to have a balanced diet. We have the challenge of portion distortion to overcome, and nutrition education needs to be part of the daily curriculum,” says Tammie Welch, R.D., district dietitian and supervising manager.

To help make meals more filling without exceeding fat or calorie limits, Fort Mill has increased fruit and vegetable serving sizes. But the move hasn’t been a total success. “I’m in favor of the new guidelines, and feel that we in schools have to continue to make healthy changes to our menus to improve the wellness of our students,” Welch says. “But we have to get the students to buy into this, which has been a challenge for our district.”

Conversely, adults struggling to maintain a healthy weight are often enthusiastic about scaled-down servings. “We’ve brought portion sizes down to a point where they’re sustainable for people,” says Richard Jarmusz, executive chef at Fletcher Allen Healthcare, in Vermont. There, cafeteria sandwiches now contain three ounces of meat or less, and entrée proteins in dishes such as New England Pot Roast with Mashed Potatoes and Green Beans have shrunk from six ounces to four. Fish is still portioned out in five-ounce pieces.

Portion sizes have gotten smaller at Carteret General Hospital, in North Carolina, too. A little more than two years ago, the facility adopted The WorkHealthy America Nutrition Criteria from statewide health nonprofit, NC Prevention Partners. To meet those guidelines, 75% of food and beverages served are required to meet healthy criteria: Main dishes under 500 calories, with meat and fish servings limited to five ounces or less; side dishes under 225 calories; and snacks and desserts under 200 calories. The portion-smart meals, like Cajun Catfish with Spanish Rice and Pesto Baked Cod with Rice Pilaf and Stewed Tomatoes, are offered at reduced prices to encourage participation, says Bob Gambichler, director of nutrition services.

That’s a smart move, since it’s essential for customers to feel like they’re getting a good value for the money when there’s less food on their plate. At Fletcher Allen, Jarmusz emphasizes the quality of his meat products, which, he says, go above and beyond industry norms. His uncured ham and grass-fed beef come from local farms—and when you’re paying $8 per pound or more for meat, you simply can’t afford to serve gargantuan portions, he adds. But most customers are OK with the trade-off. “We need to emphasize quality, and people here in Vermont are very concerned with that. Just because there’s a lot of something doesn’t mean that it’s good for you,” Jarmusz says.