Small plates are popping up on menus in a variety of foodservice settings as a way to provide healthier options and greater variety and simultaneously reduce food costs.
At Presbyterian Hospital in Plano, Texas, Foodservice Director Mary Spicer sees the trend as a logical one to dealing with America’s growing obesity crisis. Three- to four-ounce servings of proteins, she says, are “an appropriate amount” for patients.
“We started doing smaller portions on our heart-healthy menu quite a while ago with pretty good response,” Spicer explains. “We had some problems with new moms who are almost insatiable. We try to send in snacks for them. And of course we get big guys who come in with sports injuries who really like to eat and so, for them, we’ll double the protein piece. But aside from that, people are happy with the smaller portion sizes.”
A favorite is a three-ounce serving of beef tenderloin in bernaise sauce. “No big old glop of mashed potatoes with it either,” she notes. “The tenderloin sits on maybe a fourth of a cup of couscous or rice and we’ll serve it with a fourth of a cup of vegetables.”
All of the smaller sized portions were checked and supervised by a dietitian in order to meet compliance standards for heart-healthy, diabetic and other menus.
Spicer says a wild mushroom enchilada is a popular item. “People rave about it,” she says. “Reducing the size makes the flavor profile even better.” On the dessert side, she serves “only small, healthy desserts like angel cookies or sorbets—things that are light.”
When Illinois State University switched from an à la carte menu to an all-you-care-to-eat system two years ago, “it prompted us to review portion sizes,” says Tracy Widergren, marketing coordinator. For example, pizza was cut into eight slices instead of six and muffins and cookies were reduced in size. A survey of students prior to the change showed no concerns about the smaller portions because “they knew they could always get more.”
“In catering,” says Widergren, “we offer smaller portions and lower costs for lunch items that also appear on the dinner menu.”
St. Francis Hospital, The Heart Center, in Roslyn, N.Y., started smaller portions four years ago, according to Assistant Nutrition Manager Gail Liv. Meat portions were reduced to three ounces, while starch and vegetable items were set at half a cup. A two-ounce muffin is served at breakfast. “All of us in St. Joseph’s Healthcare System are doing this,” says Liv.
Minis all around: Similarly, Bill Doyle, catering chef at Stryker Orthopedics, a Whitsons Culinary Group account in Mahwah, N.J., started a slider program and also serves mini breakfast sandwiches. “People don’t want that whole Danish or doughnut any more, especially in office settings,” he says. “It doesn’t sit well. Daintier portions are popular.”
Doyle offered a snack-size sandwich program with “mixed success,” he recalls, adding that, “the minis with soup in the winter sell better.”
At the University of Massachusetts, Executive Dining Director Ken Toong launched a major effort, “Small Plates, Big Flavor,” three years ago for the school’s 14,500 students. At the time, food costs were very high and there was a lot of waste. A survey of customers revealed demand for quality instead of quantity on the plate.
“We cut our proteins to two or three ounces at lunch and four at dinner,” Toong says. “Everything is a third to a half size smaller. We tested our breakfast pizza with eggs and bacon in a smaller 12-slice size. We shifted from top sirloin to a four-ounce New York strip loin portion with all the fat cut off. We started doing more street food that’s easy to handle. We have tapas and sliders and dim sum, all very small with intense flavors.”
Food costs at UMass are 3% to 4% lower and there’s less waste.
The Mediterranean diet: David Manz, district manager for Parkhurst Dining Services, says he has witnessed the shift toward “right-sizing” menus, with more grazing menus and stations popping up during the last three years. For example, at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., Parkhurst features a chef- attended station with a Southwest/Mexican theme serving five- or seven-inch plates of fish tacos.
“We do what we call menu planting using the Mediterranean diet with grains and legumes and some protein as a garnish,” Manz says. “What comes out of the ground is the main part of the dish. So, tabouleh might be center of the plate, garnished with grilled chicken.”
Parkhurst cut protein portions to three ounces from five. “Smaller protein portions are taking root,” says Manz.
Along similar lines, Aramark’s Lifestyle Restaurant Group introduced a stacked burger program this year. “Instead of a six-ounce Angus prime rib blend burger, they can get a half portion single patty—three ounces,” says Scott Keats, director of culinary development for Aramark. “A signature item in our Prime Thyme restaurant is a sandwich with lower carbs—a French-inspired tartine open-faced sandwich the size of a single slice of bread, like a grilled sourdough with smoked paprika, asparagus, arugula and smoked goat cheese.
“Other small plates include mafunga, a mashed plantain with pork and a small two-bite Cuban sandwich. Small papa rellenos are bite-sized items made with mashed potatoes with peccadillo (ground beef mixed with olives, onions and garlic), breaded and fried,” says Keats.
Lifestyle also has little meze platters with three different salads. Small portions of bite-sized smoked chipotle pork ribs are popular catering items and reduce waste, as are small portions of cold poached salmon. For catered dessert items, Lifestyle likes to play against chocolate with small truffles with gray sea salt, panna cotta and biscotti, each with a different percentage of cocoa.
Shrinking Catered Affairs
Entrées and desserts get the ‘small plate’ treatment at West Virginia University.
Desserts are undergoing dramatic changes at 29,000-student West Virginia University in Morgantown, with new sizing and ways of presentation reshaping the traditional image of dessert as a large piece of cake on a plate.
Desserts are more likely to take the form of “little trios,” particularly in the catering division, according to Eric Filburn, executive chef and assistant director of dining services.
One popular dessert is a trio of mousse variations on the banana split, including pineapple with toasted coconut, chocolate with banana chip and strawberry with pistachio crunch, served in mini martini glasses on a white rectangular plate, garnished with whipped cream and a cherry on the chocolate mousse.
Another example would be mini tarts, such as a blueberry lemon pound cake with vanilla crème anglaise.
Response to the smaller portions has been favorable, as has the added variety, and Filburn says the trend is here to stay. “Our customers want to be more healthy so they’re looking for desserts that are less heavy.”
It’s a matter of perception, he observes. The trio may have as many calories as a single large portion, but three tiny treats seem less fattening than an oversized piece of cake.
Presentation plays a large role. Filburn does a Bloody Mary shrimp shooter in shooter glasses for receptions and presents dessert items in mini martini glasses. “We’re seeing more glassware that lends itself to dramatic presentations.”
Selling to alums: Filburn’s colleague, Scott Spiker, executive chef at the Erickson Alumni Center, which hosts hundreds of alumni events each year, says he’s found “a niche doing catered events with small plates and wine pairings. Instead of one big entrée, we’ll do two or three little ones.”
For example, he’ll serve three different soups in shot glasses. Favorites include sweet potato crab cakes with bourbon butter sauce and a petite sirloin. The steak is four or five ounces instead of the usual 10 ounces and comes with Pennsylvania button mushrooms and bordelaise sauce with haricot verts.
“We might do barbecued shrimp and pecan-crusted scallops on seven-inch side plates instead of one big serving. Sides are one and a half ounce servings of starches and vegetables, where we used to make them four and a half or five ounces. It’s more labor intensive, but the food cost ends up being pretty much the same. You get more flavor, and the perception is you’ve had a taste of this and that.”
Smaller Size Matters
At Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., John Cummings, general manager of resident dining with Parkhurst Dining Services, is continually looking at ways to
control portion sizes and calorie counts in three revenue streams: catering, resident dining and retail operations.
“In our catering department, the difference in size of lunch and dinner portions is as little as two ounces and as much as four. This results in a lower price and a lower calorie meal. We’ve trended toward offering our clients the choice of mini desserts, many of which are served in shot glasses, as well as a trio dessert plate that features three or four bite- sized tastes of decadent, high-calorie upscale desserts like a lime mousse or a dark chocolate flourless cake. They’re around one-inch triangles. Guests like the idea of having three different tastes. These desserts take more handiwork, but the customers like having more options.
We also do small microgreen salads in our buffet catering—slightly more than a mouthful. We’ll do the microgreens and also variations on Caesar salads in shooter glasses.
Our lunch portions are always smaller than dinner options and in catering, people will often ask for the lunch-sized item at dinner. We find a lot of concern about waste,
and it carries into the sustainability issue too.
In residence dining, we’ve been making cookies in house because we can do them homestyle and they’re fresher. We do 1,400 cookies a day plus 400 mini ones that we place on a cake stand next to the coffee stand. They’re the size of a silver dollar and there’s a sign pointing out that they have less fat and fewer calories. We go through 200 of these mini cookies at each meal. There’s a subtle demand for that kind of information and growing concern about obesity.
We do 4,000 resident meals a day and we have to find ways to keep the students engaged. We see more recognition of a ‘stop when you’ve had enough’ attitude rather than eating until you’re stuffed. People today don’t want to be as filled up.
Today smaller portions packed with more flavor are popular. More flavor means small tastes are more satisfying. The food is more fulfilling.
We have a 13-week menu cycle and we incorporate some of the foods from our signature Hemisflavors program that focuses on international cuisines into the resident dining menus, sometimes in small plate sizes. All of those dishes are prepared with less oil or healthier oils and contain fresh vegetables and proteins. Their seasonings convert ‘good for you’ offerings into ‘extreme flavor profile’ experiences.
In our retail operations we have had great success with a ‘mini menu’ that offers, among other options, two mini sliders for the price and weight of one (regular size). Two guests often share this as an entrée option and both cut their portion and calorie consumption in half.
We do mini pizzas—we started with focus groups and then tested them. They made a big splash. We call them personal-size pizzas. We also do mini versions of fajitas and quesadillas and on our sushi rolls, which we make in house, we used to sell eight- and 16-piece combo packs. Now we do one portion with four pieces.
The mini menu option offerings tapped a market for smaller portions. They led to our initiating a half sandwich and cup of soup combo that has taken off with our guests too.
To market the mini items, we put up signs. Our basic menu got a new logo—it’s called The Basics and has a military look—and it grabbed a lot of attention. We said ‘you asked for lower prices and smaller things’ on signs at the point of ordering or on the cold case. They grab the items to go.
In both our retail and residential outlets we have large TV monitors in place and we use them to do ads about the items with pictures. We introduce new items that way, and we also do lots of sampling plates when we unveil something new.
The smaller portions program continues to grow. The customers know they’re eating less and paying less. We keep trying to innovate in the retail area to stay fresh.”