Restaurants have long used an overflowing plate to convey value, but a report indicates that portion control is growing in importance among American diners.
In its “Healthy Eating Strategies by Generation” report, market research firm The NPD Group surveyed more than 5,000 adults and found that 43 percent said they ate smaller portions always or most of the time in the past year.
But 57 percent of those surveyed said they want to eat smaller portions in the coming year, indicating that serving sizes will increasingly influence the choices consumers make, said Dori Hickey, NPD’s director of product management and author of the report.
“We were trying to understand what constitutes healthy eating or a healthy lifestyle in consumers’ minds,” Hickey said. “What we saw was a difference in where they’ve been and where they aspire to be.”
The report considered certain attributes associated with healthy eating and their importance to different age groups.
Out of 30 attributes, eating smaller portions ranked 11th in importance among adult consumers overall.
Adults ranked the top five characteristics of healthful eating and lifestyle as exercising regularly; eating well-balanced meals; eating all things in moderation; limiting or avoiding foods with saturated fat, cholesterol or trans fats; and drinking at least eight glasses of water per day.
Among Generation X consumers ages 35 to 45, however, eating smaller portions was seen as more important, ranking seventh among healthful characteristics.
Hickey said that’s no surprise, as many people start packing on the pounds in that age range.
“As people age, they become more mindful” of healthful eating, Hickey said.
For Gen Y diners ages 21 to 34, smaller portions ranked eighth in importance; for older boomers ages 46 to 54, it ranked twelfth.
Diners 55 years and older considered smaller portions less important than younger diners. Hickey speculated that may be because many older people have smaller appetites and tend to eat less than younger people anyway.
For restaurants, the increased interest in portion control offers an opportunity, she said.
A menu-labeling mandate on the horizon is forcing chain restaurants to think about downsizing portions to make calorie counts more reasonable.
With consumers aspiring to eat smaller servings, restaurants can “reset the consumer vision of what a real portion is,” she said.
She mentioned chains like McDonald’s, which on Tuesday announced changes to its Happy Meals that include a smaller portion of fries.
In the casual dining segment, restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory and California Pizza Kitchen have had success with smaller-plate menus as an alternative to the heaping portions typically served.
Others, like Maggiano’s Little Italy, are giving consumers more options, such as splitting a dish so diners can eat half in the restaurant and take the rest home for another meal.