Portion Distortion

So, we decided to go with smaller plates. What’s the deal?


Serving sizes today are much larger than they were decades ago. This is fairly obvious when dining out and your 2-pound plate of spaghetti arrives. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite as good as it’s cracked up to be. People are eating XXX% more on average than XX years ago, and it’s likely not salad or stir-fried veggies that are filling these plates. But why? What may partially explain this is plate size increases. In fact, research has observed the average size of a sample of dinner plates increased almost 23%, from 9.6 inches to 11.8 inches, since 19001. This may not sound like much, but when each meal of each day is on a larger plate, we lose sight of what an appropriate portion size actually looks like.

Believe it or not, there is a lot of research that has delved into the psychology of eating, and in past years, researchers have found that plate size can impact our portion sizing without impacting our perceived satisfaction. For example, in a study conducted at a health and fitness camp, campers who were given larger bowls served and consumed 16% more cereal than those given smaller bowls. Despite the fact that those campers were eating more, their estimates of their cereal consumption were 7% lower than the estimates of the group eating from the smaller bowls2. This suggests that not only could large dinnerware cause us to serve and eat more; it can do so without us noticing and trick us into believing we have eaten less. Likewise, when we go to put food on a smaller plate, we don’t really recognize that it’s a smaller portion than usual, unless we’re actively trying to prove that it is a smaller portion.

But why should I care? Your health and wallet may benefit.

While it might not be apparent, when we reduce our plate size, we reduce our portion sizes and increase the amount that will be leftover to enjoy later. This saves money and can help us subconsciously be more satisfied with smaller portions of rich foods, such as desserts. When we have smaller plates, we are also more likely to finish our plate and reduce food waste. This saves money again.  

What’s more is that these findings apply to utensil, bowl, and glassware sizes, too.  So, next time when deciding between the larger and smaller plate, you may just thank yourself for grabbing the smaller or the two. Your health and wallet will thank you.

Bonus exert: Research suggests that the greater contrast we have between food and plate, the more satisfied we are with our meal and smaller portions1. Researchers explain that this is because we can more clearly see the food we are/will be eating and more readily recognize how much we’ve eaten. In the study, participants who served themselves pasta alfredo on a white plate (not much contrast) heaped on 22 percent more pasta than those who were given red plates (lots of contrast)1.What’s the best plate color? Depends on the meal and food (ie, alfredo on white plate versus green plate). In theory, using green plates may help you eat more green vegetables without noticing. Still, having a variety of plate colors can be a good option, if possible, allowing the greatest range of color contrast.



1.      http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/662615

2.      https://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/discoveries/large-plate-mistake