Visiting New York for the first time in the mid-1990s involved many memorable experiences, one of them being dining out with a US friend and his mates and work colleagues. The food would hit the tables in the most gargantuan portions I’d ever seen and I’d feel full even before I picked up my fork.

Supersize me: Average portion size has risen steadily

Everyone else took it in their stride but what was most surprising was they would down their knives and forks and call it a day when only a modest way through their main course. This seemed a huge waste of food but was clearly a way to avoid joining the growing ranks of the obese. 

Needless to say, the growth in portion sizes and super-sized meals has well and truly crossed the Atlantic, with all you can eat buffets and bottomless brunches becoming a feature of the UK’s food and beverage landscape. It’s the same when it comes to food in retail. According to a 1993 publication issued by the government of the day, the typical portion size of a shepherd’s pie ready-meal was 210g. This has more than doubled to a hefty 450g today. Many other items have grown significantly during the past 20 years, with bagels increasing 23% and biscuits 17%, according to the British Heart Foundation.

However, the promised government crackdown on calories has led companies to consider reformulating their products or shrinking sizes to adhere to potential rules that could involve pizzas containing no more than 928 calories, for instance.

Judging by the experience of PizzaExpress in the early 2000’s that won’t be an easy thing to do as the high-street brand suffered persistent rumours that its pizzas had either shrunk or its plates had become larger! PizzaExpress vehemently denied the gossip and actually made its pizzas larger to put the allegations to bed – but has the climate changed? As health issues rise up the agenda – Cancer Research UK has predicted 70% of millennials will be obese by the time they reach middle age – portion downsizing might now not be met with such negativity.

Pizza Express: pizza size matters

However that also could be wishful thinking as one of the major contributors to unhealthy eating is the growth of takeaway meals fuelled by the ubiquitous delivery services. This phenomenon looks set fair for further growth – heralding the demise of home cooking, which is arguably the healthiest way to eat.

Initiatives such as Veganuary promote healthier eating but are short-term activities that resemble fad diets – they don’t address the underlying issues. They raise awareness on issues such as cutting the amount of red meat consumed but all too often they are fronts for retailers flogging processed goods under plant-based branding.

We also see many operators introduce menu items to support Veganuary, which I hope aren’t cynical money-making initiatives but rather genuine moves to educate diners. The foodservice industry is in a much better position to bring about healthier eating than the retail industry due to the fact its customers are a captive audience.

There’s an undoubted opportunity to intelligently inform consumers about the food they choose and portion sizes. We all know we eat with our eyes so an attractively plated, sensibly sized course, as opposed to one that’s simply an enormous pile of food slopped on a plate, can convey the right message to both brain and stomach. This will ultimately contribute to the nation’s health and help us avoid having to rely on our (largely non-existent) willpower to down tools when we think we’re full.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.