Editor's Plate: Mini-Size Me

July 21, 2011
The recent downsizing of the most delectable single-serve foods is a good, not cheap, thing.

I was touring food plants in Georgia recently. As the only American along on this press tour, I asked a couple of the foreign food journalists what they found to be the most striking difference in American food. They remarked not on some uniquely American dish, the cost or style of serving but on the sizes.

"The serving sizes are enormous. They could feed an entire family back in France," said one, who was speaking more of her experiences in New York restaurants than the ones we were encountering in the Peach State. Two others out of a group of six agreed, and noted they were speaking from experiences in differing parts of this country. "And your people wonder why they're obese," said one.

Rather than snap back that there's obesity all over Europe, I kept silent because I knew they were correct. That's no great revelation, I realize, and it speaks mostly to the restaurant industry, not so much to food & beverage processors. But of all the things those foreign visitors could have mentioned…

And I don't need to remind you of the 2004 film "Super Size Me."

Anyway, I've been encouraged lately by a couple of developments from both packaged food makers and restaurateurs. With the reopening of the seasonal Dairy Queens this spring, a Mini Blizzard took its place alongside the other sizes of this favorite treat of mine. Perhaps it was driven more by the economy (even a small Blizzard at my local DQ is $3.39) than by any corporate effort to slim down America, but the end result is a perfectly indulgent treat at a size that doesn't make me loosen my belt when I get back home.

Traveling through an airport recently, I noticed the same thing on the similar product at McDonald's. The McFlurry also comes in a new miniature size (and at a reduced price, thank you).

I was moderating a panel of Wisconsin food executives in May. Craig Culver acknowledged doing the same thing at his restaurant chain. (Culver's, which specializes in frozen custard and ButterBurgers, is only in 19 mostly Midwestern states but is spreading like wildfire.) Its Blizzard equivalent, the Concrete Mixer (sounds intimidating, doesn't it?) is now available as a Mini Mixer. Culver said the downsizing was motivated by the economy and his competition, but he also acknowledged that even the small-size Concrete Mixer was maybe too much for, or at least more than was needed by, a person who had just finished off one of his restaurant's ButterBurgers.

All foodservice examples, I know. But I'm starting to see the same thing happening in packaged foods. And I think it's a good thing.

I have a weakness for some ice cream before I go to bed. On a recent trip to the grocery store, I stumbled upon Dove Miniatures. At a hair under an ounce each (14 pieces in a 10.5-oz. box) and a scant 70 calories, I can eat two or even three without feeling guilty. The box actually says a serving is five pieces.

Mars also has downsized the original Dove Bar. It was a massive treat, sold mostly on the street, when I first moved to Chicago 30 years ago. The smaller version is much more sane and just as delectable.

Where did I move from? Pittsburgh, home of the Klondike (invented by a dairy store chain named Isaly's). Growing up, I remember Klondikes being massive. Under Unilever's ownership it, too, has been right-sized.

Some people no doubt will decry this as less product for the same amount of money. And I still have a hard time rationalizing 48-oz. "half gallons" of ice cream or 11.5-oz. tins of coffee. Those indefensibly are not related to smaller serving sizes.

But if we want to reverse this obesity crisis -- if the food industry wants to be seen as the solution, not the problem – the downsizing of the real single-serve items is a step in the right direction.

I'd much rather impress those visitors from France with the innovation and delightfulness of our food than its size.

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