“Smarter” meal portion sizes: When is less really more? – Q & A with Chef Martin Lopez

Experts in the hospitality industry know that banquets and catered events require careful management to keep food waste to a minimum, and it takes a team effort to attain that goal.  Meeting and event professionals can assist in this effort by turning a closer eye to menu planning, meal preparation and food acquisition.

When you’re dealing with banquets and catered events, the number of people expected is generally established well before any cooking begins.  So the question is, how can we work ahead to make smaller portions serve the guest – and the planet – in a more effective manner?  We hear all the time that “less is more”… less food, less cost, less waste… but we certainly never want to shortchange our valued event guests in any way.  How do we know when less really is the better choice?

MM&E:  What are some of your own ideas to help ensure that portion sizes meet an event’s needs while reducing waste? 

Chef Martin:  My best advice is to apply some trends from the culinary industry, such as farm-to-table, locally sourced products, organic and gluten-free foods, the “caveman diet,” and the “raw food diet,” just to name a few.  Many of these methods encourage smaller portions and fresher, more natural, less processed foods – which can help you meet clients’ and guests’ needs while reducing cost and waste.

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Try these diets and trends to guide you toward smaller, more controlled portions of good quality foods.  This can result in better presentation of food at your events; far less waste; and cost savings. When you are planning your event, stick to your numbers, create a plan of action regarding the number of people you are serving, and remember to use good quality ingredients in smaller servings.

Also speak directly to the chef as you are planning your meals, and that will help you make better choices. Chefs have many practical tips to offer, and can be a great resource to help you choose the right food quantities for your guests.

MM&E:  How can we respond to guests’ desires for healthier, more manageable amounts of food on the table? 

Chef Martin:  As we are putting together an event, we are tasked with trying to feed and please dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people simultaneously.  In responding to guests’ wishes for healthier amounts of food, think outside the box a little and see what is making headlines, what is trending.  Always look for the “fresh food factor” and pay attention to which items are in season locally.

This will not only keep you on track as to what you should serve, it is also more cost-effective and nutritionally sound.  Try to serve what is available fresh at the local farmers’ market, as it likely to be locally grown.  These are my three personal watchwords to keep meals healthful and manageable: “Fresh seasonal menu.”

MM&E:  How do you know how much food is too much at an event, and how much is not enough? 

Chef Martin:  For the planner, there is nothing worse than running out of food in the middle of an event; this error can result in a very damaging mark on your name or your company’s.  So the question is, how do you decide how much food is adequate, when your group is likely to include light eaters as well as heavy eaters?

This might sound like “the million dollar question,” but the answer is quite simple… communication. Talk to your event chef and have him or her create a flexible menu that can be altered quickly in the event you find yourself needing more – or less – food for your guests.

A large selection of food is nice, but remember that when you put many offerings in front of people, they tend to want to try everything.  So it may be better to opt for smaller servings of fewer dishes.  This will help you stay within your budget.  Again, by communicating clearly with your chef, you will be able to keep the right amount of food in front of your guests.

MM&E:  How can we, as members of the event and hospitality industries, take better care of the planet by wasting less event food? 

Chef Martin:  Despite all our planning and efforts to reduce waste and control our budgets, it is logical to expect some leftover food after any event. To be better stewards of the planet and the community, many establishments in cities across the country take their remaining food to shelters, pantries or soup kitchens at the end of the day. Helping to feed the less fortunate generates warm hearts, and in some cases even a tax break.

MM&E:  Americans often struggle with portion control and the tendency to overeat.  How can we combat this trend? 

Chef Martin:  The biggest factors to take into consideration are which part of the country you are in, the demographics of your event, and guests’ local perceptions of food.  In any case, if dietary needs are your main concern, here are some tips to keep in mind:

Decrease portion size. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Dietary Guidelines encourage you to enjoy your food, but eat less and avoid oversized portions. The amount you eat or drink plays an important role in your body’s energy balance. And most people automatically consume more when they are served larger portions, so putting more on their plates can be detrimental. Food portions generally have increased over time, so people may even be eating more than they realize. Sometimes, a single restaurant meal may equal or exceed your entire day’s recommended allowance of things such as fat or sodium.

Especially when you’re planning a multiple-day event with many meals, a daily food plan can help you manage your guests’ intake by recommending the amount needed from each food group. To stay within a guest’s food energy needs, the total amount he or she eats each day should match the total amount recommended for each food group. For example, one regular slice of wheat bread can count as one ounce of grains. This doesn’t mean you have to eat a sandwich with only one piece of bread; it just means that if you eat two slices, you should count them both toward your total grain intake for the day.

Know how much you’re really serving. To give you an idea of how large portions really need to be for an event – and to see where you might cut back – here are some ideas to experiment with in the kitchen:

  1. Measure how much the bowls and plates you use will actually hold. For example, pour a “normal” amount of breakfast cereal into a regular bowl.  Then, transfer it into a measuring cup to see how much it really is. Can you serve less, and still have your guests feel satisfied?
  2. Try the same tactic with beverages. For example, measure out one cup of juice to see what a cup of liquid looks like in the glasses you normally use. Again, can you make do with less?
  3. Try preparing and eating smaller portions of food at home. Start by portioning out smaller amounts than you normally might, and only go back for more if you are still hungry. Think about how you can translate this into more “streamlined” guest portions when planning menus with restaurants, venues and caterers.
  4. A simple psychological trick to help you serve and waste less food is to use smaller plates, bowls, or glasses. One cup of food on a small plate appears more filling and satisfying than the same cup of food on a larger plate.

MM&E:  How should your event time affect portion sizes?
Chef Martin: Obviously you need to serve a more substantial dish for dinner than you would for lunch. Another important factor is whether the event is on a weekend, as people tend to save Saturday and Sunday to “treat” themselves more when it comes to food.

I actually like to create events between meal times – after lunch or before dinner.  Hosting people at these times may get you a crowd that has already eaten; guests who are not as hungry are often easier to please.  This idea may help you “think big but serve small.”

MM&E:  What else do meeting professionals need to know about selecting “smarter” amounts of food for event guests?

Chef Martin:  It is important to think about portion sizes when groups are dining out at restaurants, too. Order a smaller-sized option when it’s available – for example, choose the cup of soup instead of the bowl, or the half salad instead of the whole. Manage larger portions by sharing with others, or counting a large serving as two.

The amount of food your event guests consume can even affect their attentiveness and comfort after a meal – and that can influence how much they absorb from your meeting. Again, remember to “check with your chef” for meal ideas that make the most sense!



About the author

Joe Clote

Joseph W. Clote is owner of Publishing Concepts, LLC a communications and marketing firm based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Mr. Clote is Group Publisher of MeetMed™ and Missouri Meetings & Events™ (MM&E) magazine, a quarterly publication read by thousands of meeting and event professionals, and producer of the St. Louis and Kansas City trade shows under the MM&E name. Mr. Clote has extensive sales and marketing expertise in the travel, tourism, fine art, insurance, and software development industries.