Side Orders: Think small for big gains

The past few years have seen much downsizing, from jobs to the housing market. But there's one thing that hasn't gone down ... portion sizes. They seem to have only gotten bigger.

Check it out the next time you're at a restaurant, or maybe remember looking at your plate the last time you ate out and wondering how on Earth you could eat the whole thing.

Dr. Keith Kantor, a nutritionist and author of the book, "What Matters," believes larger portions were all part of the marketing campaign to make customers feel as though they were getting a good deal when they went out to eat.

"In most cases, it was the less-expensive items that were increased in size, such as starches and some vegetables," he says, adding that this did not lead to an increase in prices. "Over time, customers became used to the larger portions, and it became the norm and continues to this day."

But all that may come to an end when President Barack Obama's new health-care guidelines take effect next year, Kantor says. The guidelines will require restaurants with more than 20 locations to post the calorie counts of standard items on their menus. This, in turn, may lead to restaurants downsizing their portion sizes because, as consumers begin to take more notice of their health, they are consuming smaller portions and fewer calories, he says.

But don't expect for prices to follow suit. Food costs comprise only 25 to 35 percent of the prices stated on menu items, Kantor notes. Overhead for the building, fixtures, salaries for the staff and other money issues make up the bulk of the cost. So the real reason for smaller portions is the demand for healthier menus, he says.

Rob Gentry, owner of Chattanooga's Blue Plate Diner, where Southern food is a specialty and you never go away hungry - even with smaller portions, says he's "seen a lot of people sharing plates."

"I hear from guests that they want smaller portions and are happy with them," Gentry says. "I've definitely seen a trend, no doubt."

Some people just stick with side dishes and no entree, such as a side salad and green beans, he says, while others might pick a side dish along with a cup of soup for lunch.

Will this help the nation's obesity epidemic, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is not getting a whole lot better?

"Anything that has people eating healthier foods with lower calories will have a positive effect on the obesity epidemic," Kantor says. "People have to be educated on why living a healthy lifestyle, with proper nutrition and fitness, will improve their quality of life, increase their longevity and lower their incidence of sickness and disease."

But until the president's guidelines are fully enforced, you'll still find large portion sizes in many restaurants. And when you cook at home, there's no stopping many of us from piling on the food and thus the pounds. Here are some suggestions from that might help in curbing your food intake.

• Prepare your meal plate and put the leftovers away before eating. If the food is out of sight and out of mind, you will be less tempted to eat more after the meal if you wait until to clean up and put away leftovers.

• Repackage foods into serving sizes before storing/serving. Do not eat from the large packages food/snacks come in.

• Use a small plate/bowl and small fork - the brain still thinks it has eaten a plate full; it's just a smaller plate.

• Cook several meals together and freeze them meal-size containers. By pre-portioning meals, you create a stopping point your in eating.

• Have your meal plate for you prepared by someone who knows how much you should be eating.

• Serve up your plate, then remove a small portion of the food. Your eyes are usually larger than your stomach and most people have been trained to eat all the food on their plate, even if they are full.

• Learn to say "no, thank you" to yourself or others when offered or looking at food.

• Use a portion-divided plate that can give you a good sense of how the different food groups should be portioned.

• Get a food scale and weigh portions, until you are acquainted with portion sizes, guesses can be inaccurate and deceptive.

Gentry's restaurant is a diner, so it's famous for its side dishes. You can't go wrong with any of them, particularly the grilled green beans. But if you're looking for something beautiful, simple and healthful to prepare at home, try this recipe I found at It's a colorful side dish for any meal. Or great with a cup of soup for a complete meal.

Slow-Roasted Tomatoes With Herbed Breadcrumbs

3 cups fresh cherry tomatoes

1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground, divided

1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs

2 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped

1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a 9-inch glass pie plate, combine tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon oil, salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper; toss to coat, then spread into a single layer.

In a small bowl, combine breadcrumbs, oregano, thyme, garlic, remaining 2 1/2 teaspoons oil and remaining 1/8 teaspoon pepper; rub oil into breadcrumbs with your fingers. Sprinkle breadcrumb mixture evenly over tomatoes. Bake until breadcrumbs are golden and tomato juices are bubbling around edges, about 30 to 35 minutes.

Yields about 6 servings (8 crumb-topped tomatoes per serving), with 2 Weight Watchers points per serving.

Note: A mixture of red and yellow cherry tomatoes makes a lovely presentation.